Black popular culture is not an easy thing to define or describe. Many instances of popular media come to mind such as Spike Lee films, rap and hip hop, or Octavia Butler novels. In reading Gina Dent’s introduction of Black Popular Culture by Michelle Wallace and listening to Bell Hooks analysis of race and gender portrayals in popular culture one can see that those examples are only a few manifestations of the effects of the cyclical social learning that informs Black popular culture. The criticisms and concerns of Black popular culture presented by Dent and Hooks center around the the propensity of it to be viewed too simplistically, ignoring many complexities and lacking in critical analysis by those it represents.
One complexity often ignored when analyzing and consuming Black popular culture is that of the lack of representation of intersectional participation. In other words Black popular culture is Black male centric. Heterosexual cis-gender Black male centric at that. This limits the scope and complexities of Blackness and Black culture. In Black Popular Culture Gina Dent states that the issues and interests shown in Black popular culture and marginalized cultures in general:
often results in overexamination of that single set of experiential narratives within a diverse but simultaneously oppressed community that are privileged along another axis. (white female, black male, gay white, even black gay male)
In essence, viewing each oppressed group separately instead of simultaneously intersecting ignores the layers of oppression and silencing of major intersections within each group. This skews the mediation process in the favor of those who hold privilege on one or more axes. Without critical analysis of media and popular culture and the lack of intersectional representations these forms of oppression within groups remain upheld.
Bell Hooks gives an excellent example of how ignoring these intersections can lead to false presumptions. During the O.J. Simpson trial she was asked to be a guest on Good Morning America to answer a question about the trial. When she was asked, in essence, if she believed Simpson to be guilty or not she responded with an assertion that she was not there so could not know but stated that it began and ended with domestic violence and condemned Simpson for that fact. She continued to describe how the cameras were turned off because that was not the answer they were looking for; they were expecting her to support O.J., as a Black woman. Though in that case she condemned him, as a woman, for upkeeping a patriarchal system of oppression by violence.
Another issue that Dent raises is that of a reconstruction of African culture in a detached American context and the effects of colonization and white supremacy within The Black community. She cites the book Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker as an example of an imaginative recreation of African tribal culture and female circumcision used to further the cause of Black people, Black woman, in the United States. Dent quotes Coco Fusco that Black media and culture should:
avoid retracing ‘intercultural’ patterns established by modernism, surrealism, and ethnography.
Bell Hooks agrees that recognizing these patterns is essential to decolonization and deconstruction of the white supremacist constructs ingrained across all groups. Hooks goes on to use the democratic capitalist American Dream and importance of money as another example of the effects of these systems. Both Hooks and Dent stress the importance of Black identity and pride not being centered on joy of becoming “successful” in spite of oppression since it relies on congruence with white supremacist value sets instead of being centered on a sense of self.
The last example of a complexity and issue of Black popular culture is that mass media is still controlled by white men. Thus, there is a significant amount of white male centric mediation and critique. Dent states that while discussing in-group criticisms of rap, Houston A. Baker:
points to our failure as cultural critics to account for the range of rap products.
This, as explained by Hooks, echoes both the lyrical content favored by white fans and the propensity of white critics to pick out what they wish to criticize. It completely ignores the political and cultural celebratory roots of hip-hop and rap and those continuing themes in modern rap genres.
Hooks also deals with the issue of “authenticity”. She states that the mediation, both of the silencing and overcritical statements of Black creators and the insertion of white creators presenting their versions of Black narratives, has led to a cyclical social learning of a contrived and commodified Black popular culture. She states that this upholds white supremacist capitalist patriarchal learning and values. This makes a question of authenticity, in a way, invalid. If the consumption of a commodified version of Black popular culture leads to cyclical replication then what are we comparing to determine authenticity?
Today I see a lot more critical analysis of media in general, especially with acknowledging intersections. It is very important to analyze media today, possibly more than ever because many of these issues are now more covert verses overt. We are constantly told we are in a “post-racial” society and a more equal society, but the truth is that though we have made progress many problems are still there but harder to recognize without being critical. Hooks began her talk with how I’m going to conclude this piece. Black popular culture and Blackness in mass media doesn’t need to be censored or even further mediated, but the use of critical thinking needs to be promoted among both youth and adults so that a critical view of this media and representation can be taken. A critical view can both help bring change and more defined authenticity to Black popular culture in mass media as well as bring self reflection and problem solving skills to individuals.