The idea that we live in a postracial society became popular when America elected its first black president, and it died on the day George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth. Before this acquittal, many thought that Barack Obama was clear evidence that the old and massive institution of racism had finally been demolished. How was it possible for a racist society to place a black man in the highest political office in the world? Clearly, skin color no longer mattered. What counted instead was the content of a person's character. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream had reached the promised land. America patted itself on the back and began looking for other examples to reinforce this perception of postraciality: There was the popularity of the first lady; there was Lady Gaga, a huge white pop star managed by a black man, Troy Carter, a venture capitalist, who, like Paul Allen, invested in Silicon Valley start-ups; and there was Django Unchained, a box-office hit about a rebellious black slave who is granted the amazing power to kill white slave owners, a film directed by the father of the postracial aesthetic, Quentin Tarantino.
The feeling at the core of the postracial moment was that the slate had been cleaned, history no longer exerted the painful influence that it once did, and those ugly little incidents that occasionally appear in the papers—like when the white officer arrested Henry Louis Gates, a prominent black scholar, for trying to enter his own house—were nothing more than glitches or bugs in the new cultural software. There was also the feeling that black Americans were no longer confined to their socially assigned categories (professional basketball or football, rap or R&B music, comedy TV shows or movies). In the postracial moment, a black man or woman could lead an indie rock band or be a skateboarder, or ice skater, or golfer, or CEO of a major corporation. The opposite was also seen as true for white men and women—they could be rappers and R&B singers, live in the hood, and freely participate in the invention and elaboration of black English expressions. Then Zimmerman killed Martin for no other reason than he looked like trouble, and trouble looked like it had always looked in this society: a young black man wearing a hoodie. This incident, and the ensuing acquittal of the killer, exposed once and for all the actual status of postraciality: It is a myth.
"The aftermath of the Zimmerman trial shattered any lingering notion—especially for younger generations who missed out on the civil rights era—that we are living in a postracial America where racial divisions have become a nonfactor in society," wrote Jordan Fabian on Fusion.net. "Almost every step of the trial was tinged with some of America's oldest and deepest racial taboos. There's evidence that many parents, especially white ones, try to avoid conversations about sensitive racial matters with their kids to raise awareness of these issues. But others decided that this was as good a time as any to have that talk."
But here is the thing: As a culture, black Americans have not been static; they have undergone big and important changes, such as a notable increase in the adoption and remixing of a variety of regional and international cultural practices. And some of these practices have even been traditionally coded as being specific to white American culture. In this regard, I'm reminded of a story that our paper's hiphop critic, Larry Mizell Jr., once told/posted about how his deep admiration for the very white punk band Black Flag surprised a white woman who worked at the Queen Anne Trader Joe's. What was surprising was precisely her surprise. What planet did she live on? That's how white Queen Anne must be—the people there are so culturally isolated that they are still trying to wrap their heads around the idea that a black person just might prefer Kurt Cobain to MC Hammer. True, there was a time when black punk bands like Bad Brains were complete freaks of nature. But in our time, such bands are just cool. So we have a situation where blackness is culturally more open than ever, and yet the prison of racism operates night and day. Postracial thinking can only provide some explanation for the former but none for the latter. What is the solution to this state of things? I offer Black Weirdo.
Cat and Stas
Black Weirdo began as the name of the parties and events produced by the hiphop duo THEESatisfaction—Stasia "Stas" Irons and Catherine "Cat" Harris-White—in Seattle and Brooklyn. "It was a gathering where we played music that we liked or had DJs that we liked," explains Cat over the phone. "That's pretty much how it started, in our apartments. But then our apartments got too small, and so we moved these parties to larger venues. Our first big one happened in Brooklyn in the summer of 2012. It sold out. A 400-capacity space in Brooklyn completely sold out. And ever since then [be it in Seattle or Brooklyn], they have sold out."
During the first half of this year, Black Weirdo also became a series, "Black Weirdo of the Week," on the blog run by Stas and Cat. And it is in this series that we find a more meaningful framework for thinking about our moment than postraciality. The series profiles artists who are seen as exemplifying Black Weirdness. Some of the artists are musicians (John E Daise), or art historians (Kimberly Drew), or filmmakers (Terence Nance). Some are famous; some are not. Some live in Seattle, some live in other parts of the US, some live in other countries. What unifies them is that Stas and Cat admire what they do and how they express themselves. "What the blog is about is giving people we like an opportunity to be themselves... We are not Donald Trump. We are not billionaires or millionaires or some other number. We can't imagine doing things that way," says Cat, who with Stas makes a very unique form of hiphop that combines low-tech (or unadorned) singing and rapping with beats that are to catchy soul tunes what punk is to catchy rock. "This is how we do our own thing... Now, first of all, we don't care for a limited definition of blackness. Ours is very broad. There are a lot of blacks doing very different things. There is a lot of variety. And all of this creativity is not new. It's been around for a long time."
One of the questions that Stas and Cat ask their Black Weirdos is: "Why do you consider yourself a Black Weirdo?" One answer, Terence Nance's, is: "I come from and operate within the vast and infinite Universe that is Blackness, and a wise and beautiful goddess I used to date once told me that the first word in the definition of 'Weird' in the OED is 'Magical,' and Art-Making is nothing if not Magic." Anyone who has watched Nance's movie An Oversimplification of Her Beauty or his video/short film for Cody Chesnutt's "'Til I Met Thee" knows that he is all about the vastness of blackness. Anything can go into it and anything can come out of it. For him, and all other Weirdos of this kind, being black also means being unlimited.
So Black Weirdo captures the black openness that so surprised the white Queen Anne woman. But, and this is very important (and precisely where it departs with the notion of postracialism), it also does not forget the racism of the past or miss the racism of today. "There is no postracial society," Cat states with no hesitation or ambiguity. "It might exist somewhere, but this society is not it. I'm still categorized by the amount of melanin in my skin. Because of that, there still has to be a racial existence."
Erik Blood, a local producer who has worked with the Moondoggies, Shabazz Palaces, and THEESatisfaction, and also released his own albums, thinks of the phrase "postracial" as the "desire for white liberals to somehow overcome history, the negative portions of it, and particularly the treatment of African Americans and Africans. But what's funny to me is Obama gets elected and it has a huge historical implication, it's an important event. But when something wonderful happens for the black community, it does not erase history." Blood's own albums, by the way, have almost nothing in common with his hiphop work for Shabazz Palaces and others, and a lot in common with the gorgeous late-rock of My Bloody Valentine and early 1990s post-punk. (I rate his most recent album, Touch Screens, an indie rock masterpiece.) Blood is "Black Weirdo of the Week 5." Our talk happens in a crowded cafe, Pettirosso. "It's funny that the postracial thing often means we are free to make racist jokes. It's an odd sentiment. But even if it were true, even if we were all equal, it's strange that for these people, equality means putting other people down."
Erik Blood's Black Weirdness is in some ways a resolution to a racially complicated (or racially rich) upbringing in Tacoma. He grew up a light-skinned black kid who was seen as odd by white kids and seen as not-black by black kids. At first, he embraced his blackness, wore African medallions, and read Elijah Muhammad. But he never found a home in Afrocentrism. "When you are an adolescent seeking a place in the greater society, and also throw in the fact that you are gay, you might end up in the place I'm in now, which is something like a ghost. I float around like a ghost."
Asia Catherine Clarke
"Hells-no we do not live in a postracial society. I feel that anyone suggesting so either has the privilege not to notice or be affected by it, or is using things like... interracial marriage or Barack Obama as an excuse to put tape over the mouths of people fighting for true equality and justice. There are unjust power structures and institutions with deep roots for generations back in our society to be removed before a true postracial society is possible." This is the Toronto-based jewelry artist Asia Catherine Clarke speaking. We are communicating on Facebook Messenger. She is "Black Weirdo of the Week 2." She holds a BA in environmental studies. Her enterprise, called Wild Moon Jewelry, makes and distributes necklaces, earrings, rings that not so much recall the past but a kind futuristic communalism, a future where the simplicities of village life in the past are reunited with the complexities of our urban present. At the time of our exchange, she is visiting Dominica. To my question "What does Black Weirdo mean to you?" Asia provides an answer that captures the Black Weirdo sense of being socially, historically, biologically black and yet not being confined by it as an artist.
"I first look at what it means to me to be black. The best way I can describe what I feel on a spiritual level is that I am proud to be born with skin that absorbs the sun's powerful rays, that it complements my surroundings, and that it allows me to belong in such beautiful communities all around the world through diasporas. And when I look at other black people, especially in the dark, I feel that there is magic before me. Our shared pain of racial violence is not the only thing that being black means to me, but I feel it important to note because I do feel emotionally affected by racism and the examples of racially motivated contempt and disrespect to black bodies. I would say I am a Weirdo because I am. I make jewelry my own way, talk my own way, express myself without inhibition, I trust my intuition, and I take risks."
A Black Constellation
What Black Weirdo finally exposes is that the whole postracial thing was not really about black people. It was about white people, and particularly those on the liberal side of the political spectrum. Postracialism represented their feelings for the kind of society they wanted to live in but did not exist. The danger of this well-meaning feeling is that, in content, it became for white liberals what the dismantling of affirmative action was to whites on the right: a denial of the persistence of racism in this society. Black Weirdos, on the other hand, are about black people and the black experience, and they celebrate their differences. They are a differentiated unity, a black constellation. Like Orion in the sky, they occupy the same cultural place, but they're different stars.