Postmodern Blackness

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Picture of bell hooks, a leading postmodernist
Postmodern Blackness is a philosophical essay written by author bell hooks regarding postmodernism, what constitutes ones identity, and the perception of people, particularly African Americans, who espouse the postmodern philosophy. The essay concerns itself with the question of what determines personhood by analyzing the formation and nature of the identity of African Americans in modern society.



Bell Hooks opens the essay by narrating an account of a dinner party which includes a heated discussion on whether postmodernism applies to African-Americans. This anecdote sets up the basis of her essay, in which she argues that the postmodern movement is completely independent and nearly ignorant of African-Americans and their culture. She explains how writers of the movement are typically of the white, male, scholarly elite genre whose writings include so much coded material that it excludes other writers. Although, she cites a select few postmodern critics whom do not fit the stereotype, she asserts postmodern writing as a whole widely excludes African Americans. Appealing to ethos, Hooks doesn't place all the blame for the exclusion of African-Americans on the heels of the scholarly writers themselves. She says much of the problem is the fact that most African-Americans refuse to address the topic and take action (as seen in the discussion at the dinner party). She feels this aversive attitude needs changing. She believes postmodern debate should be an avenue for the voices of the marginalized, exploited, and oppressed. The post-modern identity places certain traits on African-Americans, simply because of their race. hooks claims the postmodern critique of "identity" needs to be rethought; the idea of what it means to be African-American needs to be reworked and expanded to show the positive side of the culture and how much more they can accomplish. She uses the example of rap in African-American culture as an example of a critical voice employed by common people. The use of rap music as a means of speaking out is an evidence that Hooks predicts that the future of the way African-American culture is viewed may lie in popular culture. hooks considers rap as the only way that African-Americans have voiced their opinions and culture to the general public.

Hooks talks about how most of the current, postmodern African-American rights groups fall into two groups: essentialist and nationalists. Essentialists believe that individual identity holds a great importance in a society. For African-Americans, this school of thought involves an emphasis on the history and heritage specific to African-Americans. The consequence of this idea is an identity that separates African-Americans from other races in the United States. On the other side of the spectrum, nationalist beliefs state that African-Americans should do everything they can to assimilate into American society, emphasizing homogeneity. This action would mean losing the heritage and history of African-Americans' ancestors as well as conforming their subculture to that of the majority of the United States. hooks does not prefer either of these ideas and criticizes both. She states that rather than trying to work for a better version of current ideals, African-Americans should make up their own ideas and form a new school of thought to attack these issues. One example that hooks offers in the writing, the Black Power movement changed the tone and perspective many people had on civil rights back in that time because of the emphasis it placed on individuality and power. She says that the movement had great implications but did not go far enough because it was very essentialist. However, Hooks applauds the movement and says that African-Americans should start thinking in a way that could create another Black Power movement in the sense that it would be radically different from anything ever seen and that it would grab people's attention.

Why did bell hooks not capitalize her name?

The reason bell hooks may have done that was as a way of pointing out the frivolity or unimportance of the individual and capitalization in the English language. In English, words such as God, President, and America merit capitalization, while at the same time so does one person's name. It is an interesting perspective on English speakers' view on individualism. Perhaps hooks rejection of this custom may be to show her disapproval of radical essentialism.


What is the African-American critical voice?

The idea that rap/hip hop are the only ways that African Americans have expressed their opinions and their cultures in my opinion doesn't make much sense. Yes it may be a prominent way in which a certain type of African Americans express their individual culture, but it certainly doesn't speak for them as a whole. Bell hooks is a little bit inaccurate in my opinion in that "pop-culture" music and other forms of entertainment like the "Tyler Perry Show" or other examples. There have been many different times in history where a culture rises up and changes the way things work. For African-Americans, a big example in American history is of course the civil rights movement. (I don't know if I'm off from what hooks is talking about, but I think that this point just needed to be made). If African-American people had just continued to make music, there would have been no civil rights movement, but because they stepped up and spoke out against the injustices that were happening, history was affected and forever changed and it wasn't because of some songs...

I agree to some extent. I believe that African Americans are becoming more a part of everyday American society, and not just in the music industry. There are many famous black actors and actresses including: Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cedric the Entertainer, just to name a few. African Americans are slowly making a name for themselves on daytime television and in blockbuster movies. I disagree with the point that history wasn't forever changed by "some songs". There are definitely certain songs that made the underground railroad possible, and that encouraged African Americans to get involved with the civil rights movement. I believe that music played an integral role in helping black Americans reach the status they are at now.

I see both sides of the argument. I do think that the music that was played during the civil rights movement was important part of history in supporting the movement but I also agree that it was just a part of the effort. It did help inspire the people to "step up" and "speak out against injustices", so indirectly it might have began the civil rights movement. Music though was not the only way that the people in the civil rights movement were mobilized to take a stand.

Relation to other Texts (i.e. films, visual presentations, music)

The Constitution

The Constitution forms the basis of all arguments surrounding citizenship and personhood in the United States. Its interpretation over the years has both freed and oppressed peoples based on sex, race, and occupation. Without the protections of free speech and press that the First Amendment provides, hooks may not have been permitted to write this article. hooks talks about how African-Americans still have not obtained true equality in the United States. She analyzes the way people have gone about getting equality and the fact that African-Americans do not have a strong critical voice. Even though it seems like the distant past, African-Americans only truly received de juro equality in the past fifty to forty-five years (the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964).

Women and Cultural Universals

In Women and Cultural Universals, Martha Nassbaum also talks about essentialist and universal ideas. Instead of criticizing them to further African-American rights in the United States, she criticizes them as a way of supporting woman's rights across the globe. She states ten things that every person should be able to do in order to have a full life, defining humane conditions. Like hooks, she talks about the fact that essentialism creates barriers based on the fact that "everyone is different." She also discusses the hurdles created by universalism and accepting every culture as knowing best for themselves as well as the problems with the non-intervention attitude universalism creates.

Iron Jawed Angels

Postmodern Blackness is similar to Iron Jawed Angels in that both works criticize the common societal view of a minority. In both instances a group is excluded by some means. In Iron Jawed Angels women are denied voting rights, and in Postmodern Blackness, hooks details the exclusion of African-Americans from postmodern discussion. In both cases, those groups are seen as inferior in some way, and both works call for the renewal of society's view of those groups to be expanded in a way to show the greater capability of those groups.

Iron Jawed Angels attacks the view prior to the 1920's of women as inferior to men and therefore not worthy of voting. A lot of people, including some women believed women "don't have a head for politics" to put it in the words of the Senator Kennedy's wife. Alice Paul and the other suffragettes aim to expand the views of what women are capable of to include the precious right to vote.

Postmodern Blackness seeks to demonstrate how entirely African-Americans have been excluded from Post-modern discussion. Without their representation, Post-modern theory has developed to point where African-Americans are consider certain traits simply based on the fact that they are African-Americans, with those traits not necessarily being positive ones. hooks explicitly states the need for the expansion of the African-American identity to demonstrate how much more African-Americans are capable of.


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