One of the foremost chroniclers of the contemporary black experience offers an undeluded perspective on the 1980s. Here are crack, AIDS, and the Reagan rollback of the major advances of the civil rights movement. But Nelson George also shows how black performers, athletes, and activists made increasing inroads into the mainstream. This fast-paced, chronological retrospective profiles personalities from Bill Cosby to Louis Farrakhan and explores such flashpoints as the first rap single and the infamous Willie Horton ad campaign.
On the web: http://www.nelsongeorge.com/
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Nelson George is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. He has written for Playboy, Billboard, Esquire, the Village Voice, Essence, and many other national magazines, as well as writing and producing television programs and feature films.From The Washington Post:
In some "primitive" cultures, rite-of-passage rituals include having the candidates for adulthood choose or discover (usually by ordeal) their true names. In others, an elder or wise person does so after a period of observation in which the subject's character is evaluated. In some, it is taboo for the individual to say his own name aloud. Watching black America's current crop of new adults grope to make sense of themselves and their place in society, one comes to understand fully the power of names and of naming.
Is this cohort of blacks "post-soul," the "hip-hop generation," the black subset of Gen X or none of the above? Whatever it is called, what is its personality? Does it most fear racism or, freed through no effort of its own, failure? Black-on-black crime or the police? Does it vote its pocketbook, its fear of terrorist violence or its desire to rescue the 'hood? One reflects on this book's main title and is brought up short wondering what the "post-soul nation" might end up being "pre" to and whether one should fear or anticipate its arrival. If the post-World War II generation knew it would give birth to the '60s, would it have?
Names and labels both organize reality and acknowledge the reality of the organization that naturally exists. Male, female. Rich, poor. Despotism, democracy. Schuyler, Tanisha. The hard part is assembling all the pieces of a sharp-edged, jigsawed reality correctly, however ugly and discomfiting one suspects the resulting picture might be.
Nelson George's Post-Soul Nation is the latest in an outpouring of books aimed at carving out an identity and a trajectory for those blacks born after the liberation movements of the '60s and early '70s. According to George:
"The term 'post-soul' defines the twisting, troubling, turmoil-filled, and often terrific years since the mid-seventies when black America moved into a new phase of its history. Post-soul is my shorthand to describe a time when America attempted to absorb the victories, failures, and ambiguities that resulted from the soul years [the '60s]. The post-soul years have witnessed an unprecedented acceptance of black people in the public life of America. As political figures, advertising images, pop stars, coworkers, and classmates, the descendants of African slaves have made their presence felt and, to a remarkable degree considering this country's brutal history, been accepted as citizens, if not always as equals."
What this "new phase" is, George cannot say. "We are no longer post-soul," he writes in the book's last lines. "We are something else. For now, I leave that new definition to you." Bunk. Whether George is flummoxed by the difficulty of understanding this brave new world or simply too exhausted to do so, we cannot know. Though he frequently refers to the work as a "narrative," it is not. For the most part, it is organized into brief, dated entries of the one-a-day tear-off type desk calendars to be found in office cubicles. While it is certainly possible for a narrative to connect Mike Tyson's defeat of Tony Tucker to Dianne Feinstein's establishment of a task force on crack in San Francisco, George does not do so. They appear together simply because both occurred on Aug. 1, 1987. This is the skeleton of a narrative, a supporting structure for a discussion that never occurs but tantalizes in its outlines. These are but post-soul postcards, brief, exciting missives from a trip George is too busy digesting to convey helpfully.
Too often the offerings amount to little but trivia (a reference to Mr. T) or nostalgia (pre-"She's Gotta Have It" Spike Lee sucking up to the black, movie-making Hudlin brothers, but pre-"Boyz in the Hood" John Singleton sucking up to Spike Lee). The book's strongest suit lies in its enlightening tracking of the rise of Louis Farrakhan, crack and AIDS, but it works best as a cheat sheet for a Negro Trivial Pursuit game. It requires the reader to establish for himself the links between Darryl Strawberry's drug problem and the rise of Terry MacMillanesque girlfriend literature. One wonders how filling those who didn't live through the period will find all these bones and gristle with so little meat.
Analysis as perfunctory as the following further supports the suspicion that the author is either fatigued or suffering from the lack of rigor and downright despair that come from over-politicization:
"Condi Rice and Clarence Thomas prove that the success of one or two individuals, the old role model ideology, sometimes has precious little positive effect on the masses. In the end, it seems, for blacks to participate in this tenuous experiment called American democracy no longer takes exceptional skill or protest marches or the marshaling of moral suasion. It seems all you need now is a desire to fit in and embrace the values of a flawed nation that loves technology, materialism, vast military budgets, false piety, and interventionist foreign policy and hates visionary social programs, independent third-world countries, and paying attention to the views of those who don't accept American values. Mediocrity is a national obsession and, from top to bottom, African Americans joined the chase."
Intellectuals included, methinks. What are we to make of George's standing as the author of four of the 27 books his bibliography lists? You can't do that, can you?
George is a respected and prolific hip-hop intellectual and journalist with seven nonfiction books, five novels, a Grammy, an American Book Award as well as many other honors to his credit. He's even producing a movie. Ralph Ellison, with his trademark intellectual elegance observed, "When I discover who I am, I'll be free." Perhaps when George completes that discovery, he'll be free to finish the job he started with this book. We're all dying to know who black people turned out to be when they grew up.
Reviewed by Debra J. Dickerson
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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