‘Black Mirror’ examines how Americans see themselves

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BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

Review of Black Mirror:
The Cultural Contradictions
of American Racism by
Eric Lott.Harvard University
Press. 262 pages. $29.95.

Eric Lott, a professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is a perceptive and provocative interpreter of the dynamics at play in the uses and abuses of racial symbolic capital.

In “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class’’ (1993), Lott demonstrated how Whites “appropriated” Black culture in the 19th century in ways that embodied and intensified racial and class conflicts.
In “Black Mirror,’’ Lott extends his analysis to 20th and 21st- century popular culture.

Noting the obvious, that the election of Barack Obama did not usher in a post-racial society, Lott argues that the dominant makers of culture in the United States have “taken up African America in various forms of interracial embrace with variable and uncertain results, often as a way to reproduce themselves and their own [white] hegemony, occasionally with liberating consequences, all of it in a blue tangle of self-regard: a kind of black mirror.”

‘Fantasies of blackness’
By producing “new centers of attention,” moreover, these racial fantasies, Lott claims, divert attention from “the intensified toll of black death and damage, much of it at the hands of the state.”

Aimed primarily at academics, “Black Mirror’’ is not free from jargon. That said, Lott is an immensely knowledgeable, insightful – and inciteful – critic of novels, movies, and popular music. His assessment of “fantasies of blackness” in American culture is nothing if not timely.

Lott’s eye is always on “the sparks that fly and sores that open” during cultural mirroring and interracial negotiation.

On passing
Wesley Brown’s novel, “Darktown Strutters,’’ Lott writes, the “regulatory force of the mask for black people as they live up to white scripts even as they work them to other purposes.”

Lott has some something for Rachel Dolezal, the Washington State NAACP director who was revealed to be a White woman passing for Black. Apparently earnest in her support for African-American civil rights and “in demarcating her universe,” Dolezal disavowed “with fervor her appropriation even while enacting it.”

And Lott draws on interviews with Elvis Presley impersonators to conclude to identify a “second order blackface that lives in disguised vestigial life” that animates their performances. And he points out that the only “legitimate crossing over” is from White to Black (based in part on envy of Black maleness). In contrast, for a Black man to become Elvis is a humiliation, and a sacrilege.

The mistakes
Lott acknowledges the potential pitfalls “of an unapologetically academic undertaking” like “Black Mirror.’’
After all, self-identified “heroic cultural inquirers” sometimes believe that until they come along culture and performance “are mystified and inarticulate.” Caught up in the political economy of prestige and inequality, left intellectuals, Lott adds, can also make mistakes when they investigate working-class life.

At times, it seems to me, Lott falls prey to these pitfalls, stretching his evidence to fit his (thematic) Procrustean bed.

Lott’s lesson
His claim, for example, that the preoccupation of 1940s film noir with “the self and society’s darkness” has a clear racial dimension, which includes “hysterical (if unconscious) attempts” to use and exile “Others” in “portraits of white corruption,” is not all that persuasive. Neither is his discussion of “the cross-racial play” in White-ethnic pop singers Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Barbra Streisand.

We cannot know for certain, of course, how people have “read” – or now “read” – texts and performances.

All the more reason, then, to allow Professor Lott to inform, instruct and challenge us with his analysis of a popular culture that is “fraught with contradictions that define state and state fantasy” and that “partly recognize histories and transgenerational hauntings struggling against psychic odds to be heard.”

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.

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