Saturday, February 12, 2011


I'm in Vancouver at the moment, doing a postdoc at UBC. The city is divided east-west. The east end of town is where the action is. I'm living on campus on the far west end of town. Last weekend I travelled east on the 99. I dropped into Pulp Fiction Books on Main Street; to pick up a book I had seen a couple of weeks previously, a collection of essays by Gerald Early, The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture, Echo Press New Jersey, 1994. The book is in part, about boxing- hence the "bruising of the title", and not to be confused with Eliot Gorn's The Manly Art of Prize-Fighting. Boxing, Early says in his introduction, is "a metaphor for the philosophical and social condition of men (and sometimes women) in modern mass society... It is a kind of dumb play of the human crises of identity in the modern society. This was a bit heavy going for me. Working in gender, the “men (and sometimes women)” sounded a bit to Norman Mailer-esque. And I think the term “crises needs to be qualified.

While I was at Pulp Fiction I couldn't resist Horace Campbell's Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, Africa Press New Jersey 1987 and Nelson George’s Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on post-soul black culture, Harper Collins, 1992. To round it out I indulged my current 1950s-America theme, with Mickey Spillane's Vengeance is Mine (1950).

Nelson George has kept my attention all week. The book- as far as I have read it, which is the first half, is a collection of essays about hip hop published, primarily, in the Village Voice, in the 1980s. It is a bit like having Wax Poetics on tap. The book starts with "Chronicle of post-soul black culture", from Melvin Van Peeble's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971 and ends with Shabba Ranks having the #1 black album in America in 1991.

Highlights/miscellany from the “Chronicle”/timeline include, from 1971, citations of Black Enterprise, the 'bible of the burgeoning class of white-collar blacks', and Essence, 'which targets collegiate black women'. Both document 'more subtle issues than the soul-era periodicals Ebony and Jet'. I noticed this partly because I had been listening to Left of Black #19, a televised series of interviews hosted by Marc Anthony Neal from This edition (#19) featured an artist, Hank Willis Thomas, talking, amongst other things, about his engagements with consumer culture and advertising. He describes himself as a "visual culture archaeologist". In the interview Thomas talks about a number of his works. One of these is "Fair Warning" (2010), a collage of images of black women taken from Virginia Slims cigarette commercials from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The cigarette is part of the "quality of life" represented by these women, their haute couture clothes, and "zest for life". The advertisements themselves are an acknowledgement of a "separate and distinct black buying middle-class”. Marketers started to advertise to niche black audiences (rather than a homogenous whole). So you get a hip hop audience, a middle-class audience, and so on. Iman, a black model, was seminal in representing this new black femininity. Willis also did a piece called "Black is Beautiful"  (2009), another collage, of black women taken from the Jet magazine "beauty of the week" 1953-2008- over 2500 weekly images. Neal and Willis describe Jet as a "black social media before social media, in the sense of its capacity to speak to a wide audience. The work (“Black is Beautiful”) is influenced by a recent book by his mother, Deborah Willis, Posing Beauty: African women from the 1890s when it was political to talk about black beauty", to the present. The ideals of beauty presented in the photographs change over time becoming blacker. The hair styles change as well.

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