Postmodern Blackness

I have been reading preparing for the 2007 Emergent Village Theological Conversation.  Entering the world of postmodern talk and ideas can be very challenging.  Aside from the very dense language used to describe things it is the social location of much of the discourse.  Most of it is dominated by the dominant culture.  One of the voices that has helped me navigate through postmodernity has been author, professor, cultural artist, bell hooks.  Here’s an excellent essay written by her.  Its a bit dated but she provides me with a cautionary note as I swim more deeply into the waters of postmodernity.  Her caution for me, as an African-American Christian, is that there are at least two types of postmodernity.

1.  A postmodernity of complicity-

Normally this postmodernity leaves the conversation in the realm of the abstract.  There is a constant regard for epistemology and other things philosophical.  There is little connection of these philosophical issues with redemptive and emancipatory projects.  This is evidenced by many in the emerging church who grab onto postmodern language but fail to look inward to their goods and practices to see their own complicity with injustice.  These would normally be ‘relevants’ as some have described different elements of the emerging church.

2.  A postmodernity of protest and revolution

This is the postmodernity I like.  The kind that deconstructs and apocalypses (reveals) how interested and connected to power relations of our Christian language and power.  It helps reveals how we are more like the Romans that crucified Jesus than his band of followers.

bell hooks has written a great essay pointing these things out.  Not within a explicitly Christian context but as an African-American loving elements of postmodernity but wary of other elements.  I share her suspicions.


Postmodernist discourses are often exclusionary even when, having been accused of lacking concrete relevance, they call attention to and appropriate the experience of “difference” and “otherness” in order to provide themselves with oppositional political meaning, legitimacy, and immediacy. Very few African-American intellectuals have talked or written about postmodernism. Recently at a dinner party, I talked about trying to grapple with the significance of postmodernism for contemporary black experience. It was one of those social gatherings where only one other black person was present. The setting quickly became a field of contestation. I was told by the other black person that I was wasting my time, that “this stuff does not relate in any way to what’s happening with black people.” Speaking in the presence of a group of white onlookers, staring at us as though this encounter was staged for their benefit, we engaged in a passionate discussion about black experience. Apparently, no one sympathized with my insistence that racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory. The idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture must be continually interrogated. more


5 thoughts on “Postmodern Blackness

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  1. Hey Anthony
    I was reading the Caputo stuff and was hoping someone would bring this issue up with him. I put down his book ‘deconstruction in a nutshell’ where he interviews Derrida and picked up Gutiérrez. I happened to have read them both talking about ‘gift’ and the difference was Gutiérrez’s insistence on the connection between gift and task, while Derrida said that a gift ‘is precisely that which cannot be reappropriated.’ The comparison could be expanded but Gutiérrez’s language did not make for an endless side bar of philosophical speculation into a transcendent category that ever evades and deconstructs all attempts to harness it in language or even response (maybe?).

    I am hoping that the conversation over deconstruction will be a segue to one on postcolonialism. Robert Young said that “deconstruction is a deconstruction of the concept, the authority, and assumed primacy of, the category ‘the West.'” The church needs that boundary deconstructed and then it needs to find itself on the other side.

    Rock on

  2. Tripp,

    I agree that conversation surrounding deconstruction will find a resource in the world of post-colonialism.

    For example:

    I am reading a wonderful book (along with Kearney and Caputo) by Theodore Jennings titled “Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice”. Its a great read that brings together some of the recent historical scholarship on Paul and a reading of Derrida. One of the concepts he challenges with this two in conversation is the centerpiece of Protestant theology: justification by faith. Jennings suggests, and I agree with him, that the simply imputation of righteousness taking center stage and being the ‘end’ of that conversation has a long history of bloodletting. Us protestants need to expand our notion of justification by faith including the infused habitus of justice-making in God’s world. It is just-ness by faith. I believe this is how deconstruction and postcolonialism can help us. Deconstruction helps us see how our theology continues to be complicit with Empire by its uncritical allegiance to ‘justification by faith’ as simply a doctrine to be believed first and foremost and not as a call to believe plus justice-making in God’s creation. So…deconstruction can help us pick a part those theological habits that cause us to ‘overlook’ privatized versions of justification in connection with apathy towards social justice. Whereas postcolonialism can help forge the way in letting the ‘other’ speak and emerge.

    If the language and habits of deconstruction do not create social spaces where the ‘other’ and ‘different’ can emerge and maintain the alterity then what we will have is ‘more of the same’. That’s why I am excited about this conversation regarding deconstruction. I see it as the beginnings of a new kind of Christianity in the West that is becoming ‘de-centered’. Hopefully we can learn from postcolonial theology how to live in a de-centered world.

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