Monday, September 28, 2009

Post Black as Post Modern - A Talk with Graphic Novelist/Prof. John Jennings.


INTERVIEW WITH JOHN JENNINGS
“People are bombarded with so many images, we really need a way to teach people how to process this information,” said John Jennings,. professor of art and design at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. Jennings coauthored the graphic novel The Hole Consumer Culture: Vol. 1 (Front 40 Press/University of Chicago) with Damian Duffy and Black Comics: African American Independent Comic Art and Culture (Mark Batty Publishers). He also contributed some really cool artwork to Post Black. I visited John's Hip Hop design class recently because they're using my book Beats Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop as a text. When a teacher kicks of a class with a Tribe Called Quest song, you know you're in the place to be.


YLW: When you think about Post Black what is the first thing that comes to mind?

JJ: I think of Post Modernism. The Post Industrial age. Modernism, was about being in the present. Being able to measure the things that you're seeing with your own eyes, with your senses. Man is the measure of all things.
Post Modernism brings in the question of which man, what if it's a woman? It brings in all these other perspectives. I think Post Black includes this measure of self reflectiveness. Blackness is not something we created. It's something we were given. Now it's post slavery, post reconstruction, post civil rights and we're looking at how we fit into the larger context of things.


YLW: Is “blackness” something that can be defined?

JJ
: Black Americans are really diverse. I think that because blackness has always been put in a box, we tend to think we know what it is. Because we've been stereotyped so much, we feel that blackness is something that's stagnant or solid, but it's constantly morphing.
YLW: How has the concept of blackness changed in the past decade?


JJ:
The idea of blackness has shifted a lot because the world is a lot more connected and there are a lot more affluent black people. This generation of black people is looking at blackness in a different way. Or maybe we're not. But I think because we're so connected now the perspectives vary.

YLW: Can you think of a Post Black moment?


JJ: That's a hard question. The obvious one would be Obama being president. He's like the ultimate black man now. He's always the black president first, though. That's the curse of being other in a society where you're opposite of the norm. I'm looking through the lens I'm being judged by. Can you think of one?

YLW: I had a conversation with a group about black identity and out of six of us, only two were black. Each person had these really intriguing perspective that didn't differ much from if it had been a group of African Americans. But it dawned on me that what we call black identity with respect to image has as much to do with others and their perceptions and identity as it does with our own.


JJ: Maybe we can't see it because we're in it. It's really hard to see the forest through the trees. It's like people who created hip hop. They didn't know they were creating this global phenomenon. The fact that we're questioning what blackness is is a Post Black moment. It's a meta-moment.

YLW: What's a “meta-moment?"


JJ: A moment about a moment. Meta pictures are pictures that make fun of pictures. It goes black to this self reflectiveness, because we were given this identity. If you think about it, blackness is Post Modern, because it forces you to be viewed and to be conscious of being viewed. W.E.B Dubois was writing about that in the 30s. Forever blackness was the opposite of whiteness, but now we can redefine what that is because we don't live in that age anymore.

YLW: Tell me about your comic book work.


JJ: My work is about disruption of stereotypes, looking at things we've always experienced as black people, making fun of them, inverting them, and using that to deconstruct stereotype whenever I can because stereotypes aren't meant to change. The root word for stereotype is stereos which is Greek but it means hardened, not changed. But because stereotypes are proliferated so much, you have to keep fighting them because they keep popping up.

YLW: Is hip hop “Post Black?”


JJ: The nature of subcultures is that they get sampled and remixed by corporations. With hip hop being a culture you can't put it in a box. Being black you can't put it in a box. Hip hop is was created by black and brown people but that doesn't mean those are the only people who can express it and be a part of the culture.

YLW: Are you saying that being black can be commodified in the way that hip hop has?

JJ: Definitely. We were commodities. We didn't exist as people in America legally until after the Emancipation Proclamation. Being black is a construct. We didn't make it up. We're stuck with the framework of blackness in being the opposite of whiteness. That's why its good to have these conversations, because its about what does being black mean to us. It's so easy to commodify our culture, because everything about us was commodified anyway. We were property at one point. We were given this framework and we really don't know anything else. It gets comfortable, because then you don't have to think of who you are as a person.

YLW: But you do see being black as a political identity?

JJ: I say black than African American. African American is my type of blackness. But when I say I'm black, it's political identity. I can say I'm African American, but my political stance is a black stance so to speak.


YLW: Is there a black aesthetic in the way that there's a hip hop aesthetic?

JJ: You get people creating culture out of thin air. You're forced to be creative. Maybe that's the black aesthetic. We spend a lot of time on race, but we should spend more time on class as well. If you've always had, you're less apt to have to be creative.

America needs to sit on a couch and talk it out. This is a strange country we live in. My blackness would get called up a lot growing up in Mississippi, being a light skin kid. I was everything but black, white, Mexican, Indian. The scrapes I would get into. My authenticity was always called into question.


YLW: Why was your authenticity called into question?

JJ: Because black is about visuality. Because race is about the visual. Because we're black, it's like we're supposed to be the exact opposite of white, which is totally crazy, but that's how we're forced to look at ourselves. When you see someone similar to that, you automatically assume other. On the other hand, I've had white students at U of I ask me what ethnicity I was. When I told them I was black I could tell they were thinking about it, trying to figure out what that meant.
Inherently people know that what you look like isn't who you are. But because of this society, that's how we judge ourselves by. Then we develop these belief systems based on how people say we look.
I commend you for trying to attack something so complex. Anything dealing with black people in America isn't easy. Everyone tries to forget how we got here, who we are. Maybe your next book should be post whiteness.

YLW: I've read that people are studying “whiteness” now.


JJ: There are people out there who are studying whiteness. David Roediger, Tim Wise, Robert Jenson study it. They have some interesting work. If you look at that, you'll see some of our problems, too.

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