From the Harlem Renaissance through the Black Arts Movement, New York City has been home to many important African American cultural moments—and the site of some explosive generational shifts between young artists and their predecessors.
In the following excerpt from “The New Negro” episode of the Exiles on 12th Street podcast, historian and Public Seminar co-executive editor Claire Potter talks to Brooklyn-based novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge about the new generation of Black writers and artists.
Kaitlyn Greenidge (KG): We are writing in a post Obama world, right? So we’re writing when this thing that we have been told for—at least people my age, and I guess people even younger, writers who are probably aged from 25 to about 45 or 50—we are writing in this world in which the impossible has happened, a Black man has been become president. And yet we are in this world that we are in! That is, in this current cultural moment, where race is as big a topic as ever.
I remember, when I was a kid, in conversation—“A Black man will never be president.” It was in rap songs, it was in novels as a punch line, sort of as a continual refrain. And that refrain is gone from African American culture at this point. So we achieved that and, clearly, it did not change things in the way that people were expecting that holding of power to change things. So where can we put our imagination next?
I think, in the best case scenario, it is opening up our imaginations to so many other possibilities. Political possibilities, creative possibilities. In a lot of Black cultural production, there’s this tension between, do you fight for acceptance in a white mainstream, or do you focus on your own art and do your own thing? And I would argue that living through Obama, and seeing the machinations of his presidency and people’s response to him, this question of adopting and writing for and towards a larger white mainstream audience, has become a moot question. I don’t think it’s one that many of us actively engage with anymore, which I think is a shift—a sort of conscious shift in talking about a Black arts community—that hasn’t really happened before.
I think there are probably still people who are writing towards the white gaze, because we live in a capitalist society, we kind of have to do that to make money! But being critical of that, and that criticism being the basis where you start from and not just serve another voice in the room, is, I think, the biggest shift that has happened, and has opened up a whole world of art with just a slanted point of view that is really exciting.
Claire Potter [CP]: There are particular people, Morrison was one, Oprah Winfrey is another, who actually create spaces where Black artists can do their work. Who are those people now?
KG: There are some book groups—there’s Well-Read Black Girl with Glory Edim, and the Free Black Woman’s Library, which is here in Brooklyn. The rapper Noname started a book club, which gets like thousands of people interested in these really great titles that she’s promoting.
We have a whole shift in how media is distributed, which makes this happening much faster and for more people. There’s all of these venues to write for, and to make things for and simply because the executives have to fill those spaces because of the demand, it’s opening up these spaces for Black visual creators like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe to make these mini mogul studios.
Even 10 or 11 years ago, an arts editor at a newspaper would probably say, “We did our one story on Black artists for the year. And so we don’t have to do any more. So if you’re going to pitch me an article about it, I’m not interested.” Because of social media, those conversations can continue over and over again and get very deep, and come back and reverberate and move around and have other people come in. And there’s no gatekeeper saying, “Okay, conversation over. Let’s move on to the next thing.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The interview can be listened to in full here at Public Seminar; you can subscribe to Exiles on 12th Street at iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.