Detailed, surprising account of black America’s transformations in the 1980s.
Critic/novelist George (Hip Hop America, 1998, etc.) posits that those years represent a transitional departure from clear-cut triumphs of the black American “soul era” (embodied by the civil-rights struggle and epochal figures like James Brown), during which opportunities for blacks greatly expanded despite a troubling backdrop of urban decay and inter- and intra-racial strife. “The post-soul years have witnessed an unprecedented acceptance of black people in the public life of America,” he writes, but “all that progress has not been as beneficial to the black masses as was anticipated in the ’60s.” In informative, tightly controlled entries, George attempts a comprehensive portrait of an increasingly amorphous black community, focusing primarily on political and cultural figures. The career arcs of Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Michael Jordan, Clarence Thomas, Mike Tyson, Eddie Murphy, and others are scrutinized for their substantial effects on the mainstream. Politically, George portrays the decade as a holding action. Unprecedented numbers of African-Americans held elected office, and outsiders like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan coalesced an increasing political potency within the black community, but the policies of Ronald Reagan’s White House were consistently (if subtly) hostile towards that community, while urban law enforcement became increasingly militarized in its response to black youth gangs. Culturally, George is on firm ground exploring what critics like Greg Tate perceived as a “generational change in black art.” Toni Morrison and other women writers created controversy with their depictions of black male aggression; such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and musicians like Vernon Reid pursued seductively assimilationist projects; and rappers beginning with Run-DMC stealthily usurped rock’s commercial power. Ultimately, George’s compact entries discern a poignant conflict within this chronology of the African-American ’80s: although many blacks achieved economic gains and constructed their own formidable cultural infrastructure, countless others were cruelly buffeted by Reaganite policies and the scourges of violence, AIDS, and crack.
A clear-eyed look back at a puzzling time, unclouded by bitterness or nostalgia.