PUBLIC BOOKS | Go to current issue

Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

You are viewing an article. Access the full version or browse recent articles .

Editorial Comment: On Thinking the Black Public Sphere

Arjun Appadurai, Carol A. Breckenridge, Lauren Berlant, and Manthia Diawara

The Black public sphere is not about identity politics, in which identity is posited as originary, authentic and irreducible to a commodity. Africa, for example, does not operate in this sphere as the source of all black personhood, but provides a way of both despatializing and deracializing blackness. It is actually a counter- Africa.

In a compelling scene in Alex Haley’s Roots, Kunte Kinte holds up his daughter and says, “Your name is Kisi, behold! the only thing bigger than you.” To survive in America, Black Americans refer to Africa as a source of ego realization, a bank from which to draw a name, a language of defiance and resistance, a legend with lasting significance, a religion and a basis for kinship. In other words, Black Americans can build audiences around Africa as a myth. The importance of Roots for the Black public sphere does not reside in the authenticity of Haley’s story, or in the need for every Black American to turn to Africa to find his or her true identity. It is in the way in which the author rationalizes Africa as a significant narrative of origins to reluctant audiences, and breaks the records of television viewing.

Afrocentricity could not have existed without Roots. After Roots, we can say that the academic version of Afrocentrism is preaching to the already converted. Haley made Roots to interpret the pathways of the modern Black American. His recourse to Africa makes it possible for Black Americans to counter originality and identitarian stories of European Americans with their own stories of origin and identity. Haley, Malcolm X and others wanted to use Africa in this crucial manner in order to shield the American Black against the ego deficiency produced by White racism.

The Black public sphere is post-Black-nationalism, and includes the diaspora among its primary audiences. As the international market counters constantly demonstrate, the transnational migration of signs and wares, narratives and archives generates Black life globally, and in many registers. In Camp de Thiaroye (1989), Sembene Ousmane thematizes the tendency of some Black Americans to see themselves only as Americans, and to isolate themselves from the rest of the diaspora. In this moment of diasporic imagination, insofar as “Africa” represents it, Black American cultural production appears to intensify the very blackness that, paradoxically, “Africa” desires. The film brings together an African and a Black American who fight over an American uniform as symbol of identity and authenticity. The two become friends later in order for the Black American to realize that the African soldier is an audience for and participant in Black American culture, with a collection of books by Langston Hughes and Chester Himes, and records by Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The objects of American Black public culture are not invested with magical Black properties: the alterity of America here, like the Africa of Roots, confers imaginary value on the objects that circulate. Thus there is neither American nor African- Amerocentricity here. The commodities transport both nationality and racial signs: yet their value for a black diaspora is in the possibility of a public sphere articulated around the circulation and possession of Black things.

The Black public sphere is thus not always a resistance aesthetic which defies modernity and finds comfort in the politics of identity and difference. To think the Black public sphere we have to be willing to rethink the relationship between markets and freedom, commodity and identity, property and pleasure. The Black public sphere puts engagement, competition and exchange in the place of resistance, and uses performativity to capture audiences, Black and White, for things fashioned through Black experience. But under the pressure of the economic and ideological warfare of the Reagan-Bush era, Black forms of expressivity are produced in a very constrained material space.

This is also why the Black public sphere is so linked to the public activity of sexual discourse and regimes of intimacy and the body. It is not just that White racism has waged a war of decorum that names as “improper” Black bodies, consumer vogues, tones of voice, ways of reproduction and family-making and ways of inhabiting space, although it is that. It is not just that Black people globally have entered the American-style world of consumer identity with such an intensity of self-pleasure that White people feel compelled to worry about the cultural effects of capitalism, although much sensationalism about Black pathology comes from that. It is also that sexuality is a form of circulation and publicmaking. In this sense sexuality becomes a medium in which Black struggles to define the good life for Black people are displayed and played out. The effects of this in the dominant political public sphere are to turn Black life into spectacles of violence and exaggerated sexualized performance. But within the Black public sphere, sexual discourse involves a spectacular discussion about ethics, politics and everyday life whose seriousness cannot be exaggerated. Resistance politics as usual shuns crossing over and selling out, which is why rhetorics of Black freedom have traditionally used languages of inclusive feeling - dignity, fairness- to describe a desired relation to the law and material life. To reach for audiences from the space of Black cultural production, as the Hip Hop generation, for example, has done, is to risk the violent commoditization of everyday capitalism. But in many emerging sites of pleasure, struggle and discourse, the Black public sphere wants to sell everything as long as it is paid in full.

The Black public sphere is not a neo-conservative discourse, for such a discourse sees Black culture as a pathology. The Black public sphere’s primary audience is Black, and it sees Black culture as an asset. The Black public sphere creates economic, legal and philosophical narratives which it links to Black experience and culture as an aesthetic distinctiveness. It says, “Buy this, or read this because it is authentically Black.”

The Black public sphere is primarily concerned with modernity and its relation to Black people through culture, politics, law and economics. Modernists, from W .E.B. Du Bois to the present, have been concerned with how to adopt modernism and modernization to Black ways of life. They have sought to make Blackness new and remove it from the pathological spaces reserved for it in Western culture, to define their own version of modernity so as to provide a quality of life for Black people and to legitimize Black ways of life as modernist expressions. Black modernism has made it less easy to see that what appears as indigenously American-for example, jazz-is in fact a mode of modernity, distinct from and related to other modernities. Likewise, distinct Black practices of modem Christianity and Islam have inflected both the Black Church and the Black Muslims. In this regard the American Black public sphere is part of a more general process of diasporic world-building .

The Black public sphere can be studied from inside and from outside. From the outside it is possible to look at Black people’s critique of official institutions for their failure to emancipate the masses of Black people. The public sphere from the inside, on the other hand, imagines Black institution-building as a site for new practices of exchange, performance and signification. It is always dealing with violences of daily life and political disorder. It exploits contradictory circuits of economic and cultural capital to produce the public spheres of Blackness in their national, global and intimate contexts. It is driven by a desire for audiencebuilding, and building the Black good life. This good life is not only a matter of fair shares and popular wares. The good life is an effect of a Black public sphere that does not yet fully exist. It is always living with tradition, struggling with the future.


About the Journal

Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

© Copyright 2006–2009 Public Culture and Duke University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Contact Info

Public Culture

20 Cooper Square, Suite 517 New York, NY 10003


212-998-8468 Fax