A Decade When It Became 'Cool To Be Black'




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By Laurence Washington


Post-Soul Nation
Author: Nelson George
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 234 pages
Genre: Nonfiction
Price: $23.95
Our Rating: A

It was a time when Jesse Jackson advocated that descendants of African slaves (formerly known as Negroes) should call themselves African-Americans.

Hip-hop talk-show host Arsenio Hall injected the phrase, "Let's get busy" into the American pop-culture lexicon. And quasi-rapper/dancer MC Hammer, much to the chagrin of hard-core rappers, ushered commercialized rap/hip-hop into the mainstream.

The year is 1989 - a decade after black pride was so vibrant and two decades after the civil rights movement became a pivotal part of the black experience.

By 1989, mainstream America had fully absorbed the victories, failures and ambiguities from the "soul years" ('60s and '70s) and decided, "It's 'cool' to be black."

Author and cultural pop critic Nelson George, a guru in documenting the hip-hop generation, critically examines the '80s - he calls them the post-soul years - and presents the impact blacks had on mainstream America in his engaging book Post-Soul Nation.

The post-soul period witnessed the ascendance, via high-visibility government appointments and jobs in the media, of black conservatives who challenged the traditional views of black politics and values.

The doors of opportunity in the U.S. finally swung open for blacks, he notes, fostering a new era of creativity - along with desperation and rage of the poor, which was communicated to the world through artistry and destructive behavior.

Borrowing the 1940s newsreel style, a shtick freshened by the MTV generation, George uses briefs, short takes and blurbs to punctuate each year beginning from '79 to '89.

For example, he writes that in 1980, the post-soul era begins to reveal its true nature with two very different historic events: Ronald Reagan is elected president, and Eddie Murphy debuts on Saturday Night Live. Both celebrities encompass the schizophrenic nature of the '80s American experience.

In 1983, " 'Black power' is in full effect in city hall," George writes. Two of the country's biggest cities elect black mayors: Harold Washington in Chicago and W. Wilson Goode in Philadelphia. In the entertainment field, Louis Gossett Jr. wins a best supporting Oscar, television can't get enough of sitcoms with black children being raised by white families and Oprah Winfrey hosts a successful Baltimore morning talk show.

In 1985, Louis Farrakhan is no longer an obscure figure; he's regularly on the front page. Rappers once seen as feisty entertainers have expanded into truth-tellers. Black Enterprise magazine reports that 1984 was a good year for the top 100 black-owned businesses. And hip-hop's first movie, Krush Groove, opens as the No. 1 motion picture in America.

In 1987, the crack economy creates urban enterprise zones all over the post-soul nation. "The product is so addictive that it creates a class of criminal as reckless and notorious as the bank robbers of the Depression," George writes. The same year, Terry McMillan publishes her first novel, and black models appear on the covers of national magazines Vogue and Elle.

By the close of the decade, the post-soul culture has been successfully absorbed into the American mainstream. Pop musician Prince scores the music for Batman, a $251 million pop-culture hit. Spike Lee's politically charged signature film, Do The Right Thing, opens. The FBI sends a threatening letter to rappers NWA's record label, and Art Shell becomes the NFL's first black coach.

George hits the '80s with uncanny accuracy, highlighting the successes and failures of celebrities, sports figures, politicians and clergymen who brought a new jack flavor to old guard America. The decade's legacy, he concludes, was a redefinition of "blackness" (a word he admits went out of vogue during the '80s), in which the clear winners were hip-hop and black women's literature.

Most of the '80s prominent figures have stayed on the main stage, such as Oprah, Colin Powell, Terry McMillan and Russell Simmons. Others have shifted into cruise control (Prince, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall), while still others, such as MC Hammer, Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson, are mere afterthoughts or have slipped into shame.

The list is as intriguing as it is inclusive. Post-Soul Nation is a fascinatingly poignant utilitarian book, a great educational reference to pop-culture '80s.



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