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How pop culture is political for blacks

In Search of the Black Fantastic Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era Richard Iton Oxford University Press: 424 pp., $29.95

July 10, 2008|Steve Ryfle | Special to The Times

When Paul Robeson declared, at the height of Cold War tensions, that black Americans would never fight for a nation that had "oppressed us for generations" in a war against the Soviet Union, the actor and civil rights advocate ignited a firestorm that damaged his career and opened a debate about the role black entertainers should play in politics.

America's list of artists-turned-activists runs the gamut from John Wayne to Hanoi Jane, from Ronald Reagan as conservative standard-bearer to Sean Penn as professional Bush-basher. White celebrities, though, be they right-wing or left-, revered or reviled, aren't forced to consider racial identity when spouting their political views. For African American icons, politics and race are inseparable.

This theme runs through "In Search of the Black Fantastic," a fascinating history and analysis of the nexus of black popular culture and activism from the Jazz Age to the hip-hop era written by Richard Iton, an associate professor of African American studies and political science at Northwestern University. Thanks to Jim Crow laws and other racist policies, African Americans remained locked out of the American political process for decades, and as late as the 1940s and '50s there were just a handful of black members of Congress. Without elected officials to represent it, Iton notes, the black community instead found political leaders in intellectuals, civic activists, clergy and, often, performing artists.

Not all were as volatile as Robeson, whose militant views on racism led more moderate reformers (including NAACP leaders and other prominent African Americans) to distance themselves and whose support of the Stalin regime made him a Red Scare scapegoat. Unable to work overseas during the 1950s (his passport was revoked by the U.S. government), Robeson spent his later years eking out a living and distanced from the civil rights movement he had helped pioneer.

Iton dissects how the next generation of African American figures responded to the challenges of the civil rights era, with some risking livelihood to participate in political activities and others taking a more cautious path. Harry Belafonte was a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and helped support the Freedom Rides and the march on Washington. Nat King Cole, who was labeled an "Uncle Tom" by civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall, believed it was "idiotic" that black entertainers should get involved in politics. "I am a singer of songs. I am not a public speaker," Cole said. Sidney Poitier took a middle-ground approach, selecting only film roles that, in his view, portrayed black men with dignity. As racial politics grew more heated, Poitier's nobler-than-thou characters became obsolete and the actor's popularity plummeted.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the political playing field for African Americans was ostensibly leveled, which raised new questions. Iton wonders, "If politics in the pre-civil rights era was marked by a certain randomness in terms of what sorts of actors -- nationalists or integrationists, elected or protest, creative artists and/or others -- would lead the way . . . what logic, if any, would dictate the arrangement of black politics afterward?"

While African Americans continued to make headway in formal politics, some of the most controversial voices still emanated from the entertainment world. Iton singles out comedian Chris Rock and chronicles how his rise to popularity was largely based on a comic critique of life in low-income black communities, including a scathing attack on welfare dependency. Variations on this routine led to Rock's gig as a Comedy Central commentator at the 1996 political conventions. Amazingly, Rock insists his work is apolitical. "It's just jokes man," but Iton points out that "one can indeed easily detect a certain consciousness -- an obvious politics -- at work."

The breadth of material Iton examines is both impressive and exhaustive; it seems no African American pop icon who helped shape black political consciousness and influence over the last century is left out. Iton's survey spans disciplines and decades: In comedy, he looks at the vaudeville of Bert Williams, the caricature of Stepin Fetchit and the stand-up of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Rock and Dave Chappelle; in music, he ranges from Billie Holiday to Erykah Badu, from Miles Davis to Nas, from James Brown to De La Soul; and he casts equally wide nets over film and television.

Iton's theory is that "political intention adheres to every cultural production." To that end, he zeros in on the political content, explicit or implicit, in the artists' lives and works and weaves what might seem like a collection of random references into a cohesive pop-political narrative.

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