Black cultural production in the late 20th century blossomed as a generation of black Americans insisted on self-representation in the arts and media. In some ways it could be seen as the long awaited result of social pressure first established in the Black Arts Movement of the late 60s, but was also a part of new multicultural theories and the Culture Wars of the 80s.
Toni Morrison was one of the leading figures in this battle, representing to my mind the high art. As part of the culture wars, multiculturalists and others fought to change the agenda and content of Western Civilization as taught in universities. It was very common for the standard curriculum to be characterized as the study of DWEMs, dead white european males. There was something wrong with that, and they set out to change.
What is the result of that change and what has the assault produced in American culture? What are the signs of success or failure?
From my reading of history, the decline in the civility and the increase in vulgarity of American popular cultural production is a result of larger forces, primarily the sexual revolution and the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. For me, these represented the launching pad of a continuing countercultural movement of the Baby Boomers, the most wealthy and spoiled generation of Americans ever. As they represented the mainstream, white liberals of the Boom made political ties with black civil rights ambitions over mutual disgust of their parents' and society's racism. This resulted in an amplification of the counterculturalism of the rising, post-civil rights black middle class. It is from this black middle class, infused with black power and black nationalist themes, that defined and put a priority on black cultural production.
From my conservative perspective, the most important consequence of the counterculturalism adapted by the black middle class were two. First was the growing acceptance of single parenthood. Second was the radical autonomy of black power as manifest in political anti-Americanism. These phenomena represent self-inflicted wounds and provide additional cultural friction to that of anti-black racism and serve as an effective barrier to the progress of those African Americans. I argue that there are strains of black cultural production that serve to encourage these countercultural ideas and that they spite the efforts of enlightened high art that those like Toni Morrison must have intended. These strains have come to dominate both the substance of black cultural production and continue to add to the dissonance in the perception of African Americans. They have both amplified and confirmed racial stereotypes about African Americans.
Particularly in popular music, I observe that the denouement of the R&B form, eclipsed by hiphop, represents a great loss. Themes of romantic love, devotion, political consciousness, environmentalism, spirituality, marriage, and brotherhood are nowhere nearly as common in today's black popular works as they were during the reign of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Ashford & Simpson and Al Green. While Jazz, Gospel and the Blues have retained their character for the most part, R&B and hiphop have become progressively more popular and vulgar in the American mainstream. As well, hiphop music *without* lyrics has been influential on both Jazz and Gospel.
There is no way that I could comprehensively cover this subject, and it feels rather silly to single out hiphop for blame. Its devolution is self-evident and its recovery may still be possible. But I must recognize the failure inherent in the promotion of these wildly successful commercial forms of vulgar entertainment as part and parcel of black culture. If there is merit in any multicultural criticism of the Western Canon, what must be done to properly represent actual progress in black cultural production, and how can that occur amidst such a degenerate wallow?
When I was in thrall to the possibilities of America supporting and engaging my generation's creative ambition and works, beacons like George C. Wolfe, Spike Lee, Gregory Hines, Wynton Marsalis, Anna Devere Smith, and Hinton Als held great promise. But few of them have enjoyed the success of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tyler Perry & Kanye West. What are we to make of this? Is it necessarily the case that black cultural production does indeed follow the Western model of high, middlebrow and low art? I say yes, that is the path that has been have chosen. It is therefore inevitable that within that context, African American class tastes will select along the same lines and the unifying racial themes espoused by the original Black Arts Movement will not survive African American class stratification. In the same way the white American middle class supports and is represented by lowbrow rock & roll (the third horseman to sex and drugs) to the exclusion of literature, the black Americans will support and be represented by lowbrow hiphop to the exclusion of literature and other edifying forms.