What Makes That Black? The African American Aesthetic in American Expressive Culture
What Makes That Black? is an erudite, deep-thinking personal discussion of how African American history and experience shapes both art and its lived experience. Author Luana breaks down the elements of African-American art in finest-grain detail to form a theory of the African-American aesthetic. The book is a hybrid of both the academic and personal style, an unusual and effective form, something like Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera. It’s approachable for both academic and casual readers, though its code-switching is also what will make the book delightfully strange to both audiences—which is the point. Luana, as she details in the book, is trying to push back the layer of Western ideas that covers, and very frequently masks, the influences of African-American art and culture to broader “American” culture. Luana demonstrates how Western art and academics have alienated the personal African-American experience such that when the two are intermingled, it appears strange to us.
Thus, What Makes That Black? is interested in answering its own titular question, yes; but it’s also interested in subverting your expectations of what that answer will be and how it will be presented to you. The book approaches its central question cautiously, aware that African-American identity is multifaceted and amorphous. Rather than attempt to conceive a top-down, all-encompassing definition, Luana works to examine the many fine-grained elements of history, culture, expression, art, movement, philosophy, and experience that compose a black aesthetic. And fine-grained it is. The book reflects upon years of research, and, though the book is not the first to address the question of what defines African-American identity or an African-American aesthetic, she makes clear that this inquiry is her inquiry—a deeply personal attempt to dig beneath the Euro-centric traditions that have informed Western beliefs about art and academic inquiry. However, one question emerged immediately and seemed to remain unanswered: how is the book using the term “black” versus “African-American?” Because “African-American” is a moniker that excludes black people from other areas, like the Caribbean or South America. The book seemed to use the terms interchangeably, which would be problematic.
Ultimately, in working toward a definition of the black aesthetic, the book distinguishes itself both in its detailed and uniquely personal contours. Author Luana has allowed us to come along on the journey, rather than conceived a definition oriented around our—the audience’s—expectations.
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