Cultural critic Touré’s article in the September 5 issue of ESPN magazine, "What if Michael Vick Were White?" prompted a maelstrom of controversy. At the center of the debate was the magazine’s choice to run an unsettling image of a white-washed Vick, a decision Touré immediately distanced himself from via Twitter. On Tuesday, the provocation flamethrower releases his new book, "Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now," for which he interviewed 105 prominent black academics, artists, poets, politicians and community leaders about their experiences and perspectives on race, while also including his own personal musings and analysis along the way.
HuffPost Black Voices caught up with Touré to talk about the Vick article fall-out and what it means to be black now.
Are you an expert on being black in America?
I don’t think it’s about being an expert. I don’t even know what that would mean to be an expert. I don’t consider myself that, no.
You don’t think ESPN Magazine asked you to write about Michael Vick because they perceive you as an expert on race?
They asked me to write about Michael Vick because they thought I would write something interesting. The original story I wrote was much more balanced in terms of talking about football, redemption and the racial questions that became the heart of the story. They chopped out the football stuff and most of the redemption stuff, and focused on the racial stuff because it was different from what other publications could provide.
So maybe they asked you because they knew that you would likely focus on race?
Maybe. I don’t know what they expected. They gave me no directive. They just said, “Write about Vick.” Right in the first chapter of my book, I say that I’m not an expert on race or being black in America.
But to say you’re not an expert on being black presupposes that there is such a thing, right?
Not necessarily. I’m just speaking about myself. Perhaps there are people in the academy who have done a lot more rigorous study who might call themselves experts. Thinking about what it means to be black and experiencing the world as a black person gives you a significant perspective on it. One thing people don’t realize is that if you grow up around a lot of white people, you grow up extremely aware of race and constantly thinking about and perhaps even constantly talking about it, if only to yourself.
Thinking about race and being black in the way that you do is quite different from how one might think about race and being black in an inner-city environment, no?
Sure. That’s true.
And for this book did you talk to any black people who currently live in an inner-city environment?
No, I did not.
What surprised you the most about the response to the Vick article?
I was shocked to discover that people thought writers are also art directors. I never imagined that people might think writers have any say whatsoever with the art that goes with an article they’ve written. Generally, writers discover the art the same time everyone else does.
Were you not consulted at all?
I had nothing to do with the picture and had no idea it was coming, and was equally disgusted by it as everyone else. I heard that the title they went with was going to be used, and I had asked that it not be used, but the writer doesn’t have a say over those sort of things.
What would have been a better image?
God, anything. That picture is gross, and it runs counter to the story itself in that the story immediately rejects the ability to imagine Vick as white, and then the art director gives you this image of him as white.
You talk in your book about race being nuanced -- what does that mean? Is that another way of saying 'stuff we can’t understand?'
Just that it’s complicated. I hate approaching race as if it were simple -- this happened to this person because they’re white, this happened to that person because they’re black. There are very few people nowadays who are racist all day long, but there are well-intentioned [people] who say and do things that are racist, that are helping to advance prejudice, even while they consider themselves "color-blind," whatever that means. Race functions in a very complicated way -- which is not to say that racism doesn’t exist, that’s ridiculous. I spend a lot time in this book talking about racial incidences that have happened to me and others, and the way racism affects our lives. It’s certainly a massive part of what it means to be black in America now. It just always functions in a subtle, nuanced and complicated way.
What would the adult Toure tell the child Toure about racism after his first racist encounter?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think I’d say that you have to unpack what the racist person is saying to you from who you are. The two are not the same thing. You have to separate the message that says you are not smart or pretty or whatever from who you become.
It’s a lot of work.
Yes. In the book, [the poet] Elizabeth Alexander talks about the notion of creating a private view of yourself, and how critically important that is for us to do. Because if we allow for any part of the racist judgement of who we are or how competent we are or what our possibilities are, they will always underestimate us.
And so how do you create that private view of yourself?
You have to be very clear on who you think you are, apart from what others think. I see that in a lot of black men who have this confidence that turns into arrogance in a way that seems almost caricature-ish. But a lot of these brothers have had people telling them every day for their whole lives that they ain’t shit. And in order to get to just a baseline of “I am good, I am strong” they have to develop this massive black male ego, which if it isn’t functioning at a level of 20 is going to be chopped down to a five.
At the end of the book you say, “Let’s be like Barack. Let’s get what we want from America in spite of racism.” Do you still feel that way?
What I’m talking about when I say ‘Let’s be like Barack’ is that at some point maybe a decade or so before he became president, he said, “I want to be president.” And nothing in him said “a black man cannot become president.” Nothing in him allowed blackness or race to dissuade him from his dream. So yes, let’s be like that.