What Makes That Black?: The African American Aesthetic in American Expressive Culture is an ambitious and remarkably accessible work. Luana admits early on that, “Philosophically this was not an easy task; I repeatedly questioned the validity of using narrative (my personal story and the experiences in the Aesthetic) within a critical literary tradition.” It turns out that her decision to write this book imbedded in her own personal experiences brought a level of life and connection to the book that a more clinical or academic tone may not have been able to convey. The book functions as part history course – with a focus on African American influences in dance, music, art, and literature – and part biography or personal journey. This is both a personal and academic examination of the degree to which American culture and society has been influenced by African American people and history, and emphasizes how much of this rich information has been ignored and brushed over by our choices in how history is taught and represented in American education systems.
“[t]he goal of this writing is to highlight a pattern in the cultural formation of the United States and to momentarily tease apart or extract the motifs, themes, context, function, and substructure via the tools of vernacularism, giving them history the pedigree, much like seeing and understanding the myriad shades of blue that contribute to the color purple. However, my intention is not to permanently separate the African American Aesthetic from the mainstream nor within itself. And I am not attempting to box-in the definition of Blackness or inanely apply my findings to all matters of our complex humanity. That would only diminish Blackness, defeat my purpose, and exacerbate the already too-Cartesian approach to the scholarly canon, where examination is limited to a structuralism in analysis.”
This nearly 400-page book is nowhere near as dense to read as the page count may first imply. It is broken into six sections, which are further broken up into shorter and more manageable chunks. The book contains a plethora of gorgeous black and white images featuring African American celebrities and popular works. The book contains 431 endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography for those interested in further reading or research of their own. This is the kind of book that is best enjoyed in short bursts as it inspires deeper thinking and is highly recommended for people of all racial and ethnical backgrounds. What Makes That Black? is a well-sourced book that is informative, endlessly quotable, and well worth the time it takes to read.
Whitney Smyth received a Master’s in Book Publishing and Technical Writing at Portland State University, following a Bachelor’s in English at the University of Arizona. She took over ownership of Portland Book Review in December of 2014. She also works as a freelance editor and can be commissioned at Smyth Editorial Services and spends what little free time she has on her own writing. Coming from a family of readers she devours an average of one hundred books a year, in a variety of genres. Her favorite authors are far too numerous to list, but include Alexandre Dumas, Mary Shelley, Jim Butcher, and John Green.
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