In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Chris Rock?s 1990s stand-up routine comparing “blacks” and “niggers” was explosive and controversial, but the comedian consistently denied that his humor was political, once remarking dismissively, “It?s just jokes, man.” Richard Iton?s In Search of the Black Fantastic doesn?t let Rock off the hook that easily: the author?s cogent analysis of the well-known routine (“A black man that?s got two jobs going to work every day hates a nigger on welfare”) leads him to conclude that the comic?s material effectively undermined the notion of the welfare state. The broader argument of Iton?s challenging, incisive book is that African Americans, reacting to a history of political disenfranchisement, have long regarded cultural production as a way to achieve political aims; as a result, popular culture has always played an outsize role in mobilizing and shaping black politics in the United States. In addition to Rock, Iton, an African American Studies professor at Northwestern University, devotes sections to Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Richard Pryor, Bob Marley, Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and Erykah Badu. He credits all of them, during periods of “exhaustion with politics itself,” with invigorating political discourse, “bringing into the field of play those potentials we had forgotten, or did not believe accessible or feasible.”