The works of African American authors and artists are too often interpreted through the lens of authenticity. They are scrutinized for “positive” or “negative” representations of Black people and Black culture or are assumed to communicate some truth about Black identity or the “Black experience.” However, many contemporary Black artists are creating works that cannot be slotted into such categories. Their art resists interpretation in terms of conventional racial discourse; instead, they embrace opacity, uncertainty, and illegibility.
John Brooks examines a range of abstractionist, experimental, and genre-defying works by Black writers and artists that challenge how audiences perceive and imagine race. He argues that literature and visual art that exceed the confines of familiar conceptions of Black identity can upend received ideas about race and difference. Considering photography by Roy DeCarava, installation art by Kara Walker, novels by Percival Everett and Paul Beatty, drama by Suzan-Lori Parks, and poetry by Robin Coste Lewis, Brooks pinpoints a shared aesthetic sensibility. In their works, the devices that typically make race feel familiar are instead used to estrange cultural assumptions about race. Brooks contends that when artists confound expectations about racial representation, the resulting disorientation reveals the incoherence of racial ideologies. By showing how contemporary literature and art ask audiences to question what they think they know about race, The Racial Unfamiliar offers a new way to understand African American cultural production.