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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation
Herman S. Gray

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005,
257pp. PB 12.99, ISBN 0-520-24144-4


In Cultural Moves, Herman Gray explores black popular culture and its role in shaping perceptions of political power and representation. The author questions ?conventional assumptions about recognition and visibility? (2) and asks whether these assumptions remain viable in the twenty-first century. With a marked fluidity, Gray critiques the cultural moves of jazz, television, and new musical technology over the last decade as sites of identity and representation.

Gray pushes the boundaries of conceptualising black identity in popular culture and illustrates this through his critical assessment of the work of black musicians, artists and critics. The author also highlights problems in perceptions of black representation and visibility in American network television.

The book is divided into three parts, ?Strategies?, ?Tactics? and ?Moves? to illustrate the core issues of debate. In part one, the author critically assesses the work of Wynton Marsalis who established a jazz canon at the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts in New York. Gray asserts that the work of Marsalis is ?absolutely central to understanding this move toward institutional recognition and legitimation? (34). He highlights the importance of the particular cultural moves of Marsalis and to a slightly lesser extent Ken Burns because they illustrate the complexity of such moves and their impact on wider American culture.

In the second section of the book, Gray, in exploring black visibility and representation, looks at the role of commercial network television in America, during the post-civil rights movement. While not denying the importance of the networks he argues against their current ?primacy as a site of cultural struggle for representation and inclusion? (6). Similarly with black cultural politics Gray urges the need for recognition of the changing meaning of black representation.

In the final section, Gray contends that black musicians, especially Steve Coleman, George Lewis and Pamela Z, have been pivotal in using new musical technology to reshape black identities, ??thereby changing both the cultural terms of technologies and people?s identities? (150) and thus extending tradition and culture within black music.

Gray acknowledges that in his interrogation of black visibility and representation, through these specific moves he has only scratched the surface, ??to identify paths that might be pursued to think black cultural politics differently? (193) However, in scratching the surface, my opinion would be that Gray has not only identified these paths but has succeeded in opening up the debate on black culture and identity in terms of its meaning in the twenty-first century.

Cultural Moves contributes substantially to the ethnic studies literature. It moves beyond the politics of identity by questioning our perceptions of that identity in terms of the visibility and representation of black culture and arguing that these perceptions have to change with shifting patterns in society. This book is appealing to a wide audience of academics and students of ethnic studies, popular culture, politics and media studies. I suggest the value of this book is the incisiveness of the author?s thoroughly scholarly critique of black culture coupled with its theoretical underpinning of identity.


Ita Connolly, Research Associate, Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster



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