Literary and Critical Theory Post-Soul Aesthetics
Emily Lordi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0012


First coined by Nelson George, in George 1992 (cited under General Overviews), to describe black popular culture and politics after the 1960s, the term “post-soul” is generally used to demarcate the experiences and cultural productions of black Americans born after 1963, or in the “post–civil rights” era. Mark Anthony Neal, in the first scholarly study of what he calls the “post-soul aesthetic” (Neal 2002, cited under General Overviews), more specifically delineated the “post-soul generation” as those African Americans born between 1963 and 1978 who embraced “metanarratives of blackness” without “nostalgic allegiance to the past” (p. 3), and whose art embodied the contradictory impulses of the Reagan era and the golden age of hip-hop (p. xii). Since then, the term “post-soul aesthetics” has come to describe a range of aesthetic responses (including satire, self-reflexivity, and a diverse range of allusions or intertexts), to the specifically African American experience of post-1960s postmodernity—an era marked by heightened intraracial class divisions, a lapse in black organizational energy in the wake of COINTELPRO, the massive commercialization of black popular culture, a fracturing of black identitarian politics, and an expansive sense of cultural and social possibility for middle-class beneficiaries of civil rights-era gains. Whereas George and Neal weighed the era’s promises against its limitations, many subsequent articulations of post-soul art have drawn on more optimistic accounts developed in the 1980s. Although neither uses the term, both Greg Tate’s 1986 Village Voice essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” (Tate 1986, under General Overviews), and Trey Ellis’s 1989 Callaloo article “The New Black Aesthetic” (Ellis 1989, under General Overviews) are foundational to later celebrations of post-soul aesthetics. Both essays hailed a new generation of black artists unfettered by the Black Arts/Black Power-era strictures of their forebears and free to “crossbreed aesthetic references” (Tate 1986, p. 207). Since the late 2000s—and especially since the 2007 special issue of African American Review edited by Bertram Ashe—scholars have deployed the concept of “post-soul aesthetics” to illuminate innovative works of contemporary African American literature, performance, and visual art. Others use “post–soul” as a temporal marker that is essentially synonymous with “post–civil rights”—although, as Zandria Robinson notes, post-soul generally denotes culture, whereas post–civil rights denotes “political and socioeconomic” concerns (Robinson 2014, p. 5, cited under General Studies of Post-Soul Culture). Still others, such as Aldon Nielsen, point out that post-soul discourse often relies upon a reductive version of black arts- or soul-era art and politics (see Nielsen 2007, under Challenges to and Revisions of the Concept). The present flowering of research on that earlier era will encourage scholars to refine the claims they make for the exceptional freedom or flexible blackness advanced by subsequent generations of African American artists.

General Overviews

Although none uses the term “post-soul,” Tate 1986, Ellis 1989, and Golden 2001 advance arguments that explicitly or implicitly underwrite many contemporary articulations of post-soul aesthetics, such as that of Ashe 2007. George coins the term in George 1992 and expanded his definition thereof in George 2004; Neal 2002 took up George’s usage to define more specifically the parameters of the post-soul generation and to first study post-soul aesthetics. Schinko 2006 offers a valuable historiography of the transition from soul to post-soul discourse.

  • Ashe, Bertram D. “Theorizing the Post-Soul Aesthetic: An Introduction.” African American Review 41.4 (Winter 2007): 609–623.

    Introduction to first collection of scholarly essays on subject. Ashe uses Tate 1986, Ellis 1989, and others to “establish a critical framework” for the study of post-soul aesthetics (p. 609). He argues that post-soul artists resist the “fixed, iron-clad black aesthetic” of the 1960s by representing “blackness [as] constantly in flux” (p. 615).

  • Ellis, Trey. “The New Black Aesthetic.” Callaloo 38 (Winter 1989): 233–243.

    DOI: 10.2307/2931157

    Celebrates the artistic and ideological freedom of contemporary “cultural mulattoes” (p. 235) who embrace a variety of cultural resources without heeding black-nationalist tenets of racial authenticity. The essay’s blind spots with regard to class, gender, and aesthetics were critiqued by Eric Lott and Tera Hunter in Callaloo 38 (winter 1989): 244–246 and 247–249.

  • George, Nelson. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

    Collects George’s Village Voice columns on black cultural “types,” such as the black yuppie (“buppie”) and the black bohemian (“boho”). Distinguishes post-soul era’s materialism and fragmentation from prior generation’s “noble struggle” and unity (p. 1). Begins with “A Chronicle of Post-Soul Black Culture,” which lists key cultural productions from 1971–1991 (p. 9–40). Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 2001.

  • George, Nelson. Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant, and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans (Previously Known as Blacks and Before That Negroes). New York: Viking, 2004.

    Chronicles major developments in black (and, by extension, American) culture and politics from 1979 to 1989. Defines post-soul era as the “tumultuous years since the mid-1970s” marked by expanded black rights as well as “persistent poverty,” discrimination, “drug use,” and “conservative backlash” (p. vi).

  • Golden, Thelma, “Post. . .” In Freestyle. Edited by Christine Y. Kim and Franklin Sirmans., 14–15. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001.

    Essay credited with coining the term “post-black.” Golden argues that the visual artists featured in the Freestyle exhibition exemplify post-black art in that they are “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists,” although they are deeply invested in “redefining complex notions of blackness” (p. 14).

  • Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Foundational scholarly study of post-soul aesthetics. Defines the post-soul generation as those African Americans born between the 1963 March on Washington and the 1978 Bakke case that challenged affirmative action. These “soul babies” experience deindustrialization, desegregation, and “the shift from essential notions of blackness to metanarratives on blackness” (p. 3).

  • Schinko, Carsten. “From Soul to Post-Soul: Cultural Discourses beyond the Hermeneutics of Memory?” In Transitions: Race, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change. Edited by Hanna Wallinger, 121–138. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006.

    Nuanced discussion of soul and post-soul, in which Schinko suggests that “if soul is linked to the control . . . of ambivalence and contingency and to the emancipatory need [to speak] in one strong voice,” post-soul stresses internal differentiation and in particular “openness” to the affective, mass appeal of popular culture (p. 124).

  • Tate, Greg. “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke: The Return of the Black Aesthetic.” Village Voice Literary Supplement, December 1986: 5–8.

    Tate argues that members of his “freaky deke” post–civil rights generation build on the work of 1960s “cult-nats” (black cultural nationalists) to create a “postnationalist black arts movement [that is] more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before” (p. 206). Reprinted in Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 198–209.

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