Gene Seymour

  • Super Bad

    “If Elvis Presley is / King,” Amiri Baraka’s “In the Funk World” asked, “Who is James Brown, / God?” This, as far as black people throughout the world are concerned, is not a question but an assertion. “You want to say Elvis was King? Feel free,” we might say. “But he never ruled us!”

    True, Elvis’s come-hither swagger may have compelled the American mainstream to deal with its complex transactions between classes, cultures, and races (along with parts of its own collective unconscious, as Greil Marcus reckoned in his essential 1975 rock ’n’ roll panorama, Mystery Train). But James Brown had

  • Macabre Driver

    Along with its consumers, American popular culture in the 1950s became both besotted with the abundant possibilities set loose by the Second World War and discomfited by the looming prospect that this bounty, along with all of humanity, could at any moment become devastated by nuclear oblivion. The postwar mood swings of “Oh, wow!” and “Uh-oh!” were absorbed, often with cheeky abandon and heedless ingenuity, by movies, television series, and paperbacks using otherworldly scenarios to probe for malignancies beneath the chrome-plated dreams of Better Tomorrows. The state of dreaming—mostly while

  • Splitting the Difference

    Fine. Let’s start with “Negro,” or, if one prefers, “negro.” Even with this word’s present-day, often lower-case status, there are African Americans for whom “Negro” is a trigger word for outrage or affront. Some want the word excised altogether—which, at least to this African American, displays amnesia toward (or, worse, disrespect for) our collective history. Between the years 1900 and 1970 (give or take), “Negro” defined a people in transition through two world wars, a cultural renaissance, and a social and political movement that changed everything around it. Those who defined themselves

  • The Satire This Time

    My late, much lamented friend John Leonard once wrote, "Satire means never having to say you're sorry." I wish John were still around for many reasons, but pertinent to the task at hand, I wish he were here to frame that assertion in the context of Paul Beatty's audacious, diabolical trickster-god of a novel. The Sellout taunts, jostles, bites your face, and makes so many inappropriate noises at whatever passes for America's Ongoing Dialogue on Race that it's practically begging to be batter-fried in acrimony and censure. A scatological narrative submitted with demonic energy and angelic grace

  • Invisible Men

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation used stink bombs against the Black Panthers. I know, right? Stop the presses! But it’s still a mildly disquieting hoot to come across this disclosure, mentioned offhandedly by William J. Maxwell in F.B. Eyes. Operation Stink Bomb (as it most certainly would not have been called) was just one of many acts of domestic spying perpetrated under the bureau’s notorious COINTELPRO program of the ’60s and ’70s, which sought to infiltrate and discredit, by any means necessary, the era’s burgeoning left-leaning protest movements. Citing congressional testimony, Maxwell

  • Striking a Chord

    Think of history as a piano: an austere, glossy model that invites and intimidates whoever’s looking for revelations from its keyboard. A sensibility oriented toward fact is sufficient background to tease out a few notes into a simple, logical pattern. And if you have a surfeit of facts and can season them with nuance, the audience should end up nestled in your hip pocket. But facts can only do so much, especially if they’re slippery or cloaked in shadows. When that happens, the music can become static, even inert. So you shift tactics, go for broke, make a few educated guesses—for a start.

  • Dearth of a Nation

    In the American-history textbook I used in my public high school, the chapter that covered Reconstruction included a photo of Thaddeus Stevens, the nineteenth-century radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who appeared, to judge by the evidence of this daguerreotype, to have been in a foul mood. I distinctly remember how the photo’s caption referenced Stevens’s glowering, stormy countenance as an outward and visible sign of his spiteful scorn for the vanquished Confederacy. As far as the textbook’s authors were concerned, such vengeance—and only such vengeance—accounted for what they

  • A Really Big Show

    Modernist America is by no means the last word on its subject, though not for lack of trying. Richard Pells’s book leaps, lunges, gallops, and, once in a while, pirouettes its way toward something very close to a unified field theory of twentieth-century American culture by charting its intersections, polarities, eccentricities, and, most conspicuously, impact on the world at large. This epic of ideas encompasses a cavalcade of mercurial personalities—dreamers, cranks, tinkerers, promoters, troublemakers, deep thinkers, and obsessive-compulsives—moving across Pells’s grand stage as if they were