Mark Anthony Neal
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About Mark Anthony Neal
Mark Anthony Neal is James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African-American Studies and Professor of English. Neal is the author of six books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Public Culture, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture, the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, and Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive (March, 2022) and co-editor, with Murray Forman, of That’s The Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (now in its 2nd edition).
At Duke, Neal offers courses in Black Cultural Studies, including signature courses on “Michael Jackson, Prince and the Black Performance Tradition” and “The History of Hip-Hop,” co-taught with Grammy Award Winning Producer 9th Wonder. Neal also directs the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship (CADCE) which produces original digital content, including the weekly video podcast Left of Black, (now in its 12th season), produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Humnaities Instuitute at Duke. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown; His Digital Home is NewBlackMan (in Exile) (http://www.newblackmaninexile.net/).
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Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy is an engaging and provocative analysis of the complex ways in which black masculinity has been read and misread through contemporary American popular culture. Neal argues that black men and boys are bound, in profound ways, to and by their legibility. The most “legible” black male bodies are often rendered as criminal, bodies in need of policing and containment. Ironically, Neal argues, this sort of legibility brings welcome relief to white America, providing easily identifiable images of black men in an era defined by shifts in racial, sexual, and gendered identities.
Neal highlights the radical potential of rendering legible black male bodies—those bodies that are all too real for us—as illegible, while simultaneously rendering illegible black male bodies—those versions of black masculinity that we can’t believe are real—as legible. In examining figures such as hip-hop entrepreneur and artist Jay-Z, R&B Svengali R. Kelly, the late vocalist Luther Vandross, and characters from the hit HBO series The Wire, among others, Neal demonstrates how distinct representations of black masculinity can break the links in the public imagination that create antagonism toward black men. Looking for Leroy features close readings of contemporary black masculinity and popular culture, highlighting both the complexity and accessibility of black men and boys through visual and sonic cues within American culture, media, and public policy. By rendering legible the illegible, Neal maps the range of identifications and anxieties that have marked the performance and reception of post-Civil Rights era African American masculinity.
A framework for understanding the deep archive of Black performance in the digital era
In an era of Big Data and algorithms, our easy access to the archive of contemporary and historical Blackness is unprecedented. That iterations of Black visual art, such as Bert Williams’s 1916 silent film short “A Natural Born Gambler” or the performances of Josephine Baker from the 1920s, are merely a quick YouTube search away has transformed how scholars teach and research Black performance.
While Black Ephemera celebrates this new access, it also questions the crisis and the challenge of the Black musical archive in a moment when Black American culture has become a global export. Using music and sound as its primary texts, Black Ephemera argues that the cultural DNA of Black America has become obscured in the transformation from analog to digital. Through a cross-reading of the relationship between the digital era and culture produced in the pre-digital era, Neal argues that Black music has itself been reduced to ephemera, at best, and at worst to the background sounds of the continued exploitation and commodification of Black culture. The crisis and challenges of Black archives are not simply questions of knowledge, but of how knowledge moves and manifests itself within Blackness that is obscure, ephemeral, fugitive, precarious, fluid, and increasingly digital.
Black Ephemera is a reminder that for every great leap forward there is a necessary return to the archive. Through this work, Neal offers a new framework for thinking about Black culture in the digital world.
Ten years ago, Mark Anthony Neal’s New Black Man put forth a revolutionary model of Black masculinity for the twenty-first century—one that moved beyond patriarchy to embrace feminism and combat homophobia. Now, Neal’s book is more vital than ever, urging us to imagine a New Black Man whose strength resides in family, community, and diversity. Part memoir, part manifesto, this book celebrates the Black man of our times in all his vibrancy and virility.
The tenth anniversary edition of this classic text includes a new foreword by Joan Morgan and a new introduction and postscript from Neal, which bring the issues in the book up to the present day.