This week, New Classics is introducing a few powerhouse thinkers who have swept into literature and pop culture with the force and will of a kamikaze, willing to sacrifice it all to tell it like it is and give a new name to social criticism. These women are pop culture icons: the words coming through your radio, the idols you see on TV, the books that you simply can’t put down.
In an increasingly aware and intersectional world, the rhetoric we use in our everyday arguments is rapidly changing. Content is being fired at us from all angles as we struggle to absorb it in some meaningful way. The new classic of criticism helps us break that down. With memoirs and essays that challenge the status quo, deconstruct pop culture, and illuminate a world of academic black women, Phoebe Robinson, Roxane Gay, and Issa Rae are the epitome of this new classic criticism.
Phoebe Robinson’s podcast with Jessica Williams is pure genius: 2 Dope Queens is part girl talk, part comedy showcase, to give a more diverse group of comedians the opportunity for exposure. Now on the HBO series I Love Dick, Phoebe Robinson is emerging into the public eye and quickly becoming a universal fave.
She has coined a rhetoric that so many have echoed, writing down the questions of the current generation. A spearhead of entrepreneurship, Phoebe Robinson commands so many platforms, from podcast queen to actor to author and literary critic. She is so effing funny you wouldn’t believe it, but she also has a deep cutting understanding of the social systems surrounding her identity. In her book You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain, she delves into her obsessions, guilty pleasures, hot takes, but she also gives us a well-rounded explanation of the daily experience of a young black woman in the public eye.
“When you add mystery plus fear together, it equals various forms of oppression, such as how black women who don’t have their hair relaxed (aka chemically straightened) have been told they are ‘unprofessional,’ or how schools have told young black children they can’t wear their hair natural because it’s a ‘distraction’ for everyone in the classroom, or the daily, unwanted commentary, such as this unsolicited message I received when I had dreads: ‘You know, you would be so pretty if your hair was straight.’”
Comments like this, which have previously gone unaddressed in favor of politesse, are gone with the wind as daring writers expose their truth. Something so quotidian as looking in the mirror and doing your hair is a different phenomenological experience for black women as these forces of oppression hammer down. Robinson dissects the systems that perpetuate this teasing, that allow these micro-aggressions, that implicitly permit discrimination while explicitly denying it. She points out the operations that racism performs in her daily life, but with humor, with grace, with liveliness and levity.
Robinson’s text partners so nicely with the the next author I’m discussing. Where Phoebe Robinson has made the cross from pop culture figure to respected critic, Roxane Gay has done the reverse. She incorporates the pop into her academic-style essays, delving into very similar topics from a completely different background.
Roxane Gay comes from academia, working in high collegiate institutions ever since graduating from one. I thought one of the coolest aspects of reading here works was hearing the other side of the student experience: the teacher’s eye. What ridiculous nonsense students will say to get that two-day extension, who misses class constantly but claims that the instructor is at fault, who procrastinates on an essay and hands it in with a typo in the first line. She tears into them while giving credit to their growing minds, shaping a national rhetoric through her writing while she helps individuals mature one-on-one. Her multifaceted efforts put her on an elite level of social criticism, universalizing the problems of black women through lenses that everyone can understand: youth, education, television. She works everyday habits of gossip and chatter into a cohesive account of her human experience. And, much like Robinson, she aims to unite women through this commonality, through the feeling of being a Bad Feminist.
“For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others. But we don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”
In Bad Feminist, Gay talks about everything from 50 Shades of Grey to why it’s a little uncool that we rag on Lena Dunham so much. She’s all about female unity, talking about intersectionality in a way that connects us rather than creating a fissure. She points out the ways whiteness can go unchecked, but gives concise action items and personal anecdotes to propose alternate realities. Ultimately, she shows us that black women in high academia are a norm, a staple, and a driver in the forward movement of social criticism.
The last book I want to toss up there with these greats is Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. Issa Rae really plays up the humor and intelligence of both of these other authors, pinpointing what it is that made her feel so different, even within the black community. She is a role model for other girls who get uncomfortable, mess up speaking, embarrass themselves on the daily (like yours truly), but who are crushing it nonetheless.
Awkwardness is a funny feeling to address, to openly admit to and use to your advantage, but Issa Rae does so with such a deft hand. What is it really about: being awkward? It’s about questioning confidence, getting a little intimidated by your peers, needing to adjust to your own skin when not everything feels tailor-made for you. Young women everywhere can feel the sway of this state, which surfaces so quintessentially in issues of identity. When blackness factors in, we often let the demographic fade to the back, as though it’s too hard to process publicly, societally and we’ll get back to it in a second. But that’s a lazy attitude Issa Rae doesn’t share as she spits her truth, allowing young black women to see themselves in her.
“At the time I came up with the concept for [Awkward Black Girl], I was just a clumsy, frustrated, socially inept, recently graduated adult, looking for confirmation that I wasn’t alone. Whether you’re an awkward black girl or an irritated disabled stripper, everyone should have the opportunity to feel represented in some way.”
These women are fiery, whip smart, and witty. They are go-getters, business women, role models in their admitted imperfections. Stories and criticisms like these allow for us to raise our voices collectively in a new wave of questioning: Long gone are trite existentialist musings of yesterday. The new classic of social criticism is one sculpted by intelligent black women, one guided by nuance, humor, poise and crucial bouts of clumsiness. The new classic questions the uncomfortableness of the lived female experience, allows us to desire more, to abolish the systems of oppression that hold us down. The new classic is highly academic, critical, and influential. The new classic is girl talk.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!