A closer look at the economics of Black pop culture reveals that most Black creators (outside music) come from middle-to-upper middle class backgrounds, while the Black poor are written about but rarely get the chance to speak for themselves. “You see, there were two Harlems. There were those who lived in Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the Hill and us. I was just a ragged, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.” – James Baldwin interviewed by Julius Lester, the New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1984 “You got 1 percent of the population in America who owns 41 percent of the wealth… but within the black community, the top 1 percent of black folk have over 70 percent of the wealth. So that means you got a lot of precious Jamals and Letitias who are told to live vicariously through the lives of black celebrities so that it’s all about ‘representation’ rather than substantive transformation… ‘you gotta black president, all y’all must be free.’” – Cornel West interviewed by Joe Rogan, July 24, 2019 In the months following George Floyd’s murder, magazines and journals put forth dozens of “Black editions” and special issues to promote the work of their Black contributors. The streaming services—Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and the like—assembled watchlists of Black movies and television. As a result, a series of excellent Black films received better promotion than they might have otherwise, such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, and Judas and the Black Messiah. The same paroxysm and transactional response also happened seven years ago, in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. At that time, HBO, BAFTA, and other institutions of popular culture enacted diversity guidelines and launched in-house programs for creators of color. Into the Spiderverse, Black Panther, Soul, and the overall push by Disney to place Black characters in Star Wars and the MCU can be traced to 2014. Today, popular culture is the terrain most visibly altered by the pursuit of social justice: in the decade since Trayvon Martin was killed, movies have changed in positive ways for all people of color, much more so than public education, zoning, or the prison-industrial complex. Of all the industries in desperate need of change, why has popular culture been prioritized? There is at least one generally statable reason, and it has to do with the fact that despite a falling share of the population, white Americans still outnumber Black Americans six-to-one. For every white American to have even one Black friend, every single Black American, including newborns, would need to have six white friends. This demographic constraint makes popular culture the primary medium through which white Americans engage with Black ones. This pop cultural experience is optional, and, in my experience, white folks usually do not pursue it to satisfy a broad and general curiosity about Black people. Rather, engagement is motivated by the belief that popular culture can connect white Americans to Black ones—and to the Black poor in particular—while, simultaneously, providing an arena for redressing the violence that white Americans have done to the Black poor. If stripped bare, at base, we are hoping that imbibing pop cultural content like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will improve America’s regard for the humanity of George Floyd, instilling in the audience a compassion capable of deterring racial violence in the future. At the same time, Black creators are being financially remunerated for the loss of Floyd’s life via the granting of opportunities to work within popular culture’s most prominent and lucrative spaces. These transactions between white-owned institutions and Black creators would not occur if Floyd were with his family right now. As good as it sometimes feels to see our country embrace the artistry of Black Americans beyond the excellences of sports and music, representation must be a matter of particulars. I was born into Black poverty, and I will not forget that George Floyd was born into the same. For Floyd, the particulars of poverty were this: to be raised in the Cuney Homes projects, to endure years of deprivation, and to die violently in a manner common to our caste. Were Floyd still alive, or somehow reborn, he would not be hired to work within any of the institutions which now produce popular culture in his honor because he never obtained a bachelor’s degree. No matter how much Michael Brown or Breonna Taylor might have impacted a living Floyd, he would not be eligible to work at The Atlantic, at the New York Times, at HBO, or at Netflix. A decade of unprecedented interest in Black arts and letters has now passed—the greater portion of it bought with footage of people possessing Floyd’s particulars lying dead on the tar—and still you cannot walk into a bookstore to find a shelf named for Black authors raised in poverty. That category of experience remains absent amidst the dozens of shelves now labeled for Black authors of every other identity and intersection. I accept that Floyd’s final suffering becomes a political currency for the many, but I struggle with the fact that it purchases opportunities for the Black middle- and upper- classes, without securing a pen or a publisher for the children of Cuney Homes, without an expectation that it should, and without condemnation that it doesn’t. Those born into better conditions owe it to the injured to at least recognize that participation in this wave of Black creativity, which is intended as recompense for the dead, requires that you first be employed by it—you do not gain a share of the payout otherwise. Popular culture is, of course, an industry. It is made up of occupations. It has employees: people work at The New Yorker, at Random House, at Netflix. Our culture is not concocted in a spontaneously-arisen artist commune. Some of the employees create the objects that are sold, some manage the creators, and some decide what is to be created. The prerequisite for participation at each level of popular culture is a bachelor’s degree. But popular culture also houses many of the creative occupations, and this muddies the perceptual waters since these (writer, comedian, actor, artist) were among the last jobs to acquiesce to the formal systems of higher education and professional bureaucracy associated with, say, becoming a doctor or a lawyer. As a consequence, the public has been slow to incorporate into its myths the degree to which popular culture, including its most artistic and erratic expressions, is the product of workers who must be deemed qualified for the job before they can sell their work. No air is too rarefied for the banality of credentials. ART BY NICK SIROTICH Out of 10 longlist nominees for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, all 10 are college graduates. On average, the nominees attended universities with rejection rates above 80 percent (i.e., highly competitive). Five went to Ivy League schools or competitive equivalents, and winners tended to double up. Charles Yu, who won the 2020 award, attended Berkeley as an undergraduate and then went to Columbia for his JD. Susan Choi, who won in 2019, graduated from Yale and Cornell. Sigrid Nunez won in 2018; she’s a graduate of both Barnard and Columbia. While there is no paper application to become a successful novelist, there are de facto requirements for the position which nobody who is serious about succeeding in literature can ignore. It’s usually not enough to be highly educated: you must become entrenched so as to become known within higher education. This means obtaining an MFA or a PhD. It means nominees work as college faculty. It means that while the New York Times may promote them as “new writers,” many nominees will have been publishing reviews and short stories in university-run literary journals several years before they win National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and Man Bookers. Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture? ❧ Current Affairs.