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Fear of a Multicultural Planet: Jeff Chang Tackles Race in “Who We Be”

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Multiculturalism is inevitable. This much we know from population trends, which show that America is getting less demographically-white by the decade, year, hour, and minute. The rise of an ethnic majority represents an obvious conflict with the concept of monoculturalism, represented by the assimilationist notion of a melting pot—an America with one great big shared identity—as well as the concept of white supremacy, represented by the notion that blacks (and other races) are genetically inferior to whites, thus justifying inequity and racial disparity across social, political, economic, and cultural lines.

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for "Who We Be"

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for “Who We Be”

This dichotomy is at the heart of “Who We Be,” an ambitious new book by Berkeley-based scribe Jeff Chang, who tracks the growth of ethnic identity across a historical tableau, contrasted by ideological barriers and seemingly-endless waves of sociopolitical backlash which all revolve around the construct of race and the perception of racial consciousness – whether in the art world, the political landscape, or the funny pages of daily newspapers.

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Arriving as it does just as the 1-2 punch of the failure to indict the uniformed killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has crescendoed into America’s latest race-based flashpoint—resulting in the hashtag-driven #blacklivesmatter movement—”Who We Be” could not possibly be any more timely or relevant. It offers a wealth of historical context and background to firmly disprove the notion that either incident was isolated; rather, such events are part of a larger continuum which has made pop culture martyrs out of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Stewart, Lil Bobby Hutton, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Emmett Till (to name a few).

America’s racial dynamics haven’t just played out on a political chessboard, Chang reminds us. They’ve also been stretched across a cultural canvas which constantly vacillates between progressive movement and backwards regression, like an ocean tide. While the “Southern Strategy” of the Nixonian GOP established a race-based benchmark originally fashioned as a response to precedent-setting civil rights legislation and later dutifully continued by the Reagan-Bush Republican regimes, “Who We Be” assigns equal importance to a cultural narrative in which the white segregationist marketing of “Ku Ko Kola” eventually gives way to the multicultural kumbaya of Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercials and Benetton’s rainbow-hued marketing strategy.

“Who We Be” opens with a scene in which the late Morrie Turner, the Oakland-born cartoonist whose strip “Wee Pals” was the first integrated comic to be syndicated nationally, learns of Barack Obama’s election and cries. This segues into an examination of Turner’s efforts at advancing multiculturalism, one comic strip at a time, then backtracks into an analysis of decades of dubious racial stereotypes embedded in cartoon commentary. It’s a history rife with coonery, minstrelism, blackface caricatures and outright racist cartoons, which show the progress Turner represented.

The blackface animals were gone. Instead Turner drew kids… having profound discussions about race and community,” Chang writes, noting, “The ink on the Civil Rights Act had not yet dried. The Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were soon to be signed. But ‘Wee Pals’ already belonged to the future.

A "Wee Pals" strip

A “Wee Pals” strip from 1978

In another vignette, Chang revisits Black Arts icon Ishmael Reed’s concept of Neo-HooDoo, the idea that “all of American pop—its rhythms, its poetry, its swagger—descended from African and indigenous religion,” and the central concept behind Reed’s 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo,” as well as a sprawling manifesto/poem which Chang describes as “1,794 words of rapturous provocation.”

Reed’s journey from the East Village to the Bay Area allows Chang to wax poetic over an emergent Left Coast counterculture which organically linked the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, “Chinatown leftists,” “Raza artists,” and Native American activists into a loose grouping called the Third World movement.

Chang writes: “Grassroots arts movements led by people of color were blooming across the United States, but nowhere were there the kind of proliferating, overlapping circles of artistic, political, and intellectual intensity that there were in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Willie Horton: Black Bogeyman

Black Bogeyman: Willie Horton

Despite such superlative-laden praise, “Who We Be” is far from an altruistic, overly-optimistic take on its subject matter. By the time it concludes, with a description of five young schoolchildren delightedly eyeing a Byron Kim installation of “429 chipboards of wood… colored within the spectrum from pink to bister” at a Washington, DC art gallery, readers have been dragged along for a bumpy ride through Lee Atwater’s demonization of Willie Horton and his ironic infatuation with black music, the Republican backlash against Obama, the death of Trayvon Martin, failed government policies which created the subprime loan crisis and led to the Occupy movement, the flap over a black visual artist attempting to reclaim the N-word, and a controversial Whitney Museum biennial exhibition.

Perhaps surprisingly, hip-hop is all but absent from “Who We Be.” Chang painstakingly traces what he dubs the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, but chooses not to revisit ground he previously covered in “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” i.e.  the PMRC’s censorship campaign, the “Cop Killer” controversy, and the repercussions of their impacts at the major label level. To paraphrase dead prez, “Who We Be” is bigger than hip-hop—both in ambition and scope—yet the “culture wars” cipher feels incomplete at times. Chang’s insistence on name-checking obscure artist-activists and their quest to bring identity politics to the gallery world makes it seem as if those efforts occurred in an art-scene vacuum, when in fact, identity politics have become a defining characteristic of the overall pop culture landscape — just ask Macklemore or Iggy Azalea.

Shepard Fairey's "Hope"

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope”

Amidst all the discussion of “Post-Racial,” “Post-Black,” and even “Post-Post,” it’s perhaps understandable that “Who We Be” is Post-Hip-Hop Generation.  Chang calls it a “dub history,” which means that while there are echoes and reverberations, there are also drop-outs; Chang doesn’t trace a strictly linear path nor attempt to connect all the dots – which might have been an impossible task. The visual art/identity thread which takes up much of the book’s middle section culminates with an unpacking of the backstory behind Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster which symbolized the emergence of a new electorate, before becoming an ironic reminder of the weighty, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations placed on Obama.

But even when “Who We Be”’s narrative gingerly dubsteps over continuity gaps, Chang’s writerly flow makes it a pleasure to read. Eschewing the dry tone of an academician, Chang alternates prose-filled descriptions with solid reportage and telling statistical evidence, like a mutant hybrid of Carl Bernstein and Amiri Baraka. Obama’s 2008 election–the meta-flashpoint in a collection of flashpoints–is bookended by P.Diddy’s voter-registration efforts and what Chang calls “demographobia” on one side, and the birth of the Tea Party, the Great Recession, and Karl Rove’s failure to buy the 2012 election on the other. “It was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of racism,” Chang says of a period ironically yet accurately named “post-hope.”

Chang’s brilliance as a writer is apparent, even when the subject matter he tackles leads to more questions than answers. It’s impossible to thoroughly address the identity politics of multiculturalism without also addressing the identity politics of whiteness, and “Who We Be” shows in no uncertain terms that for one to be fully realized, the other must be diminished. If the worldview of mainstream art critics, anti-immigration activists, and Tea Partiers relies on projections of “Whitopia,” as Chang posits, the rise of multiculturalism represents a gradual yet inexorable reality, as signified by shifting demographics which have already resulted in what he calls a “minority-majority” in California. The future of America, Chang suggests, isn’t a return to its racist, xenophobic past, but a world in which gay Iranian immigrants barely raise an eyebrow. We’re not quite there yet, as recent events have proven, but it seems to be only a matter of time until MLK’s mountaintop finally becomes a level playing field.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Fear of a Multicultural Planet: Jeff Chang Tackles Race in “Who We Be”

  1. another great piece. Where is Mr. Arnolds’ book?

    Like

  2. Pingback: 2014: The Year in Oakulture | oakulture

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