‘Who We Be’ and the Optics of Culture, in Living Colors

Jeff Chang's cultural history tackles how race has played out across the last 50 years, and counting, of American culture.

I’ve never cared much about the Academy Awards. It matters not a whit to me who wore whom on the red carpet, how witty the emcee was, who made the most spectacular gaffe or wisest crack. Just wake me in the morning and tell me who won, and remind me who won the last few years while you’re at it, since I most surely forgot within a week of the event.

In its concentration on the visual aspects of how not-whiteness has been explored in the culture at-large, ‘Who We Be’ could just as easily have been titled Who We See, or What We See, or How We See.

I feel the same about music’s Grammy Awards. All of the above applies, plus the resignation that the nominees will never, ever reflect my eclectic, left-of-center tastes. I don’t need the validation of the Grammys or any of the other music awards show to like the music I like, whether or not anyone else in my world has ever even heard of it.

And New York Fashion Week is also not a thing for me. I follow fashion even less closely than I follow awards shows, even though I’ve finally come to understand that what happens there eventually makes its way into the mainstream, perhaps in not so out-there package, but in its basic idea. Still, I’m perfectly content to not be a slave to whatever is new and hot, and to dismiss that whole milieu as something that simply isn’t all that relevant to those whose working lives do not feature catwalks.

But I could not let any of those events pass this season without notice, with emphasis on this season.

The Academy Awards were jumped upon as soon as the nominees were announced. Selma, Ava DuVernay’s evocation and interpretation of that bloody, pivotal moment in the black American campaign for civil and human rights, made the Best Picture cut, but was denied a nomination in the Best Director and acting categories. This came after op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere piled on the director for, in essence, not making a documentary about the event, or at least a fictional film that more generously elevated President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the process (this despite the fact that one such documentary already exists – it’s Eyes on the Prize series, which ought to be required viewing for every American, now).

Mark Harris at Grantland was among those who took to DuVernay’s defense (and hold the film’s producers to task as well) with thought and vigor, but it’s never been as if those qualities always get a chance to trump half-baked partisan emotion in anything involving American politics. The fact that one award voter proclaimed distaste for the movie because some of its cast made the statement of wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts only confirmed for many that the fix was in.

Throw in the Academy’s decision not to nominate Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, drawn from Roger Ebert’s memoir, passing over the story of America’s most influential writer on film (and, for what it’s worth, a champion for well-told stories by filmmakers and others of color), and what became exposed was a body hopelessly out of touch with the answers that have been blowin’ in the wind for quite some time now. But that’s to be expected, perhaps, from an electorate that is predominantly elder, male and white, and as such does not reflect anything close to America’s current and emerging demographics (but which does, unfortunately, reflect those of the American movie industry).

Then there was the Grammys, with Sam Smith’s expected coronation and Beck’s most unexpected one. Honestly, I had forgotten Beck had even put out an album in 2014. But I was just as befuddled as everyone else to learn that Morning Phase was named Album of the Year, as opposed to Beyoncé and the other nominees, any of which would surely have topped Beck in any broader vote (The Pazz and Jop critics poll placed Beyoncé at #4 among 2013 releases, Morning Phase at #16 among the class of 2014).

Leave it to Kanye West to call shenanigans on the whole charade. Say what you will about his periodic outbursts and bold opinionating – the rest of the Internet surely does – but beneath his bluster over Beck receiving that Grammy lies the same factor that hovers over the Oscar nominations. The people doing the voting – that is to say, the people with positions within the official industry – reflect a demographic that is way out of sync with that of the people who consume the music they’re voting on. This isn’t to say that Morning Phase isn’t a nice piece of work, but anyone who thought it made a bigger artistic and cultural statement than Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran’s X or even Pharell’s Girl and its so-ubiquitous-please-make-it-stop “Happy” spent 2014 in some alternate reality.

Fashion Week was similarly not immune to the perception that something is amiss. The fashion industry has never been a bastion of racial and cultural balance and awareness, but when the New York Times laid out its description of “Fashion’s Racial Divide“, it gave a new megaphone for issues Robin Givhan has been writing about for years, and others inside the industry know on an even more intimate basis. The paucity of runway models of color has long been acknowledged, but the article focused on the lack of designers of color, either on the runway (and from there to department store racks) or in the pipeline towards it. That’s the equivalent of going from saying Hollywood doesn’t have enough actors of color getting significant work, to saying Hollywood doesn’t have enough owners and producers of vehicles that might put create such work.

There are slights and baffling decisions in every awards season, and race has been the unspoken elephant in fashion’s room since, like, forever. But the tenor of the responses has been more pointed in 2015. This is no coincidence. It’s all taking place in a culture still reeling from the racially-pivoted cases of police misconduct that blew up seemingly everywhere last year, from Ferguson to Cleveland to Albuquerque. These events jolted a new generation of young people into social and political activism, all centered on not just the rights and conditions of people of color, but also the very acknowledgement they even exist (or lack thereof).

Those are not new issues; black lives have never needed a hashtag to matter. What’s different now is America has never been a more racially diverse nation, and that diversity is beginning to find more and sharper ways to exercise its multi-tonal voices. And there’s been pushback at virtually every turn, even when lip service is granted towards the general notion that diversity is good. On the ground where activists and protestors confront entrenched power, it’s another chapter in America’s long, hard slog towards true freedom and real equality. But in the world of culture, where awards shows and Fashion Week reside, it’s become a battle of optics, to borrow a word in vogue among politicians and other brand marketers.

Optics, in this sense, refers to how things appear, and whether what people perceive from a given message squares with the message the marketing is attempting to present. Does it walk the talk, does it look the part, does it ring true, is it authentic? Applied in the realm of race and culture, the word takes on a deeper concern: does what’s being shown reflect what’s really there? What process does the end result belie? Who gets to influence the process? Who gets in, and who gets left out? Who gets seen, what stories get told, which lives are the ones that matter when all is said and done?

Recognition and trophies have nothing to do with correcting economic imbalances or curbing trigger-happy cops, and should never be confused with an actual victory for humanity. But to the extent people are stuck on being hell-bent to do that anyway, voices do need to speak up when things seem more than just odd. For better or worse, optics count for a lot, especially in these allegedly short-attention span times.

Actually, folks have been speaking up on matters way more substantial than ornamental hardware, and for quite some time. Artists and other voices of culture and color have taken to pen and paper, camera and microphone, drum and computer, paint brush and human body, or some idiosyncratic combination of those or other elements, to reassert our humanity and American-ness, and comment on what “humanity” and “American-ness” might mean, at every point in American history. Unfailingly, such expressions have provoked varying degrees of pushback from the gatekeepers of the all-American norm. And pushback begat blowback begat talkback begat feedback, and on and on to the breaka breaka dawn.

Again, none of this is news. Jeff Chang picks up merely the last 50-odd years of this call and response in Who We Be, a revealing study of how the dance of representing not-whiteness in America has been playing out.

One might think Chang, whose Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation has become the most widely acclaimed history of hip-hop’s first 30 years, would take music as a jumping-off point – how hip-hop now gathers in voices from everywhere, or the rise and fall of “world music” as a genre and marketing conceit, for example. But he barely alludes to music here, nor does he give extended space to literature (aside from Ishmael Reed’s groundbreaking Yardbird Reader), journalism, film or TV. Many of the commonly accepted markers of pop culture’s diversification – sitcoms like Sanford and Sonand Chico and the Man, authors of color from Toni Morrison to Junot Diaz, the legion of independent voices expressing themselves on YouTube and elsewhere online – don’t fall within Chang’s focus.

Who We Be instead documents an evolution of categorizations, from “multicultural” to “Third World” to “diverse”, and how their meanings and deployments have shifted over the years. As with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Chang constructs a timeline that both deviates from the conventional Sequence of Pivotal Events We Commonly Know About approach to cultural histories, and shows how seemingly less portentous moments had far-reaching reverberations. But in its concentration on the visual aspects of how not-whiteness has been explored in art, advertising and the culture at-large, this could just as easily have been titled Who We See, or What We See, or How We See.

Chang uses as a connecting thread the story and work of cartoonist Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic strip. That was the first strip featuring black characters as central protagonists to penetrate mainstream funny pages, in 1965 (there had been such strips before, but they ran strictly in black newspapers). More crucially, Turner included not only black but also white, Asian, Native American and Hispanic characters, all children at that, making Wee Pals an early adaptor to the concept of a multi-racial American future. But rather than confine himself to innocuous takes on family life and childhood, Turner slyly had his characters muse among themselves about the shifting sands of cross-cultural relations and politics. A generation before Rodney King asked if we can all get along, Turner’s comic strip kids were trying to figure that out.

But culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and Chang spends a lot of time mapping the rise of the conservative movement, from Kevin Phillips’ “Southern strategy” of the late ’60s, through the “culture wars” of the ’90s, to the rise of the Tea Party. He offers no new information for anyone who’s studied electoral politics in any detail, choosing to position the political trends as a countervailing force against cultural developments. It may not be a revelation, but the facts are still more than chilling enough. Conservative America found a way to stand in the way of a changing America without looking as outrageous about it as former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who’d literally done that in 1963.

But where conservative politics saw one set of opportunities, Madison Avenue saw another. Chang dissects the campaign that brought 1971 the Coca-Cola commercial with a global mosaic of people offering up some soda pop, among other platitudes. It was wildly successful: the jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” became a pop hit, years before pop hits were routinely repurposed for ads. It also brought Coca-Cola some desperately needed street cred among younger and more diverse audiences, an advantage long enjoyed by its main competitor, Pepsi.

Chang argues that, instead of making a broad statement about the urgency of recognizing the emerging cross-cultural mosaic as a social imperative, the “Buy the World” commercial pointed the way towards recognizing that mosaic as a market to sell stuff to. Eventually, one company would dare to raise those stakes. That company was Benetton, which arguably became better known for its provocative late-’80s ads and magazine-as-political-and-branding-statement Colors than for the clothes it sold in its stores. But those ads worked, too: Benetton’s worldwide sales topped $2 billion at the company’s peak.

The continuum of events in the art world Chang delineates appears to serve as a microcosm for the very twists and turns society as a whole had been doing in response to America’s growing not-whiteness. It includes: a short-lived gallery opened by elder black artists (all male) in the mid-’60s; a push by black and brown artists in the late ’60s to be included in shows at major museums; the controversy over a 1979 exhibit of work by a white artist called The Nigger Drawings; a 1990 show sprawling across three museums capturing the work of artists grappling with questions of identity; the savaging of the provocatively multicultural 1993 Whitney Biennial by the conservative wing of the art establishment; and the 2001 exhibit of a new generation of black artists, and subsequent exhibits by Asian and Chicano artists, which gave rise to what Chang dubbed the “Post Generation” – as in post-black, post-this or that, post-racial.

Given the strains of cultural advancement and establishment retrenchment Chang weaves, the ascent of Barack Obama from Senate back-bencher to the White House in 2008 was inevitable, or at least fortuitous: as fractious as it is now, one wonders what the state of racial affairs in America would be had he not emerged. His campaign – his very being – was, as if by preordainment, composed of all the strings Chang tugs at throughout Who We Be; he reports that Turner was overcome with emotion as he watched the returns on election night. Shepard Fairey’s Obama HOPE poster, featured here at the beginning of the book’s introduction, would seem to be the most elegant and eloquent statement of America’s no-turning-back not-whiteness.

But the story does not end there. Chang takes us through the litany of struggle since Obama’s triumph, from the Great Recession and the home-ownership crisis, to Occupy, to immigration, to Trayvon Martin. The new dawn 2008 was thought to have beckoned was receding from sight, politically and practically, before it ever fully arrived. The rhythms of cultural push-and-pushback Chang uses throughout keep the reader waiting for a response from cultural workers, some sort of event to show that art can and still does articulate truths the politics of the moment cannot. But no such grand response is forthcoming. We’re left with the image of students finding their skin tone among the 429 colorboards of Byron Kim’s Synecdoche at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It is, oddly, a hopeful moment: young people looking at their colors and starting a conversation among themselves; the Wee Pals cast come to life.

Indeed, a sense of hope animates the action of Who We Be, a sense greater than even Fairey’s poster articulates. “Writing about race in America,” says Chang in his introduction, “must always be a labor of recovery and faith and – yes – hope against the spectacle of fear and the twilight of forgetting (emphasis his).” (No worries about the twilight of forgetting here: Chang is to be commended for his research and insight in connecting these disparate dots.)

If writing about race must be an act of hope, what do we say about living with race? More than 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois’ prophesy that the problem of America in the 20th Century would be the color line – what would he say now? That line is still there, but it’s no longer quite so foreboding, at least in some locations. Yet each breakthrough across that line has uncovered only a new set of complications, to hear Chang tell it. Who we be is no longer who we were, but no matter who or what or how we be, there be others who do not or will not see things that way. The distance between those extremes sometimes doesn’t feel all that much shorter than it used to. It’s a distance the activists who have come forward after Ferguson and Eric Garner are slowly beginning to traverse, as the Washington Post reported in “Turning a moment into a movement after the deaths of unarmed black men” (Marc Fisher, Sandhya Somashekhar and Wesley Lowery, 19 February 2015)

In the face of such frustration, hope is revealed as nothing but hard, especially when so many have been hoping so hard for so long. It’s so hard, one suspects Chang could not let his study end on anything but a hopeful note, lest half its readers find a bridge to jump off in despair. Truly, hope is the most elemental thing we people who are darker than blue have, with faith and courage not far behind.

Thus, given the state of these American lives, we continue to need culture workers unafraid to keep bringing that hope, to continue pushing those envelopes of color and identity. And yes, it would be nice if the world at-large gave the bravest and most resonant of this work its proper due, although cultural optics have never needed a hashtag to matter, in whichever ways they do. But if Chang doesn’t offer the happy ending many thought Obama’s election would bring, that’s only because we’re still working on it. And so this dance continues, at a street protest or awards show or runway near you.

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