Are We Gon’ Be Alright?

Crises abound in America, but while complacency won the day before, these times feel different.

It was a long and eventful ten years for me here in Chicago. As I settled into the pews of University Church, on the campus of the University of Chicago, to hear a presentation by author and cultural historian Jeff Chang on 10 October, just days before I left town, it dawned on me just how long and eventful those years really were.

The main event was Chang’s discussion of his new book, We Gon’ Be Alright. It’s a close, personal look at race and culture in America, a departure from the big histories Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America. His customary citing of individual events to make a larger point about society is intact here, but the personal story he tells along with that brings a different resonance to his scholarship.

But there was more to the evening than just an author talk. The event’s sponsors — a group of U of C-affiliated cultural and academic organizations — booked a series of young performers to flesh out the bill. As it happened, the combination was more than serendipitous. The artists gave living proof to one of the points Chang made in We Gon’ Be Alright and in his presentation: that culture has been crucial in enraged communities to help transform frustration into positive energy. Nowhere in America has the channeling of frustration into positive energy been more palpable these last ten years than here in Chicago.

The evening began with rapper-educator Aquil “AQ” Charlton freestyling, accompanied by his battery-powered synthesizer. His intricate verses cycled back to the refrain “and we can live off the page / contemplate our love / it’ll be all the rage / they can call our bluff” until the very end, when he switched off the music and his words took on the urgency of a street preacher working the corner, hard.

Next up were two students from the U of C Lab School giving a presentation about social justice activities at the high school. They were followed by schoolmate Alex DuBuciet — remember that name. She took her acoustic guitar in hand to sing an original song, “Waiting”, full of yearning and power; clearly she’s tired of waiting for better days. If she keeps it up, the tradition of sistas wielding guitars to advance social and personal justice — Odetta, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon — will be in good hands.

Then, Chang began his presentation with a curious quote. He spoke of a conversation with Bay Area hip-hop activist Davy D, who recounted something a man who once performed at Black Panther rallies had said, about “trying to find a feeling of alrightness”. Chang said that struck him as “a powerful metaphor for how we can live and live well, individually and together.”

In his book, Chang identifies a cycle of how movements and social energy have played out in America, moving from crisis to reaction to backlash to complacency, with nothing fundamentally changing until the conditions that sparked the original crisis reassert themselves and the cycle begins anew. His presentation provided historical context going back to the 1965 Watts riots, but We Gon’ Be Alright is more centered in the present tense, starting off with a Donald Trump rally in Arizona in December 2015, as his presidential campaign was picking up steam. Picking up on themes he first advanced in Who We Be, Chang moves to a discussion of the evolution of diversity as a construct, asking, “is it possible to reimagine diversity separated from histories of exclusion? What would diversity that liberated everyone look like?”

In his talk, he answered that question: “I want a society that allows me to express myself in my full humanity.” He went deeper on that in We Gon’ Be Alright’s chapter “The In-Betweens”, about Chang’s Asian-American heritage and situating himself within the cultural and political crosscurrents of race in America.

We Gon’ Be Alright’s pivotal moment, not surprisingly, happens in Ferguson, Missouri, in the late summer and fall of 2014. Chang tells of art-wielding activists — “artivists” — who made their presence felt throughout the area, from concerts to street protests. One worker, Damon Davis, had created a series of large posters of other activists with their hands raised and set against stark backgrounds, plastered up on boarded-up storefronts in Ferguson’s business district. “All Hands on Deck”, writes Chang, “transformed the plywood from enclosing shields of fear into open walls that revealed the breadth of community.”

That all happened before the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death, but it underscored the connection Chang drew in his talk between racial equality and cultural equity. “Cultural change,” he said, “always precedes political change.” Cultural equity remains elusive, Chang details in the book, as it directly confronts issues of representation, access, and power, with history written by not just the victors but more directly their gatekeepers. But cultural action — the manifestation of voices creating art in the spirit of community and towards true equity across the board — has often pushed the movement forward, both tactically and spiritually.

He demonstrates that in We Gon’ Be Alright’s closing section, a meditation on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Chang situates the project within the current continuum of socially engaged black pop, but less about making an explicitly political statement than about creating through art a social space “where we come together, allowing us all to think about the ways we are broken and how we might mend the ways we break each other, how we might imagine healing, reimagine history, and dream freedom.” After his close reading of Lemonade, Chang turns to the notion of grace as a way of living and working through these tenuous times. “It is about seeing each other in the world and seeing one’s own place in the world anew,” he writes. “ In that way grace can counter the lies, refusals and aggressions that drive us toward segregation.”

In his presentation, he made a similar point using Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, from which the book’s title derives. What such works represent, said Chang, is “a faith in the power of art to be both personal and speak beyond the artist.” Lamar’s chorus, of course, covers that whole expanse: it’s he and his gun that are about to explode, but it’s all of us who are going to be alright. It’s that feeling of communal bonding, a state of being, that culture is far better than politics at fostering, and that propels us into buoyancy when the chorus’ tension releases back into the beat. It’s as if, like that dancer at the Panther rallies, we especially crave a feeling of alrightness in times like these.

Chang’s Chicago talk came a month before the presidential election, amidst a campaign that saw more than a few indications of the backlash phase of his crisis cycle. But the reaction phase is still happening, if the continuing explosion of culture borne of the crisis is any indication. No mere voting process will bring a stop to any of that; as Chang previously explored in Who We Be, the election of a black man as president did not magically end race as a core issue of American life. Will cultural activists this time around be able to continue uplifting souls and provoking conversations enough to bring enough folks around to ride out the backlash and not settle into a false sense of accomplishment, followed by resignation and then complacency? Stay tuned.

The program concluded with three members of the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble performing an alternately bitter, hilarious and loving account of their hometown, the madness that surrounds them, and the roots that allow them to imagine another way to be in Chicago. They didn’t flinch from calling out the violence and inequality. But by celebrating the many things about this city that fed their muses, from neighborhood spots to legendary icons, they sketched out a vision of a place where some of life’s richness is still abundant despite the madness, and more of it is still possible. Not easy, and perhaps not imminent, but at least possible, and that’s a start. In these performers’ hands, it was also cause for celebration.

The combination of Chang’s talk about this social and cultural moment and performances that spoke to and of it was incredibly effective; he might well consider seeking out other such opportunities in the future. There’s nothing like compelling music and verse to help amplify a point, even if Chang’s strong and thoughtful work doesn’t need any help in connecting to an audience. Then again, such a program might not carry the same resonance in another city, one not quite as politically and culturally charged as Chicago circa 2016.

Trump and his acolytes tried their best to make Chicago’s racial issues part of their campaign, convincing absolutely no one outside of those inclined to think the worst about Chicago (and/or black people) anyway. I’m not a native Chicagoan, but in my time here, I became a Chicagoan, well vested in the city’s legendary (if somewhat overblown, and often detrimental) pride and swagger, all the way down to my Blackhawks gear. So when Trump went in on our city’s ills, I joined the rest of the city in blithely ignoring him.

True, there’s no shortage of things to be righteously angry about. Upon arriving here ten years ago, I was struck by the astounding economic difference between the white North Side and the black (and Latino) South and West Sides. The long list of black youths who became iconic only after they were killed precedes the recent headlines; long before Hadiya Pendelton, there was Blair Holt, who was killed on a bus in 2007 while trying to shield a friend from gunfire. I got to see the city’s legendary political corruption first-hand, through the downfall of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and his wife, alderman Sandi Jackson, and various lesser lights; on my way out of town, yet another alderman had been accused of manipulating the money. Speaking of money, there’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dubbed “Mayor 1 Percent” for his service to corporate interests while closing 50 schools and six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics. I can’t tell you how hard I laughed when the city’s bid in 2009 to host the 2016 Olympic Games (and all the money and civic effort expended on it) was summarily bounced in the first round.

But what the headlines and haters won’t say, what you won’t know unless you’ve been here a while and gotten to know people all across town, is there is a vibrant legacy of culture in the spirit of resistance, and resistance manifested in culture. That legacy is deeply rooted, dating back to the Great Migration and the Black Chicago Renaissance of the ‘30s (as I explored in Defending Chicago’s Defender and Chicago – The Other Black Renaissance), and upheld by the many who still celebrate the memory of the late Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.

It builds on that history, with young black activists putting their generation’s spin on classic protest tactics to successfully pressure the U of C to establish a trauma center serving South Side neighborhoods. It knows what that history has meant to America, as the thousands who filled Grant Park to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 will attest. It remains defiant, as the protesters who shut down a Trump rally at a Chicago college arena in March will attest. It also remains hopeful, with Chicagoans coming together this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s campaign here to battle urban poverty.

And it’s ongoing, as proven by the continuing string of vital work by local rappers. Chance the Rapper you’ve heard of, and perhaps Jamila Woods as well, but they’re joined by Vic Menza, Mick Jenkins, Noname, Sabu, and others on a Soundcloud page near you.

It’s not a stretch to connect the citywide energy in support of the 2012 teachers’ strike (a major defeat for Emanuel) to the days of rolling protests through downtown streets after the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police (which Emanuel mishandled into another major defeat, and which finally brought the U.S. Department of Justice to town to investigate the Chicago Police Department) to this summer’s encampment across the street from Homan Square, the previously anonymous police fortress where detainees and their civil rights routinely disappeared, to all the cultural activity that’s been happening all around town, all this time.

Yes, we despair about the homicide rate here, and the conditions that continue to drive young black men to take up guns against each other. And yes, the economic disparity isn’t getting any better by being left to the market’s devices. But we’re happy to see a Whole Foods now open in Englewood, a neighborhood whose name has become shorthand for all that ails black Chicago. We’re waiting to see how the Obama Presidential Center will play out, in South Side parkland not all that far from where those Olympics would have been staged. We’re hoping tickets to see Hamilton here might someday be affordable.

Chicago, if you look closely, is Exhibit A for Chang’s main point. Crises abound, but while complacency won the day before, these times feel different. The energy is not letting up: the weekend I completed this article, activists marked the second anniversary of the McDonald murder. The culture continues to grow and respond to the moment, from footwork dance gone global to participatory journalism at the grass-roots level. It all just might be having an impact: on the very night of Chang’s appearance here, Emanuel managed to find enough money at the last minute to stave off another teachers’ strike.

As if all that weren’t enough: On my last night in town, the Cubs made it to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

If the young artists who shared the stage with Chang are any indication, unabashedly speaking their hood’s truth to local and national power with all their heart and soul, and inspiring others to tread onwards in that spirit, there’s still hope in and for the city. Where there is hope, there’s a way forward from the madness. Wherever the road takes me, I suspect I’ll still have a feeling that Chicago gon’ be alright.