Cool Like That: Who We Be book review
Jeff Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press), dropped last week and it arrives as the United States is in the midst of another particularly fraught period of racial politics. As recent events in Ferguson, MO have indicated, Chang’s book argues that we as a country and a culture are a long way from becoming the post-racial society supposedly heralded by the election of Barack Obama, yet despite the seemingly dire straits that we’re in, all is not hopeless. In WWB Chang recounts the effects of the changing demographics in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, from desegregation through multiculturalism to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and beyond, investigating the ways in which visual culture intersects with current and historical events.
WWB is an amazing tome, encompassing topics as broad as the civil rights movement and as focused as Budweiser’s “Wassup” ad campaign. The book is an outstanding look at the ways in which we as a people in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have moved through a sea change of perceptions, representations, and reflections of racial relations.
Beginning in the 1960s, Chang’s book interweaves topics as diverse as the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the subprime mortgage scandal, Occupy Wall Street, and the psychology of advertising. Chang focuses on a range of culture creators including cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comic strip Wee Pals featured a multiracial cast of kids, Faith Ringgold, an early advocate for the Black Arts Movement, Daniel Martinez, known for his performance art/museum tag/culture bomb from the 1993 Whitney Bienniel, and Shepard Fairey, designer of both the Andre The Giant “Obey” street art campaign and the 2008 Obama “Hope” image.
Chang does a great job exploring the ways in which real life, visual art, and commerce interact and influence each other. For instance, Chang explores a proto-multiculti Coke ad campaign from the early 70s that tried to latch onto the youth culture and nascent ethnic studies movement of the time but that didn’t mention any of the harsher realities of, say, the Watts riots. Another section of the book drills down into the racism and elitism of the 1980s and 90s New York visual arts scene, including a particularly culturally tone-deaf incident surrounding the white artist responsible for “The Nigger Drawings.” Chang closely examines this volatile period during which contemporary arts gatekeepers like the New York Times, gallery directors, and curators were forced to confront their biases against creative work by artists of color and queer artists, which reached a crescendo during the controversial 1993 Whitney Bienniel, which was vilified by the art establishment as “a theme park of the oppressed.” Chang then discusses the ways in which these so-called culture wars in turn lead to the commercialized multiracialism of the United Colors of Benetton “Colors” magazine and ad campaign.
Chang also astutely looks at what he calls “the paradox of the post-racial moment,” wherein the U.S can elect Barack Obama president, yet still has trouble reconciling Obama’s biracial identity. Chang’s analysis is particularly keen when exploring the current confused state of race relations in the U.S., describing what he calls the tendency for many people to be “colormute,” that is, to avoid talking about race for fear of being accused of racism. He ironically notes the convoluted logic behind those who frown on discussing race in any way, stating, “If bad people had used race to divide and debase . . . then good people would be polite to never acknowledge race at all. It was better not to say anything than to risk being seen as a racist.”
Chang concludes his book with two contrasting case studies–a detailed look at George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that addresses the citizenship status of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. while children. By juxtaposing these two cases Chang emphasizes the fact that, while the Martin killing demonstrates that the U.S. remains far from being a post-racial society, there is still reason for hope, as seen in the increased activism by immigrant youth of color under the DREAM Act.
Chang’s writing is clear and accessible, and his analysis is thoughtful, concise, and innovative. Though by no means a dis on the theory queens among us (and you know who you are), after recently wading through a few visual culture publications, it’s a pleasure and a relief to read an author who writes with clarity without sacrificing intelligent intellectual commentary. Who We Be is a significant and essential addition to the study of contemporary U.S. art, culture, and politics.
Jeff Chang is on a book tour to promote WWB! Find out more here.
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