WHO WE BE by Jeff Chang

WHO WE BE

The Colorization of America
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Sprawling examination of how American society has responded to multiculturalism and demographic diversity.

Chang (Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, 2005), the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, focuses on visual artists and political dreamers in narrating how once-marginalized communities responded to the civil rights movement and then to the white backlash promoted by Richard Nixon and Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Amid violence and generational strife, cultural happenings, such as the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s, and innovators like African-American cartoonist Morrie Turner fomented “a grand yearning, a mass becoming, an end to the monoculture, the true arrival of a post-segregated nation.” Corporations quickly co-opted this outsider aesthetic, a process famously embodied in the early ’70s by Coca-Cola. Chang discusses important yet forgotten nodes in the developing dichotomy of multiculturalism versus “culture war,” as when conservatives began attacking the National Endowment for the Arts during the ’80s: “Defunding public culture proved good Republican politics.” Yet simultaneously, Jesse Jackson “incepted into the mainstream the prophetic images of the rainbow” in his attempts to make the Democratic Party more inclusive. The triumph of “political correctness” seemed evident in the fierce controversies over the Whitney Biennials of the ’90s, while Benetton’s successful “Colors” ad campaign and magazine showed that “capitalism had at long last embraced its future in identity and diversity.” As the Clinton years approached their end, “everything and nothing was multicultural,” contrasting with the triumphalism and xenophobia that followed 9/11. Chang ends with a jaundiced portrait of the “hope” accompanying Barack Obama’s presidency, smothered by conservative resentment and a massive economic crisis. The author adeptly synthesizes other scholars’ research and has an eye for precise details, though he also relies on a labored fusion of academic sociology and urban buzzwords—e.g., “In this era of fragmentation and unrest, it was time for [Coca-Cola]…to reassert some alpha swag.”

An intriguing attempt at cutting through the dissonance of a series of changing cultural milieus.

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-312-57129-0
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2014




Kirkus Interview
Jeff Chang
September 20, 2016

In the provocative essays in journalist Jeff Chang’s new book We Gon’ Be Alright, Chang takes an incisive and wide-ranging look at the recent tragedies and widespread protests that have shaken the country. Through deep reporting with key activists and thinkers, personal writing, and cultural criticism, We Gon’ Be Alright links #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite, Ferguson to Washington D.C., the Great Migration to resurgent nativism. Chang explores the rise and fall of the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, changing ideas about Asian Americanness, and the impact of a century of racial separation in housing. “He implores readers to listen, act, and become involved with today’s activists, who offer ‘new ways to see our past and our present,’ ” our reviewer writes in a starred review. “A compelling and intellectually thought-provoking exploration of the quagmire of race relations.” View video >

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