Who We Be: The Colorization of America began as many books do: With a great idea and lousy timing.
In 2006, after the success of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, Jeff Chang wanted to write about multiculturalism. Since his days as a student at the University of California Berkeley when he worked by night as a DJ and later went into politics, he was intrigued how great works of art change one's view of the world. That was especially true when he worked in radio. "As I've gotten older, I've become more interested in how to explain this to people," Chang says.
But at the beginning of a new century, multiculturalism seemed like an unnecessary topic. Pop culture was saturated with characters on television shows like South Park, where everyone was "getting over on starry-eyed idealists who supported multiculturalism.” And, anyway, Chang asks, “Who cared about multiculturalism when you had Diddy on the billboard outside of your window?"
America would find out after the presidential campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama. As race-baiting and the incendiary subtext of arguments against him mounted, Who We Be took on new meaning and a new shape.
Who We Be reflects Chang's breadth of knowledge about the impact of multiculturalism and societal reactions to it. Through the lens of art, since he is executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, he brings in an aesthetic analysis of who and what America is as a result of a persistent and flawed post-racial narrative in the wake of Obama's election.
As a book about the politics of aesthetics, Who We Be is painted on a broad canvas that includes our nation's undocumented immigrant youth, African-American innovator Morrie Turner's Wee Pals—the first black comic strip—alongside the fatal and high-profile shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Occupy Wall Street, advertising and marketing, the political coordination of the hip-hop generation and more are reflected in sections divided by era.
Chang, a prolific journalist and historian of the hip-hop generation, says that although Who We Be may have begun as a manifesto like Can't Stop Won't Stop, it gradually became less declarative. "At some point it became really complicated," Chang says. "I just had to follow the story and the complexity for what it was. Originally it was going to be framed around Obama's victory, but as the years went on, it was clear that the book was really about all of these ways in which we have complicated our non-discussion about race."
"It was going to be about how changing demographics shifted American culture and made it impossible to imagine a black president in this new cultu ral majority," Chang says. "We signed the book weeks before Lehman Brothers folded and the financial crisis began. Obama wins and we're all kind of giddy. I tell my editor, 'I'm going to finish this book in a year I'm so fired up.' But then, the backlash begins. And there's an explosion of art in the streets including the art and genius of Shepard Fairey. People like Glenn Beck look at that and say: ‘We have to get rid of this guy.’ ”
The thinly veiled racism of the Tea Party, the firing of Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod early on in the Obama Administration: Those are just a few examples of what Chang calls “a five- to six-year journey into darkness into the conversation on race" that he embarked on while writing the book. Instead of centering the book on music, as he did in Can't Stop Won't Stop, he moved out of his comfort zone by looking at the contemporary art world and visual culture.
He says the art world exemplifies "how the race conversation has become frozen and how difficult it is for young artists of color to move forward because they have to mask themselves in order to break through. I was interested in the rigidity of that, in the fluidity and speed of popular music juxtaposed with the rigidity of the art world.
“The through line is cultural desegregation,” he says. “People of color are no longer invisible. Artists had in mind that empathy could bring about equity," Chang says. "Morrie Turner, who was my neighbor, said great art that has changed the way that we see each other in society came from artists who were in search of the right question instead of the right answer,” Chang says. “Who We Be was going to be a book about answers, but it really is a book of questions."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C.