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Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America Hardcover – October 21, 2014
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Race. A four-letter word. The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.
During that time, the U.S. has seen the most dramatic demographic and cultural shifts in its history, what can be called the colorization of America. But the same nation that elected its first Black president on a wave of hope―another four-letter word―is still plunged into endless culture wars.
How do Americans see race now? How has that changed―and not changed―over the half-century? After eras framed by words like "multicultural" and "post-racial," do we see each other any more clearly?
Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress. In this follow-up to the award-winning classic Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang brings fresh energy, style, and sweep to the essential American story.
“Who We Be confirms the singular brilliance of Jeff Chang...Here is the story of us, from the bottom up, the top down, and side-to-side - an astoundingly astute collage of forgotten battles brought to light and watershed events made new by Chang's analysis. Who We Be is essential reading - not this season or this year, but until the audacity of post-racism kicks in. Which won't be happening anytime soon.” ―Adam Mansbach, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Rage is Back and Go the F*ck to Sleep
“With Who We Be Jeff Chang has emerged as a premier chronicler of the broad and unruly narrative of American culture. His characteristically deft prose, broad perspective and incisive observations make this is an essential chronicle of the past three decades of American cultural history. Who We Be is a brilliant brief on who we've been all along.” ―Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress; Director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut
“Jeff Chang writes with necessary fire about the things that matter. Who We Be is a compassionate, clear-eyed book, an exciting contribution to the history of our present moment. I know of no better account of the glories and sorrows of contemporary American diversity, nor any so attuned to the outsized role that art has played in that journey.” ―Teju Cole, author of Open City
“In 2005, Jeff Chang wrote the Hip Hop book none of us saw coming, but all
of us wished we'd written. Many of us spent a decade trying to catch up. Who We Be smashes assumptions of postracialism and multiculturalism into hundreds of prickly pieces...(It) cradles the personal, communal, institutional and structural while ultimately showing us how to rebuild each with a bit more honesty and integrity. This is the book we've been waiting for.” ―Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
“A new book by Jeff Chang is always a cause for celebration. His voice is unique, and his issues are our issues: this changing America, this complicated, polyglot future that some are already living in, while some are fighting to tear apart. Who We Be is an important, timely book, and it's also a terrific read.” ―Daniel Alarcón, author of At Night We Walk in Circles
About the Author
Jeff Chang's first book was the award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He has been a USA Ford Fellow in Literature and was named by The Utne Reader one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World." He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.
- Publisher : St. Martin's Press (October 21, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0312571291
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312571290
- Item Weight : 3.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 7.81 x 1.3 x 9.33 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,851,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Knowing nothing about music (or much else culturally speaking) post 1978 or so, Chang's first book on hiphop was ignored by me, but my 20-something nephews really dug it. This one I bought to read online because I know the author and am a race fanatic, so wanted to know what "The Colorization of America"/ "A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America" meant. Wow, did I find out! The parts I understood because I lived them he put in a context so much wider that an old adage came to mind: If the answer is too big for the question, change the question. Chang has a bordering-on-brilliant talent for connecting what we might never otherwise have seen as common questions because our answers have been too small.
In my 18 years of public school (not all white, but all well-funded by tax dollars), 18 months at Washington University (before dropping out to join either the revolution or the hippies, whichever seemed more fun when I hitchhiked to San Francisco with a draft dodger in 1968), and three years of seminary (I am an ordained minister), I have met exactly two other people I would call "educator" as an identity rather than vocation or work title. Chang brings even an old, culturally ignorant and irrrelevant white lady like me into his stories. Stories he is telling us so that we can know we are not so very unlike, so very unlikely to do the right thing by one another.
His description of how the Obama/HOPE imagery came to be and morphed in startling ways follows a trajectory that has become familiar by that point in the text. Chang starts at the beginning of a tale only he can predict, and unless the reader is clued in to the esoterica of the topic (an astounding amount of research is evident in this book), s/he is in for a fascinating trip to a destination that, once it is glimpsed, makes sense of all that has been written before. Chang's cadences and fluid transitions from culturespeak to academic prose are a pleasure in and of themselves for any reader. And what a fine way of fleshing out for us the wisdom that "the personal is political" -- to hang most of what he tells us on the skeleton of one life. That way,it is possible for us to see ourselves as individual actors in history/herstory/ourstory. None of us is bigger than our cultural context, and none of us is exempt from the human imperative to act for the wellbeing of that culture. We be, at bottom, WE.
So, of course, read the book. Unless you receive public assistance, please BUY the book (this is how writers keep writing, yes?). Then try to articulate, if only to yourself, what difference what you just learned will make. Because that's how you'll know you've been educated, not just instructed.
Unfortunately, the text lacks a singular thread or reasserted thematic that can bring together the dozens of stories about artists, activists, actors, and others across this veritable cast of thousands, which leaves the reader bereft of the larger meaning and import of the very subject of study, not to mention overwhelmed with minutiae. The epilogue is indicative of this fugue-like meandering across genres, topics, and personae, and left me wondering if Chang actually had an editor at Picador. It was like the magic had all gone by the last few pages, and the last, exhausted anecdotes reflected this. It makes me wonder how the text would be configured for the current American Horror Story. There is a kind of teleological certainty to cultural studies that emanate from the Obama era that seems very naive now. I would recommend this book for those interested in the visual arts, especially the ins and outs of the doyennes of the New York arts scene, and to a lesser extent music, comics, and television. The text certainly fills a niche, but simultaneously also feels very niche.
Little did I know how art, in all of its creative forms, fought against racial bigotry and influenced uprising against post slavery reconstruction, Jim Crow and contributed to what is now known as the Civil Rights era. Like so many other books on this and similar content have concluded, the issue of race has far from diminished over time. (Tamir, Eric, Michael, Trayvon, Jonathon, Sean, Anadou, etc. etc. etc.) The author, however, valiantly brings into the sunlight truths that the people of this country, white and black, have to find a way to resolve.