Amsterdam News Staff
From the moment non-whites decided they wanted to have a say in how the country they called home presented and represented itself, the tug-of-war for the soul of the United States of America began. Through popular culture, art, politics, housing and education, the past 50 years have been an exercise in duality: an attempt to paint America as a multiethnic dreamland while promoting the suburban, white family in a house with a picket fence as the ideal.
Jeff Chang, author of the incredible hip-hop culture history book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” decided to introduce a conversation starter around these issues with 2014’s “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” one of the must-read books of the past year.
Chang’s book chronicles America’s racial history since the Civil Rights Movement. The pattern witnessed throughout the stories/anecdotes in “Who We Be” begins with the country’s ethnic minorities feeling invisible except when caricatured or used by whites and continues with the fight for the right to define themselves, the push to have more than one skin color be representative of America, acceptance by mainstream culture and co-optation by mainstream culture, followed by more erasure.
Whether it’s the mainstream using multiculturalism to sell products (while still centering the sensibilities of white America above all others) or the late Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” in which coded language was used to turn votes from white, Southern racists, the push and pull to determine the answer to the question “Whose America?” continues to this day.
In “Who We Be,” Chang interviews Black comic-strip author Morrie Turner about how he used drawings of multiracial kids to get his points across about race issues in America, and discusses the battles in New York and Los Angeles from the 1960s until now over “high art” and how art made by non-white, non-European artists is critiqued differently from the former; Cola-Cola’s famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad campaign and how it helped usher in the mainstreaming of multiculturalism; Occupy Wall Street; Mexican immigration; and the killing of Trayvon Martin and its aftermath.
Chang’s short overview of these subjects might not satisfy those who wanted something more in-depth than this book, but “Who We Be” isn’t designed to be a multi-volume document discussing the evolving situation of race in America. It’s designed to be an overview for those who don’t understand how all of these superficially disparate events connect via the prism of race. It’s the story of how modern America came to be, encouraging you to delve deeper.
We may be more than a month into 2015, but you should still read one of the best books of 2014 as soon as possible.