Book Review: Who We Be by Jeff Chang [San Francisco Chronicle]
It’s never really been a question of whether America is a colorized society. The United States, for most of its history, has reflected many colors of the rainbow. Yet the simple acknowledgment of a country that doesn’t quite look like Ward and June Cleaver’s home is something that many continue to struggle with, particularly in popular culture.
As the adrenaline of electing our first black president fades and the true meaning of a “post-racial,” post-Ferguson country becomes clear, the time could not be any better for an assessment of our true “colorized” society. Jeff Chang’s “Who We Be,” a cultural history of race in American popular culture, is one of the few comprehensive mainstream books of the new millennium that grapples with how we’ve tried to reconcile a multiracial reality within a culture of whiteness through the prism of art.
Chang, who directs the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, argues that if we want real political change, our culture must evolve first. “Who We Be” takes us through three distinct eras, starting with the civil rights movement and using multiple modes of storytelling — from interviews with the late Bay Area cartoonist Morrie Turner and a history of the controversial 1979 art exhibition “The N— Drawings” to a wonderful analysis of multiculturalism in the age of the infamous Benetton ads and the contradictions of today’s Millennials.
This ambitious book features a wide array of characters, events and places. Taken as a whole, it’s clear that these anecdotes — though often short and without the depth I wanted — are part of a larger narrative that reveal how America’s elite culture makers and even artists themselves, much like society at large, struggles with issues surrounding race.
I suspect that experts and scholars will know a good number of the stories in “Who We Be,” such as the tale of the Willie Horton ad and Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy.” But Chang’s brilliance is in relating the more obscure tales, like the stories of Indian artist Kay WalkingStick and Chicano activist Daniel Martinez.
Chang gives marginalized folks not just a voice in his narrative but also a language that is understandable and accessible to anyone. The book is especially useful for novices looking for a primer on race and culture, but it would behoove anyone who has an interest in what it means to be an American to read it.
Instead of a comprehensive and theoretical academic analysis on race in America, Chang seeks a more interesting and ambitious project, one that positions itself as a beginning of a conversation. And he succeeds.
Reniqua Allen is an Emerging Voices Fellow at the public policy think tank Demos. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who We Be: The Colorization of America By Jeff Chang (St. Martin’s; 403 pages; $32.99)