Off The Books: Who We Be: The Colorization of America by Jeff Chang

Alex Dwyer reviews the latest from "Can't Stop Won't Stop" author Jeff Chang. who, like most, summons DMX to understand race in America.
By    January 14, 2015

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Dweez can’t white about race.

“The silent streets of Lancaster form an unlikely early-twenty-first-century counterpoint to the silent streets of the late-twentieth-century South Bronx. From the inner cities to the colorized suburbs, abandonment is a form of destruction, a willed blindness.”

– Jeff Chang, Who We Be

I’ve come to realize over a couple decades of typing rows of pixelated letters on imaginary paper that there are plenty of things I have no business riffing on. These include but are not limited to the following: the female P.O.V., religion, politics, race, and the best whatever in wherever/whenever.

That’s not to say I couldn’t develop the knowledge base over time and intense study to discuss these things aloud to the masses. It’s just that I now recognize that as fun as non-expert, black and white opinioncasting can be it only heightens the volume of Total Noise on blast in all our tiny skulls. That’s just not something I’d like to contribute to any longer. Too many two cents have been passed into the pond to see the water from the copper.

Meanwhile, America can’t stop won’t stop wasting our time writing and reading opinion pieces about Michael Brown and Eric Garner from people who don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Thankfully Jeff Chang does.

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What Works:

Thankfully Chang, now Executive Director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, didn’t take what he knows and write a textbook about it. Instead, Who We Be: The Colorization of America is a 400-page square launchpad for anyone who doesn’t want to take the tea-party train to civic disengagement on race.

Chang kicks it off with a history of recently deceased cartoonist Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals. The comic strip was the first to include racially integrated characters. Turner’s strips are pasted throughout WWB alongside art-exhibit-grade imagery that provides a just suitcase for the valuable cargo that Chang’s carrying in his three part, fifteen chapter tomb on fifty years of race relations in this country from 1963-2013.

Diggin’ in the race crates, Chang illuminates lightning rods from Treyvon to Katrina, topics that have been opined into opacity almost as soon as they happen —to the extent that once they’ve passed we can hardly recognize or decipher what’s actually gone on. Who We Be isn’t another thought, it’s one of the best researched and documented meditations on race this country has seen.

Chang leaves room for people like the late manager of The Roots, Rich Nichols, who stole the show in Questlove’s memoir, to coin “the post-hope era” phrase. He highlights the “twice as good” and “half as black” Obama framing from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose reparations essay earlier this year overlaps with and is as essential to race reading today as WWB) Chang’s attribution game is airtight. The range and selection he chose from the literal mountains of material (this book has a note section that’s forty pages long and an index that’s twelve) adds invaluable credibility not just to the author himself but to the points he etches.

Chang’s fluency in the language of race is another WWB game changer. Changs talks about race in a ways that 2015 readers can actually hear. The ironies inherent in the word Occupy (of Wall St. fame) for the U.S.A. in indigenous lands and other countries is a small but telling detail of where we can get with clear racial linguistics. It also leaves room for him to look at the not-so-hopeful stats of Obama’s border record and label him as the Deporter in Chief without making it sound like name calling. The text all reads as smooth as a book this dense can.

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What Doesn’t:

The practical publishing imperative to limit the scope to the U.S. sometimes feel like a confinement too small for a topic this vast. It’s not that the rest of the globe isn’t hinted at. Anecdotes like one from Jamaican-British writer Zadie Smith and reprinted reactions like MLK’s to Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, wearing his prison garb at his inauguration are there but Who We Be largely limits itself to the United States as it’s subtitle would dictate.

As the world continues to globalize, it makes the book already appear a little slim. The United States of the future will have to deal ever more with the world outside its borders and it would have been useful here to see how race operates abroad. Specifically since Americans are so programmed to tout our diversity and inclusiveness as a “new world,” “immigrant”, “melting-potty” country it could have helped to see where some other nations got it right where the United States got it wrong. Maybe that’s a task too big for one book or at least too heavy for one coffee table. We do live in a world where our flooded minds can only reliably support whatever our furniture can. Then again, maybe Chang is already hard at Who We Be II: Hot, Flat & Colored.

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But Should You Read It?

Who We Be is like a coffee table book for people ready to give as much of a shit about what they read with their morning mug as what’s inside of it. It’s an extraordinary work and research feat that’s unparalleled in race writing. It’s a needed kick to the dome for folks who give a damn just enough to watch The Daily Show and listen to NPR.

The three-part, twenty-eight-page epilogue “Dreaming America” is good enough to be published on its own. Full of photos, art and a carefully woven present-tense narrative, it’s as on the mark with who Americans be in this moment as I’ve found in fiction or fact.

It works as both a primer and a period to the masterwork in the middle. A less-experienced, less-nuanced, less-savvy writer might have been tempted to spike the book to a close with the exclamation point it no doubt deserves but Chang’s ending goes bigger.

Right before the epilogue, during the intro to the last chapter, Chang curtails MLK’s Nkrumah moment to set up a litmus test for countries like ours, “Every democracy needed to habitually ask its subjects anew: What do we owe to each other?”

What do we Americans owe each other? It’s a question that can be widened up to the world and narrowed down to a neighborhood. What do world citizens? What do Angelenos? Los Felizians? Nottinghammers? Not despite but because of the legwork work done throughout Who We Be, the epilogue answers this question as best as I reckon a book can.
Absolutely nothing I’ve read, seen, or heard this year is as worth your increasingly valuable time and attention.
We owe it to ourselves to shut up long enough to read it.

*Page numbers are taken from Who We Be: The Colorization of America, 2014 St. Martin’s Press. That was the edition reviewed.

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