“How has the national culture changed over the past half-century that we could elect a black president? And just as important,” writes Jeff Chang in his new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America, “how has it not changed?” Beginning with the story of Morrie Turner—the first nationally syndicated African American cartoonist, who brought race relations to the American breakfast table through his Wee Pals strip—to President Barack Obama’s election, DREAM Act activism, the killing of Trayvon Martin, and beyond, Who We Be chronicles the rise and fall of multiculturalism through the lens of visual culture.
Chang adeptly weaves together several cultural threads: the marketing of a “colorized” America, from Coke’s “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” campaign to Benetton’s COLORS magazine; the struggle by artists of color within art institutions; and politics of today’s purported “post-racial” moment. Reading Who We Be, one is left with the awareness that the Culture Wars weren’t a historical moment confined to 1980s and 1990s, but an ongoing struggle, continuing today, over who gets to define culture in America.
Chang, currently executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, is best known for Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), an important history of the hip hop generation and its multicultural and political roots. Cofounder of the hip hop record label Quannum Projects and of ColorLines, Chang visited the Walker in 2007, discussing ideas behind his book Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop and in 2008, when, during the Republican National Convention, he met with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). To commemorate publication of Who We Be, we share an excerpt from the book, focusing on Glenn Ligon, whose Untitled (Stranger in the Village #16) (2000)—featuring text from James Baldwin’s essay of the same name—is on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections.
The twentieth century had begun with the morphology of race, the notion that difference was biological and unchangeable. But the Post Time of the millennium was about the morphology of racism, the ways that structures were shifting to maintain inequity along color lines.
From the early 1990s young artists of color had more access to the mainstream. They appeared on the horizon as the exceptional—the exceedingly well-pedigreed—and the exceptions—negations of the angry old race-men and race-women. But in their MFA programs and beyond racial identity had simply become “passé.” As in—fine, race is a construct. So what? Next.
It was a casual kind of violence.
The novelist Zadie Smith told a story. When she had been a precociously well-read and opinionated fourteen-year-old, her mother brought her a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was not interested. The young girl did not yet know the backstory, though if she had she may have been even less interested.
It was the late 1980s and Hurston’s works had long been unavailable. In previous eras of integration and uplift her books had fallen out of print, her reputation out of favor. Perhaps she was too ribald, too comfortable in her own skin to suit the tastes of those times. In her piece “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston had written, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
But now, at the same time hip-hop heads were moving as far as they could from crossover Motown nostalgia, sampling P-Funk and the Meters from out-of-print records secured at used record stores or spirited from family collections, Hurston’s work was undergoing a revival. What George Clinton and Co.’s psychedelic disquisitions on race and democracy and the Uptown Rulers’s deconstructed architectures of space and rhythm signified to hip-hop heads, Ms. Hurston’s aphoristic folk wisdom and earthy language were for a generation of writers and critics trying to make a canon of their own.
Yet Smith’s mother may as well have been handing her daughter a plate of broccoli. Zadie had already declared herself partial to Nabokov and Keats, indifferent to Morrison and Rhys. If anyone was going to resist Ms. Hurston’s company it would be this girl. “I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool,” Smith wrote. “I disliked the idea of ‘identifying’ with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she represented ‘good writing,’ not because she represented me.”1
After not a little prodding Smith cracked open Their Eyes Were Watching God, finishing it in a single reading. And she wept. Smith wrote, “At 14 I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.”2
One of the things multiculturalists had won for their daughters was the privilege of taste and judgment. When her mother had pressed a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God into her hands, Zadie Smith could be skeptical of her mother’s claims of its greatness. That she did not find it wanting was evidence that her mother’s generation had been right.
“Fact is, I am a Black woman (I think this was the point my mother was trying to make) and a sliver of this book goes straight in to my soul, I suspect, for that reason,” she wrote years later. “Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient build-up of cultural residue that is, for convenience sake, called ‘Blackness’ … are the parts that my own ‘Blackness,’ as far as it goes, cannot help but respond to personally.”
Yet in writing of this awakening decades later, Smith was uncomfortably aware that in championing Their Eyes Were Watching God she risked sounding like her Black mother and her mother’s Black friends “talking about a Black book.” She still needed to justify her pleasure. It was very Post-Black to be more self-conscious than enraged that the modifier Black could still signify “something less than.” For all the talk about white guilt and identity fatigue, the traumas and ruins of the culture wars remained.
Raise Your Flag
In 1988, about the time that Zadie was discovering Zora, twenty years after Ernest Withers shot the famous photo of a line of striking Black workers in Memphis raising placards that read “I Am a Man,” Glenn Ligon made a painting that mimicked the sign in thick black and white strokes. This was the work that shot him to fame. It had, the art critic Darby English wrote, fused “three ostensibly irreconcilable representational modes—the formalist painting, the political statement, and the private question—into something fraught but whole.”3 In this way, Ligon and his contemporaries forged the kind of practice that would be taken up by the Post Generation.
The private question was the thing. What did it mean that a placard calling for union recognition of nameless sanitation workers gathering on a Memphis street had been transformed into a text painting by a gay Black man to hang in a white New York gallery? There were layers here—history, masculinity, class, generation, movements, legacies. Ligon seemed to want to create the work less to find an answer than to ask questions that opened into more questions.
Another of Ligon’s early oil stick paintings, hung prominently in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, featured one of Hurston’s money lines from “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” In retrospect, the painting seemed to form a dialogue with Daniel J. Martinez’s 1993 Biennial tags. It also seemed to reverse polarities on its viewers, the way Faith Ringgold had reversed chiaroscuro. “When do you feel most white?” was a question that would gain steam in the new millennium.
But Ligon’s work—and those of many of his colleagues—also positioned itself against previous art movements. Against realism, the work took a sharp conceptual turn. Irony replaced ardor. Doubt replaced dogma. Ambivalence replaced moral drama. When the pieces caused anguished debates in the galleries among Black crowds, they had done their work. They were unromantic, antiessentialist, irreducible.
Yet they carried within them their own kind of hope. Responding to Charles Taylor, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah had written, “If I had to choose between the world of the closet and the world of gay liberation, or between the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Black Power, I would, of course, choose in each case the latter. But I would not like to have to choose. I would like other options.”4
Writing “as someone who counts in America as a gay Black man,” Appiah closed on a note of optimism. If some had been concerned that identity politics might leave society wracked on the shoals of either-or dichotomies, Appiah wrote, “[I]t is equally important to bear in mind that a politics of identity can be counted on to transform the identities on whose behalf it ostensibly labors.”5
In 1996, Ligon unveiled large unstretched wall-size canvases onto which he had silkscreened newsprint-like images from the Million Man March. He had been inspired by a debate between Isaac Julien and Essex Hemphill about whether Black gay men should participate in or protest the march, and come away with an overwhelming ambivalence.
Hands captured an image of hundreds of palms and fists and peace signs raised into the black air, as if in praise and affirmation. In We’re Black and Strong, there were shadows of the crowd’s heads and fists against a towering white sign that had featured those words. The sign flew like a “flag of representation,” as the curator Franklin Sirmans put it, but Ligon had removed the text.6 So now it stood taut in the wind, wordless, a tabula rasa for the new writing of history—or maybe the writing of nothing at all.
Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.
1 Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 7–8.
2 Ibid., 12.
3 Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 206.
4 Appiah in Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton University Press, 1994), 163.
6 Franklin Sirmans in Glenn Ligon: America (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2011), 168.