My first feeling upon finishing this book and still the deepest is a kind of pleasant awe, at Jeff Chang’s ability to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. He has taken a subject that has produced some of the most reductive pronouncements, the most scalding vitriol in the whole acid bath of contemporary US rhetoric – multiculturalism – and written a clear-eyed, solid, but never cautious or dull history of it.
Far from dull, in fact. Who We Be is engrossing and filled with an energy that befits the more than half-century of unremitting turbulence it covers. Because it focuses to a great extent on visual representation – in art, advertising, comics, graffiti, and po-mo mashups of all of the above – it’s also laced with lots of eye-catching imagery and some visionary work by exemplary artists.
Bemoaned by the white left, abominated and outflanked by the right, avidly absorbed and co-opted by burgeoning corporate capitalism, and eventually, perhaps, quietly abandoned even by many of its initial champions, multiculturalism has paradoxically both triumphed and collapsed in the US in the 21st century. And Jeff Chang shows us exactly how we got there. We need only to keep scanning the headlines after the book closes in 2012, but he has almost unerringly caught the dynamic that creates them.
Along the way we get to meet a great cast of he- and she-roes, from post-war African American cartoonist Morrie Turner (whose integrated Wee Pals strip could be called the first to put the real color in the Sunday funnies) to a string of socially conscious artists: Norman Lewis, Howardena Pindell, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Glen Ligon, Kay WalkingStick, and many more. Accompanied by writers, curators, social thinkers, students – the forces of change portrayed here are as vibrant as the vision of change.
Beginning where the civil rights movement leaves off, Chang looks at efforts to break the color bar from the art galleries of Manhattan, to the campuses of California, to the intimate screens in every household. From PESTS to the Dream Defenders, from “high” art to “low” comedy, he traces cultural insurgencies always dogged by the forces of cooptation and pushback, still continually advancing the agenda, or at least, responding creatively.
And he parallels this with revelatory details on the corporate appropriation of multiculturalism through marketing, from that cringe-inducing 1970s “perfect harmony” Coke ad, to Benetton’s equally creepy but far more sophisticated “United Colors” campaign, and finally the triumph of the niche strategy, the ultimate sidestep.
What was at stake in promoting a multicultural understanding of US society, as Who We Be makes clear, was the ability of people of color to be visible within it on self-defined terms. Chang has deftly followed the mind-bendingly complicated twists and turns in the unfolding of that basic desire, as it ran headlong into a reality before which many necessary longings have come, at this late stage, to seem almost utopian.
All along the book’s way the political and economic divide is evident. Hard power responds to insurgencies in the arts and education by slashing public spending in these areas. It responds to the possibility of broader economic uplift with privatization, free trade, mass incarceration and the casino economy. It radicalizes and mobilizes the white reactionary base while the Rainbow Coalition dissipates under the glare. By the turn of the 21st century, Chang says “everything and nothing was multicultural. It was the air everyone breathed. It was the mercury promise of freedom for all always slipping away.”
One powerful take-away from Who We Be is this: All attempts to move society in a given direction suffer from two constraints: internal contradictions or limitations, and external opposition. Multiculturalism was rich in both. The external opposition was pretty easy to spot; it has been a constant in US society for over 200 years: white-is-right nativists, 100%-ers, old money Euro-philes. Those who had always commanded the engines of power and money, and the ever-precarious white working class, which apparently could be rallied indefinitely by appeals to the “cultural heritage” it shared with the white elite (even as it hated them) insidiously underscored by perceived threats to its rickety seats on the train.
But the internal limitations were less monolithic, less reified by history, and thus, perhaps, harder to identify and address. In fact, they were likely the product of a very recent history. It was still coalescing in the twilight of “master narratives” like Marxism, and the rising maelstrom of supposedly post-racial, post-ideological, post-colonial postmodernity (or the “logic of late capitalism,” as Fredric Jameson called it). While it is not the book’s explicit project to do so, Who We Be helps identify some of those limitations. And it does so in a way that’s instructive to anyone who cares about how social progress happens.
The limitation of representation
Ownership of the means of production, that’s pretty straightforward. Ownership of your image? Well, first, who are you? Are you an individual or the product of a group? (Everyone is now supposed to be both, but anyone who’s tried to determine them knows the borders are utterly fungible.) What are the characteristics of the group, and the history of the group, and as defined by which members of the group? As the trail of broken cultural collectives quietly chronicled in Who We Be indicates, it can be like grabbing an eel to base the practice of politics – or art – on such a multivalent notion.
And if you don’t own the means of producing your image what results is a continual insurgency against those who do. If you do “own the means” (say visual artists), you still face the battle of reproduction and dissemination. If you own both the means of producing and of
reproducing and disseminating (to give two examples Chang examines, say BET, or the artist-owned Spiral Gallery) there is the problem of capital: patrons, buyers, shareholders, advertisers. In an era when the public sphere was shrinking under the onslaught of privatization, and capital was racing to the top, thinking there could ever be control of the picture without control of the whole delivery system was probably the biggest limitation on the politics of representation.
The limitation of individuation
James Baldwin, as in much else, was the great prophetic voice on the discontents of individuation in consumer society: it had created “the best kind of slaves: slaves who think they are free, slaves who think they are important.” He perceived how smoothly, how invisibly, how conveniently individuation slides over into narcissism. And then they’ve got you. Suddenly the whole world is a zero-sum game. As revealed in Who We Be, the end game of corporate advertising’s limited embrace of the united colors world is clear: it’s not the creation of a unified society but of the ideal consumer: the individual narcissist.
There is no way back now from individuation, we are all products of the “century of the self” and the quest for individuation is overwhelmingly historically determined. So there is only a way forward that might lead to the possibility of a meaningful social identity being (re)created. But social identity depends on dependence. The less you need, materially or psychically, the less you will sacrifice in order to belong to a group. This is the trap of middle-class aspiration: the anti-social nightmare side of the American dream. It’s why middle class liberals are such poor allies in any struggle for group advancement.
It is also why artists are such fickle ones. And why they may be “the antennae of the race,” as that crazy old fascist Ezra Pound said, but in order to be so they will ultimately pursue their personal visions over any group objective. Who We Be shows us committed artists like Daniel Joseph Martinez, Kehinde Wiley and others tiring of reductive messaging and a perennially adversarial stance and just wanting to create, to keep loosening the bonds of identity. At the same time it shows how crucial their insightful visions and level of craft are to lifting up a collective truth. The truth of art is always both of its time and slightly ahead of it. It is neither Brecht’s hammer nor Shakespeare’s mirror. Another object lesson from Who We Be is that revolutions in cultural forms can occur at a huge remove from revolutionary or even progressive social change.
The limitation of inclusion
Much of what I still wanted to hear about after absorbing this vibrant narrative probably belongs in a different book (like a colorized history of “long narrative” forms such as movies, theater, and performance). What seems illegitimately missing from Who We Be is thus more lamentable: Because he is such a savvy, thorough chronicler, I wanted more of Jeff Chang’s take on Native American image wars too, from the “crying Indian” (played by an Italian American actor with a fascinating backstory) in the soft drink industry’s cynical Keep America Beautiful campaign, to the ongoing struggles to eliminate racist team names and mascots, to the controversial Crazy Horse vs. Mt. Rushmore project. Not to mention the “feathers and beads” fetish fashion designers have perennially flogged to blithely naïve cultural appropriators.
In fact, the difference among differences that American Indians represent is one of the discontents of multiculturalism, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, has written. In her view, the idea of broader social inclusion without any acknowledgment or redress of the fundamental wrong of settler colonialism is a non sequitur. The mythology that props up the settler identity is the same one that justifies racist exclusion, but when the redress must be sovereignty, not civil rights, inclusion is not a universal remedy. She has critiqued what she calls the “perfectibility narrative” of other US historians for this blind spot.
Chang avoids this pitfall– he knows the 21st century has been far too marked by zombie politics (moribund strategies that keep staggering to life and gnawing at the neck of progressive hopes) to permit any blindered optimism about perfectibility. But the push for inclusion still raises the lingering question: included in what? An imperial state that crushes black and brown people overseas and Indigenous sovereignty at home? A soulless techno-topia of universally branded corporate citizens? The ballroom of the Titanic?
The old white separatist agenda, intentionally or not, always dovetailed usefully with privatization and economic stratification. But multiculturalism, rising out of the stalling of federal reforms and the eclipse of socialist experiments, never had a correspondingly necessary vision of socio-economic transformation. While the culture wars raged, command economies were collapsing, the US economy was busting and booming (and busting), corporate globalization was expanding at the speed of light. Trade agreements freed capital and locked people in place. The War on Drugs became the new Jim Crow. The War on Terror became the excuse for militarizing the cops and (along with the War on Drugs) the border. The first black president presided over continuation and escalation of these imperial strategies. Realpolitik beat the rainbow.
And yet, as Who We Be also illustrates, racial, ethnic and cultural diversity within US borders is a fact. It was never not so; it was only invisible to whites, but the emerging majority will not be invisible or silent. (It will not have that privilege, with meaningful integration faltering and white millennials apparently showing no significant change over their elders in racial prejudice.) The colorized nation still has to struggle mightily against the arrogance, fearfulness, or complacency of whiteout. And that struggle will have only contingent victories unless there are real shifts in hard power. This is more evident than ever; it’s been written in too many legally sanctioned stolen lives.
But however gray and troubled the present, the full-color future is still unwritten. Taken together with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2005), his landmark history of hip-hop, Who We Be makes Jeff Chang the go-to cultural historian of the emerging US majority. The broad tableau of dignity, skill, zeal, and creativity he presents makes it hard not to feel that the rainbow is still somewhere on the horizon.
Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco and writes for Dissident Voice and on her blog What If? transformations, tales, possibilities.