Who We Be: The Colorization of America

Tricia Rose in The New York Times:

ChangThe dramatic changes spurred by the civil rights ­movement and other 1960s social upheavals are often chronicled as a time line of catalytic legal victories that ended anti-black segregation. Jeff Chang’s “Who We Be: The Colorization of America” claims that cultural changes were equally important in transforming American society, and that both the legal and cultural forms of desegregation faced a sustained hostile response that continues today. According to Chang, the author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” multiculturalism challenged who and what defined America, going straight to the heart of who “we” thought we were and who “we” aspired to be. Attacks on exclusions by multicultural scholars and artists were taking place everywhere. University battles raged over whether the Western literature canon should continue to be elevated, or imagined ­outside the politics of racial hierarchies. Artists confronted the nearly all-white and all-male elite art world. Chang even ­describes Coca-Cola’s influential 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” advertisement as a signal of how profitable a “harmonious” multicultural marketing plan could be. But over the next several decades, all the way through Obama’s elections, powerful counterattacks were launched, increasingly in racially oblique language. “Both sides understood that battles over culture were high-stakes,” Chang writes. “The struggle between restoration and transformation, retrenchment and change, began in culture.”

“Who We Be” is ambitious in its scope, an impressive gathering of a wide range of artists of color, with their creative interventions and politically charged war stories. Chang is an artful narrator, who uses biographical detail, personal texture and historical and political context to bring his stories to life. He highlights important but unsung heroes like the 1960s trailblazer Morrie Turner, who struggled to break into newspapers with his playful but politically sharp multiracial “Wee Pals” comic strip.

More here.