That's pretty much how I felt when I first heard about Jeff Chang's Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Seriously, if someone can spend his whole adult life being an academic who just thinks and analyzes the world all day, and then pulls all of the thoughts in his head about race and identity and multi-culturalism in America and somehow mixes that with visual arts, comics, advertising and how all of those things influence politics... then I think the world is a better place for it.
From the book description:
Race. A four-letter word. The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.
I first heard about Who We Be on Racialicious, and then it was serendipitously, prominently displayed at the library. So I grabbed it immediately and dropped pretty much every other thing in my life (including my new obsession Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, thank you very much, Ana).
I have noted down so many quotes from this book. Right from the beginning, when Chang states that:
Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about what we see. In that sense, it's bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes and bonds.and then onto why people who say "I don't see race" drive other people crazy:
...Let us act as if we had always recognized the greatness of artists we once (and still) objected to seeing. It restated the lie of color blindness: I refused to see you before because of your color, and now that you have revealed my blindness, I see you *despite* your color.This is a densely written book. There are many artists presented here that I don't know, references to works of art with which I am not familiar. But much of the book is very accessible, and there are a lot of important themes that resonate throughout it. What I mean is, it's worth the work.
Those hoping for some sort of resolution or solution will be disappointed, though. Chang's book is a retrospective about how American has approached and reacted to race over the past several decades; it is not a treatise on how we can all live happily ever after. In fact, Chang does more to highlight issues and inconsistencies and disturbing situations than he does anything else.
What I found particularly powerful in this book was just how politicized race has become, even as we have changed the language around race. Clearly, being racist is now frowned upon, so instead of using loaded terminology, politicians now use the language of economics to push for or against immigration, welfare reform, the national debt, and education.
The education piece in particular spoke to me - America's schools have been undergoing a rapid resegregation even as the country becomes more and more a "majority-minority" culture.
At the risk of making this less a review than it already is, I will share here some of the quotes that really gave me "a-ha!" moments while reading:
"Johnson's dis was part of a maddening continuity. In an earlier generation, critics had dismissed artists of color by calling their work 'identity art.' Now that a new generation of artists of color was 'post-identity,' critics were still uninterested in the questions of race they were raising. The world had been colorized, but the art world remained colorblind."
"The future of America is in this question: Will the baby boomers recognize that they have a responsibility and a personal stake in ensuring that this generation of largely Latino and African-American kids are prepared to succeed?" - Stephen Klineberg
"In a broad 2007 study of almost 19,000 subjects, a team of scholars from Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of white parents never or almost never discussed race or ethnicity with their children. Some of the parents didn't think it was a big deal. Others genuinely did not know how to talk about race so they avoided talking about it altogether. Many of those parents ... believed teaching their children not to see race was the proper way to teach them how not to be bigoted or racist."
Who We Be also introduced me to this amazing comic strip, Wee Pals, written by Morrie Turner, which features kids of all races having open and adorable conversations about important topics.