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'Who We Be': Jeff Chang Examines Multicultural America

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The iconic Coca Cola commercial "admitted a possible multicultural future beyond whiteness," according to Jeff Chang in his latest book.

Jeff Chang's award-winning 2005 book "Can't Stop Won't Stop" examined how the rise of hip-hop over the last four decades predicted today's cultural politics. His follow up book, the recently released "Who We Be" from St. Martin's Press, builds on his previous work and explicates how Americans view race and how this perspective has evolved over the last five decades. This week L.A. Letters reviews Chang's extensive narrative as it moves from the civil rights era to flashpoints like the birth of multiculturalism, the conservative backlash against it, heated debates in the art world, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots through the election of Barack Obama, to the aftermath of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Following in the footsteps of cultural historians like Ronald Takaki, Mike Davis, and Howard Zinn, Jeff Chang is a meticulous scholar adept at tackling interdisciplinary subjects and weaving it all together in an organized and cohesive narrative. "Who We Be" is not only a sequel to "Can't Stop Won't Stop," it also picks up where Ronald Takaki's book, "A Different Mirror," left off. Originally published in 1993, Takaki's narrative retells American history from the bottom up through the eyes of Native Americans, African-Americans, Irish Americans, Asian Americans, and Latin Americans. "Who We Be" skillfully carries this thread forward and brings us up to date on how Americans understand race in 2014.

Chang is the right author for this work for a number of reasons. First, he is currently the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. Furthermore he also studied with the great Ronald Takaki earlier in his collegiate years two decades ago. They were both Hawaiian born as well.

In the introduction he writes, "We live in an era in which the primary social schism is not that between so-called red states and blue states, but between those stuck on monoculturalism and a singular 'American way,' and those comfortable with demographic change and cultural difference; those fearful over the great America in danger of being lost forever, and those hopeful about the one being made anew; those stuck in black-and-white, and those living in color."

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"Who We Be" is divided into three sections of five chapter each. Part 1, titled "A New Culture," begins in 1963 and shows how the changing demographics in America over the last 50 years brought about new perspectives on race and culture as well as innovative and progressive art forms. Chang reveals these changes and their influence through discussions on comic strips, fine art, regional politics, advertising, literature, poetry, and music, among many other topics. The depth and breadth of his cultural literacy shines through on every page.

Chang connects the dots over 40 years between the forgotten African-American comic artist, Morrie Turner, and Aaron McGruder, the artist behind the popular contemporary comic strip, "Boondocks." Turner's work in the late 1960s and early 1970s included "Wee Pals" and "Kid Power." Turner's influential comic strip led to four top-selling paperbacks and even a cartoon series of 17 episodes on ABC that aired in 1972 opposite Bill Cosby's CBS cartoon, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." Turner's work was ahead of its time and made profound commentary on race with a multicultural cast of young characters taking amongst each other. As Chang writes, "Turner had anticipated multiculturalism's obsession with positive representation and America's fetishization of diversity."

In addition to spotlighting forgotten artists like Morrie Turner, Chang also shows how brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi used multicultural campaigns over the last 50 years to expand their markets. First Chang showed how Pepsi's progressive and inclusive ad campaigns leaped out ahead of Coke during the Civil Rights era. Pepsi embraced African-American consumers and even created customized commercials in the spite of Southern prejudice and segregation. As he writes, "Unlike Coke, Pepsi had positioned itself on the right side of history." A few years after this, Pepsi created their campaign targeted to what they called, "the Pepsi Generation." Chang presciently notes that, "A paradigm shift had begun. Pepsi had staked its future on youth, women, and African-Americans -- vanguard buyers who embodied postwar optimism and the largest reserves of unmobilized demand. Meanwhile, Coke was still aiming for the median America -- the white, middle-aged suburban professional, the mirror image of the image-makers themselves."

Chang shows how a few years after this Coke changed with the times and in 1971 they created their now iconic commercial where a multicultural cast sings, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." This ad and song shared the spirit of another popular song released around the same time, the Burt Bacharach song, "What the World Needs Now is Love." The significance of this ad, writes Chang, was that it "admitted a possible multicultural future beyond whiteness." Several chapters after this, Chang shows how Benetton picked up this theme and took it even further for over a decade.

Another very illuminating chapter deals with the rise of the multicultural art movement in the Bay Area during the 1970s. Spotlighting writers and poets like Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Janice Mirikitani, and the Filipino poet Jessica Hagedorn, Chang tells the story of a new multiracial counterculture that emerged in Berkeley and San Francisco around 1975. In publications like "the Yardbird Reader," and in poems like the "Neo-HooDoo Manifesto," these voices announced the movement. Chang writes, "Reed was describing multiculturalism as the next step in the great American march to freedom. The civil rights movement had been concerned with bringing down legal barriers to integration. The multiculturalism movement would concern itself with bringing down cultural barriers. The turn from politics to culture would pivot around the concept of difference."

In the second part of the book, titled 'Who Are We," five chapters cover the years from 1980 to 1993. Focusing especially on the period now referred to as "the Culture Wars," Chang documents philosophical battles in the world of fine art and the conservative backlash to the rise of multiculturalism during the 1980s. One element of the backlash involved defunding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"The battle over the NEA," Chang explains, "effectively destroyed the argument for public culture. Almost alone among the wealthiest nations, and also many of the poorer ones, the United States had all but abandoned a commitment to the national arts." Moreover, Chang writes, "The attack had been framed around question of religion, obscenity, and taxes, but in practice it had been accomplished through the targeting of queers, women, and artists of color of the new avant-garde."

'Yardbird Reader' was part of a new multiracial counterculture that emerged in the Bay Area in the 1970s
'Yardbird Reader' was part of a new multiracial counterculture that emerged in the Bay Area in the 1970s

Chang details several instances of these battles in the fine art world, including several involving Los Angeles artists. One example is Daniel Joseph Martinez, an artist originally from the Lennox district just east of LAX. Martinez had originally attended CalArts and had grown up in the years just following the Chicano Movement. Unafraid of critiquing the status quo, Martinez caused great controversy with one of his pieces that was exhibited in the Whitney Museum in 1992-93. Chang shows the resulting backlash and how it almost derailed Martinez's art career. "For the generation of artists who would follow," Chang writes, "the lesson had been learned -- say what you want, but you might be punished."

In the third section of the book, "The Colorization of America," Chang covers the last two decades. He highlights moments like 9/11, the election of Barack Obama, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the DREAM Act in order to analyze, "the paradox of the post-racial moment." He also looks at the subprime mortgage scandal and the foreclosure crisis of the last seven years.

In the Epilogue, Chang takes readers to the Mojave Desert and the city of Lancaster. This section first shows the housing boom and then eventual bust that has afflicted Lancaster over the last two decades and what it says about contemporary America. As Chang writes, "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."

The final passage of the book is particularly poetic. The author observes six multicultural students in Washington D.C. at the National Gallery of the Arts in front of Byron Kim's painting "Synecdoche." The piece contains 429 chipboards of wood arranged closely, and each chip is colored a slightly different tone to reveal the subtle variations within the spectrum from pink to bister. Looking at the piece, the students attempt to find their skin color in the large painting. The last sentence of the book reveals Chang's compassion and hopeful vision for the future: "And each of the six raise their open hands, seeing the colors of their fingers and the colors of the painting through them, searching for themselves and for each other, seeing together anew, as if they are reaching out to touch the future."

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All in all, "Who We Be" thoroughly and thoughtfully examines all of the factors concerning race in America over the last 50 years with a clear-eyed perspective. Included within the narrative are many potent photos shot by Brian Cross, a.k.a. B+, and they complement the poignant prose. Chang does a brilliant job at highlighting each decade and the meaning imbued in every period. Most importantly, he is initiating one of the most critical conversations of the American future and the 21st Century.

"The story of colorization of America," Chang writes, "is worth telling because, even as it reminds us that only a painful process of illusion-burning can bring us to see things anew, it also suggests our faith in democracy is renewable. And, finally, it is a story that -- at least right now -- cannot help but have fewer answers than questions. Perhaps in times of massive change like this, the questions, not the answers, are the most important thing."

Chang will be appearing at two events in Los Angeles this week. First he will be at UCLA on November 5 at 4 p.m., and on November 6 he will be at Loyola Marymount University. For more information visit his website here. Salute to Jeff Chang for writing this important work. "Who We Be" will be read for years to come and is a game-changing book in the landscape of American and L.A. Letters.

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