Scholar / Writer Jeff Chang Speaks on Latest Book, Who We Be
Much has happened since Jeff Chang dropped his Hip Hop history, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, roughly a decade ago. Since its release, the book has become a seminal case study on the genre and Chang has been recognized as a leading contemporary cultural scholar.
With his latest, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, available this month on St. Martin’s Press, Chang revisits themes covered in his previous work with a much larger cultural lens. In it, he tells the story of the multiculturalism movement and asks if, with each successive “most diverse generation ever” (a phrase he admits has turned cliché), America has really progressed as much culturally as we tend to believe.
Chang will be reading excerpts from Who We Be and participating in a panel discussion at MACLA on Thursday, October 23. He will be joined by CultureStrike’s Managing Editor Yahaira Carillo, multidisciplinary artist and writer Edward “Scape” Martinez, and activist Julio Salgado, a co-founder of DreamersAdrift.com.
After unsuccessfully pitching the story of multiculturalism to his editors, Chang revised his concept in 2008 when he saw the idea at play during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and subsequent victory. He saw just how divided public opinion seemed to be over Obama’s campaign and recognized the newly minted President as a flash point for his argument. In many ways, Obama’s campaign victory was seen as a sign of America’s progress as a multicultural nation; conversely, the stiff opposition and stinging attacks that mounted against him told a very different story.
“At that point, it was clear that the culture wars that had started in the 70’s and the 80’s around the multiculturalism movement hadn’t ever ended,” recalls Chang, who then went about re-imagining his concept. “My editor came back and encouraged me to really develop that through-line, [and] that’s where Who We Be came from.”
Chang attributes that ferocity of opinion to America’s inability to talk through the many racial differences and inequalities that still exist domestically today.
“When you have discussions about race in the US, they’re so limited because people of good will are afraid to talk about inequality in a very transparent and open kind of way,” he notes. “As a result, the discussion gets hijacked by these insane idiots all the time. As long as that happens, we can’t actually get to a place where we’re ‘beyond’ race. You’ve got to go through race to get beyond race.”
For Chang, Who We Be is his effort to try and guide such needed conversations to a more thoughtful place. As he explains, “I’m hopefully trying to get to a place where we can raise the level of the conversation.”
A potent contemporary cultural scholar, Chang’s work has appeared in a plethora of national publications, among them The Nation, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, URB and the Village Voice. He’s currently Executive Director for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.