It almost seems antithetical that Blackness and Coolness are as interwoven as they are given the short shrift Black life has always been given in this nation. Who wanted to be us -- we the less than human. We the mules. We the wild-eyed crazies, the whores. These are among the most common of stereotypes about Black folks, and yet even those most guilty of perpetuating them know they're not just flawed. These notions are irrefutably lies. Black Cool shows us this convincingly with the brilliant and historically rooted voices it contains that counter the very stereotypes of who Black folks are.
Rebecca Walker, mother, author, essayist, activist and also daughter of the famous Pulitzer Prize winner whose last name she shares, has been for more than a decade making quite a name for herself as a public intellectual, exploring issues of race, motherhood and family.
In her most recent offering, Black Cool, an edited volume that features writers like dream hampton who ghosted Jay-Z's, Decoded, fashionista and culture queen Michaela angela Davis, and new mother, Jamaican poet and LGBTQ activist StaceyAnn Chin, Rebecca holds an open dialogue on the question: What is Black Cool?
And why now? Why at this moment in our timeline must we hear the voices Rebecca has gathered? Because the essays this collection contains creates a solid counter narrative to the mythologies that allow a 250 pound man armed man to kill a 140 pound "suspicious" Black boy who had just bought skittles for his little brother -- and to do it with, as of this writing, impunity. This book Black Cool is vital one for this time, for this place. Listen in to what Rebecca and her fellow brilliant minds have to say and then join her in pushing ever forward the notion of who Black people really are, and what Cool really looks like.
You talk about being impacted the moment you watched Obama claim his place on the national dais and knew you were seeing Black Cool board Air Force One. But as Blackness extends beyond Obama, what does this book teach all of us about all the ways in which Coolness does too?
One of my mentors at Yale, the great anthropologist and art historian Robert Ferris Thompson, has documented that three of the most important words, and thus, concepts, brought to these (and other) shores via Africans are Cool, Funky, and Hip. My argument follows: you can no more separate Black from Cool than you can separate French cooking from France, or yoga from India. Cool has African roots, period. We, Black people, bring the aesthetic of Cool to the table of global culture, and should be recognized intellectually and economically for doing so.
Defining Cool is a more complex endeavor, and one the book attempts.
Elaborating on the traditional West African definition, which includes ideas like reserve, compassion, dignity, grace, doing the right thing, and holding oneself still in the face of all manner of conflict and chaos, I've added other elements I recognize in Black Cool as seen in individuals and pieces of work created by Black people (and channeled by non-Black people, intentionally or not) including Audacity, Resistance, Authenticity, Community, Intellectual Engagement and Rigor, Spiritual Engagement and so on.
Identifying these elements allows us to recognize a cosmology or way of moving through the world that has sustained Black people in the Diaspora for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We see these elements of Cool in the practices and philosophies of Black people known and unknown. This cosmology, when it is intact, is often expressed wordlessly through an aesthetic and way of being that expresses itself everywhere from the runways of Paris, NY and Milan, to the White House; from prison cells in Angola, to the highest levels of academia. From huge families in the rural South to households headed by single mothers in the urban North and West.
When Dubois and Dr. King talk about Black America being the moral compass of America, they are talking about Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, and authors like you, asha, who speak out with audacity and integrity about injustice. This voice, full of intention, is a manifestation of the Cool. It is a variation of doing the right thing.
Keeping your head in the midst of chaos, maintaining dignity no matter what, being the example of a better way. Modeling what is right according to the principles of Black Cool.
Did you find in reading, editing and compiling these essays that there are false versions of cool -- either externally or internally imposed? And what do those false ideas about who we are mean in the day and age of Trayvon Martin?
The case of Travyon Martin stands apart, or alongside, other cases where vulgar and racist interpretations of who we are, who African American boys and men are, allow white hands to kill them. But expanding beyond the case of the killing of this innocent boy, and in addition to arguing for the rightful recognition of the roots of Cool, I authored this book to be proactive; to give young people especially a sense of what Black Cool historically has been, and can be in the future. The book maintains that Black Cool has been terribly degraded and, well, reversed, in this generation. For example, certain aspects of hip-hop culture took the essential elements of Reserve, Resistance, and Authenticity and turned them into gangsterism, hyper-masculine and patriarchal posturing, and a perverse focus on consumerism, otherwise known as Bling.
From Air Jordans to gold teeth and huge diamonds, this generation thinks that Black Cool is something to buy, put on, acquire. They don't understand that it's something they possess internally. Black Cool is a way of being, a human modality that doesn't need money to manifest. You can use objects to express it, but if you don't have it on the inside, if you don't get that Cool is about dignity and grace and restraint and style and personal authenticity, you are as far from real Black Cool as you can be.
Another obvious example of this disturbing reversal, this false version of Cool, is the notion popular among some black youth that they are "too cool for school." This is not part of Black Cool as it has lived for centuries. Intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge, not ignorance, has always been Cool in Black communities. This current iteration is part of a new narrative of American Black cool designed to undo, not uplift. It must be resisted for the sake of our children and our collective future.
What were you most surprised by in these essays, these definitions of Black Cool?
I was most surprised by how difficult it was for the writers in the book to actually write the essays. Black Cool is often ineffable -- that is, you know it when you see it, but it's very hard to put into words if it hasn't been decoded or understood as the result of cultural ideas, decisions, and psycho-spiritual beliefs. I was surprised that writers had such a difficult time imagining Black Cool as something separate from a history of oppression and suffering. It was very hard for them to imagine that part of what is positive about their very beings and behaviors comes from a powerful and positive tradition transcendent of slavery and brutality.
At the same time, I was surprised and deeply inspired by what the writers did find and express. The conversations leading to their pieces were revelatory and empowering for both editor and writer. We created new language together, unearthed new and fundamentally affirming terrain, and that was fantastically exciting and energizing.
We built something fresh; something that I hope will stand the test of time and influence many in ways big and small. The honesty and intelligence alone are worth the price of admission.
If you could influence public dialogue, how would you want the learnings from this collection discussed?
Cool is not an amorphous mode of expression lacking cultural roots.
Cool comes from somewhere, and that place is Blackness, period. Black and Cool are inseparable. I hope people leave the book with a respect for Black culture and its role in global aesthetics and discourse that they didn't have before.
Black Cool is much more complex than it appears and deserves to be read with a more nuanced eye as it manifests in various ways. Instead of seeing just sagging pants, for example, I want people to see Black people using whatever meager means they have -- in this case, in prison -- to express themselves creatively, and this is fundamentally a statement of their humanity in the face of a system that seeks to destroy any shred of dignity and individuality they have.
This is not to say that the mainstreaming of "prison aesthetic" is desirable or even acceptable, but it is to say there is more to it than meets the eye, and that instinct should be seen for what it is before it is pathologized and summarily dismissed.
Further, in the context of a post-racial narrative, Blackness still has an important and very real place that should not be erased, ignored, degraded, or assimilated without explicit credit and/or remuneration. Quite the opposite: it should be built upon, included, and utilized by the progenitors of it: the keepers of the Cool.
How do you define your own Cool?
I don't know if you can self-define your Cool, because that takes away from it somehow, injects arrogance in a realm where humility reigns.
But after discussing the book at Albany State University in Georgia a few nights ago, a student in the audience asked if I thought I was Cool. I turned the question back on him. Do you think I'm Cool, and why? His, and the answers of the other students were beautiful and instructive. They said Yes! Because I have the courage to speak out with confidence, because my smile suggested openness to connecting with them as a community, and because I seemed so "real" and authentic. One woman said she thought I was Cool because I was so calm.
That said, anyone who follows my work knows that I certainly engage audacity, authenticity, and relative calm under fire. I always try to do the right thing. Intellectual engagement is woven into every fiber of my being. And, of course, I like nothing more than to rock the incredible work of my favorite designers -- aesthetic beauty and personal style, put together in my own, unique way -- feeds my spirit.
What do you most want people to take away from this collection?
I want people to rediscover parts of themselves they forgot they had; to find their own Cool. I want them to acquire another lens through which to see a people and a culture. I want them to emerge from the book renewed and refreshed: Cool.