Rebecca Walker, no stranger to controversy, talks about her latest book, on the coolness of blackness
There’s a scene in the orginal Men In Black that, like most other scenes in the movie, shows alien-fighting partners Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in their now-familiar crisp black suits.
“You know what the difference is between you and me?” Smith asks Jones as the camera zooms in on him sliding his pair of black sunglasses onto his face. “I make this look good.”
This scene of two outrageously confident men with fantastical job descriptions sporting identical outfits is of interest to the artist Rebecca Walker because one of the two men—the black man—is inexplicably and undeniably cooler than his partner.
“There’s something about that scene,” she told a crowd that gathered to hear her speak at the Soho bookstore McNally Jackson Wednesday evening, “that embodies my book.”
The book, from local indie publisher Soft Skull Press, was the reason she was there. A new collection of essays called Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, is edited, or curated, by Walker; for it she called upon a group of black writers and academics to help articulate and assert the idea of black coolness—the underlying reasons why Will Smith wears a suit differently from Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, for example.
This passage of Walker's in the book perhaps best encapsulates its mission:
“You have seen the picture. In it, Obama emerges from a sleek, black Town Car wearing dark sunglassses, a suit and a red tie. That is all, and yet, in this picture, Obama is indisputably cool. He is so, so cool I cannot turn away from the image. I want almost to eat the image, to ingest the cool, but what I really want to know is what makes him so cool in this picture. I want to know if that ineffable quality can be decoded, understood as the sum of its parts.”
The authors of the book’s 16 essays offer up a collage of accessible personal narratives, academically-argued theories, and historical examples that investigate the question whether coolness is somehow inherent in black people.
The pieces range from a deeply intimate recollection of the night the hip hop journalist and cultural critic dream hampton narrowly escaped rape as an adolescent, to Ulli K. Ryder’s recollection of her experiences with black punk music like H.R., Bad Brains, and Fishbone.
Writer and foodie Veronica Chambers discusses black chefs and the meaning of soul food as a call to arms, while culture critic and FurtherMucker.com founder Miles Marshall Lewis navigates the importance of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix in the context of his own personal evolution.
The essays contained in Black Cool weave together the many threads of cultural touchstones and keywords from Toni Morrison, to contemporary American hipsterism, to Juvenile’s 1998 single “Ha,” to Michelle Obama, the Harlem Renaissance, Mars Blackmon, and too many more to list. Together the effort is to contextualize them all in the lineage of "cool."
“We all eat and appreciate French food,” Walker told me over the phone recently. “And at the end of the day we say, ‘Wow, the French do this really, really well.” With Black Cool, Walker wants to make a similar sort of appreciation of black culture and coolness an explicit element of the cultural dialogue about the black experience.
"It’s deeper than a superficial read of cool,” Walker said.
Of course there is an essentialism here that would seem to conflict with many of the academic and cultural ideas that put Walker's art on the map in the first place. An American patchwork herself, much of Walker's career has been about deconstructing overarching themes of gender and racial identity rather than codifying them.
Her widely-loved early memoir Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, chronicles her experiences straddling racial and cultural lines and finding her own ways to crack them rather than enforce them. As the daughter of Alice Walker, famed activist and author of The Color Purple, and white Jewish attorney Mel Leventhal, Walker was bounced between her divorced parents’ disparate communities, growing up in both her father’s predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York and her mother’s in San Francisco. She’s also a bisexual who’s helped raise a child with another woman. If there has even been a strong icon of multiracial, multicultural identity in contemporary America, Walker is one, and most of her body of work focuses on the fluidity of her roles.
But recent books like Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? or Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black are raising the question whether the postmodern identity politics of the '90s erase too much of the "essence" of black experience, whether there is the danger that in all of that talk something like a black legacy was being erased.
And so an entire book proposing a set of traits, under the umbrella of "coolness," that is essential to blackness is, while still a controversial effort, very much of the moment.
“We’re at a moment where there’s this discourse of post-racial America,” Walker told me. “There’s a real resistance to things that are moving in the other direction. So it was a big thing for me to do a book that asserted a claim to blackness or to a specific racial narrative.”
Walker said she doesn’t intend for Black Cool to be definitive, explaining that it’s largely a book about aesthetics. Still, her arguments are strong and energetic, and came to life during the Q&A session that followed Wednesday’s reading. One audience member made the somewhat uncomfortable suggestion that Quentin Tarantino has, as a white man, come to epitomize black coolness.
“That’s like saying people who do yoga are Indian," Walker said. "We can’t be so open that we deny the validity of one truth.”
Walker told me she began to consider the validity of biological truths years ago when she found herself longing for a baby, something her mother viewed as a feminist betrayal—so much so that the two have become estranged and haven’t spoken in years.
Walker gave birth to her son Tenzin, who is now seven, and wrote the somewhat controversial memoir Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. With that memoir, she admitted to the uneasy fact of loving her biological son more deeply than she could a non-biological child. Like Black Cool, it’s a reconsideration of ideas about inborn traits.
“Not everyone has a maternal instinct, but many, many of us do,” Walker told me. “And the biological clock is real. It’s not a concept of the patriarchy. Both of these books, Black Cool and Baby Love, assert a kind of biological or genetic or essentialist view.”
Walker now lives in Maui, where she and her seven-year-old son have a new context in which to place ideas of racial identity.
“When you’re mixed with black in Hawaii, it’s not as polarizing,” she said. “Tenzen doesn’t come home talking about race like kids in big cities in America do.”
In Hawaii, Walker’s established a deeper take on what initially inspired her to compile an entire book navigating the idea of black cool—Barack Obama.
“I think about President Obama growing up in a place where the tendency is not to balkanize on the basis of blackness,” she said. “I think Obama really was shaped by that sort of cultural soup [in Hawaii], and the tendency toward wanting everyone to get along and to do the right thing: Pono.”
That's the Hawaiian word for goodness, virtue, righteousness.