Rebecca Walker: Black is Cool
“…you can no more separate Cool from Blackness than you can separate Hula from Hawaiians, or Yoga from Indians, or French cuisine from the French. “
Rebecca Walker is cool. The origins of her cool aren’t located in some unquantifiable “swag,” nor is it strutting down a Fashion Week runway, cooing in a music video, or residing in a pulpit oratory whose cadence conjures protests of Southern trees bearing strange fruits. It isn’t even found in her casual Soho clothes or Noxema-clear complexion. Rebecca Walker’s cool stems from a mind, talent, experiences bred on both coasts (New York City and San Francisco, to be exact), and a pedigree of accomplishments that puts to shame many a slacker son and daughter of the 1%. Through her latest edited collection, Black Cool: A Thousand Streams of Blackness, one would say that Walker cites the ground-spring of her cool in a residence both less and more obvious, depending on your embrace of stereotype and level of social consciousness—her Blackness.
Biracial, bisexual, but far too multi-talented to be binary in any other way, for two decades Walker’s tackled the tough subjects of identity, community, power and justice placing her own life and experiences at the center of her discourse and making “the personal political” mean more than a lefty slogan. Considered one of the founding mothers of Third Wave Feminism and a leading multimedia voice from the Gen X generation, the Yale graduate and long-time contributing editor of Ms. has demonstrated all the modern renaissance woman can be. Whether working punditry at CNN or MTV, touring the college lecture circuit to inspire a generation of fresh, eager-eyed feminists, or writing the books they’re all talking about, including: To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self; What Makes A Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future and Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After A Lifetime of Ambivalence, the multiple award-winning Walker’s proven herself more than her last name.
Given all these lofty accomplishments, it seems almost bad manners to mention that Walker is the famously estranged daughter of womanist activist and Color Purple author Alice Walker. Named one of The Advocate’s “40 under 40” and Time Magazine’s “50 Future Leaders of America,” Rebecca Walker has beaten back broadcast-whispered charges of nepotism with a grinder’s aplomb. It’s her tenacious talent that’s kept her pinnacled as a sought-after voice and frequently published cultural critic of note. Hers and the gifts of her talented circle are on earnest display in a work about a much dog-eared subject of “Black Cool” without the social science “pathology” invocations that usually accompany the subject. As you’ll see, for Walker the subject is so much more than a dissected “cool pose” leading to jail or hell. It’s as multi-faceted as the lady herself.
You chose these writers specifically to take on the task of making the ineffable effable. What about their talent and vision felt in synchronicity with you and your premise?
I chose a group of highly talented, prolific writers who, at various points in their lives, have created work that epitomizes Black Cool in its audacity, innovation, measured reserve, and/or concern about the necessity of black survival. dream hampton has led the charge in audacity for over two decades writing about and living hip-hop revolutionary culture. Her recent confrontation with Too Short about his inappropriate comments about young girls shows you how she handles the business of showing up for the show down with brilliance, grace, audacity, and thus, cool. Mat Johnson is a pioneer in graphic novels and the black superhero—he’s innovating, adapting, creating a new form. He’s a hybrid, himself, mythic, inscrutable cool. Michaela has worked as a stylist with everyone from Aretha to Prince; Michaela channels, distinguishes, feels, knows, breathes black cool. She delivered a genius rant (which I consider a legitimate literary form) about owning black cool. I chose writers I knew could deliver the goods with verve. Writers doing amazing work in the world. Writers who care about empowering and uplifting, and looking good while they do it.
Everyone focuses on “the cool,” but why the subtitle, “A Thousand Streams of Blackness”? Is it a subtle rejection of the enduring black monolith myth, of a singularly defined black cool?
Yes. When I originally conceived of the book I saw Cool itself in terms of one thousand, or even one million, streams of blackness, with each aspect, each stream, manifesting differently. I was drawn to the explosive visual of it, the multiplicity, the invitation to diverse manifestations of the cool, the idea that the streams of blackness reach back historically like beams of light, that Black Cool brightens the sky, that all of its beams shock and shatter, that the streams are infinite. If we really take it back to say, Egypt, we could say, Black Cool shoots forth from the sun. But that’s not where we ended up. Now I think it as One Thousand Streams: JUMP IN!
Do you believe–as our culture embraces capitalistic values at every turn–that a true black cool aesthetic can be bought and sold as yet another appropriated commodity, like jazz?
Yes, I was compelled to edit this book because of my concern about the disappearance/appropriation/assimilation of Black culture, and how it can so easily be subsumed opportunistically within a post-racial, hyper-capitalist narrative to catastrophic effect.
I studied with Robert Ferris Thompson at Yale, the pioneer in articulating the Afro-Atlantic Aesthetic. Thompson taught that three words came to these shores with Africans: funky, hip, and cool, and the cosmology, or meaning, beneath these words is rich and complex. Thus, you can no more separate Cool from Blackness than you can separate Hula from Hawaiians, or Yoga from Indians, or French cuisine from the French. There is a world view expressed through Black Cool that is part of our cultural contribution, and we need to more deeply understand its value rather than selling it for free or buying into the notion that Cool is something generic and sort of naturally, non-specifically occurring.
So yes, the aesthetic can be bought and sold, but this book is about not that. It’s about learning and reclaiming. It’s about decoding a Black cosmology that spans thousands of years and predates slavery because we need the elements of the African cosmology of Cool to survive. If the Cool is bought and sold and diluted and separated from Blackness, we lose. This book is about winning.
As the mother of a seven-year old boy, what about inherently embodied “black cool” do you hope he embraces and what aspects of black cool do you pray he avoids or purges, if any?
Black Cool is about audacity, resistance, intellectual passion, dignity, perseverance, style, the importance of family, and more. I want my son to have all of that. I don’t want him to pick up a degraded Black Cool that is packaged and sold back to us in the form of hyper-consumerism (bling, etc.), hyper-masculinity (problematic male-female relationships), and anti-intellectualism (too cool for school). Those have not been a part of Black Cool until this generation, and I could go on about the reason why, but readers should check Hank Thomas Willis’ piece in the book for greater insight into this.
From Obama to Shaft, so much of cool in the public’s consciousness seems to be the province of masculinity, either by sex or performed gender. Is cool ever feminine?
I stacked the book heavily with that in mind. Out of 16 pieces, only four are written by men. The point is to show that the elements of Black Cool transcend gender, even though we often see them represented in the male body for a whole host of reasons I don’t want to get into here. But audacity, reserve, eccentricity, swagger, focus on the posse, intellectual engagement: The Cool is in the content, baby, it’s in the cosmology. My job in this book was to show how women embody all of it too, how we manifest these underlying truths passed on through generations.
So much of what is styled, designed, and accepted as cool by the mainstream, both black and white, originates from the Black LGBT margins but credit is rarely paid, making “cool” de facto straight. How do you feel these intersections and dismissals were tackled in the work?
Again, the contents of cool are ideological, spiritual, they exist in the realm of ideas and aesthetics and they do not discriminate on any basis—class, creed, who you sleep with. But yes, Black Cool has been been magnificently cultivated and sustained by those of us who live in the Black LGBT margins. I’m thinking of everyone here from the boys who vogue to the eclectic funk of Meshell Ndegeocello. Of course I could go on. In terms of how the intersections are tackled in the work—the collection includes writers from across the spectrum and emphasizes the transgressive nature of the Cool. That is, its lack of containment or ownership based on gender or sexual orientation.
Your book quotes Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool,” with its ominous warning, “we die soon.” What does the epidemic of so many too “soon” deaths of our cool ones (and wannabe cool ones) say to the Black community, and does our cool now hurt us more than it helps us?
I just can’t with this question. I’m totally talked out regarding Black Cool, Trayvon and the hoodie, men in jail and sagging pants, hypercapitalism (bling) and its suicidal undertow, and hypermasculinity and its suicidal/homicidal imperative. The book tries to reclaim the Cool that can help, and reframe the cool that can hurt.
Being Freudian about it: is cool code for sexual prowess, or is it always in relation to the sexual? Is it ever more than a wink and a nod toward being sexually valuable or desirable?
Black Cool is sexy, no doubt. But the sexy comes from the mind as well as the body, the substance as well as the style. It’s deep sexy. It’s smart. It’s multi-layered fine.
What do you hope to be the legacy of this work and the discourse it sparks?
First and foremost I want people to begin to identify Cool as culturally specific. This doesn’t mean people can’t adopt, assimilate, borrow, emulate, etc., but it does mean they should be more conscious they are “borrowing” from another culture and respond in kind—be it through explicit referencing of the source, or financial remuneration. I mean for Cool to be respected as an aesthetic tradition with a powerful coda, a sophisticated set of signs. And for the creators of that Cool to be respected and compensated accordingly for the genius they bring. I really want young people to find this book and realize cool is much more than the reductive options they’ve been given. I want to suggest that they draw from the roots of Cool, and branch out from there to find their own expression, their own pose of magnetic genius.