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Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America

Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America

by Jeff Chang
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Race. A four-letter word. The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.
During that time, the U.S. has seen the most dramatic demographic and cultural shifts in its history, what can be called the colorization of America. But the same nation that elected its first Black president on a wave of hope—another four-letter word—is still plunged into endless culture wars.
How do Americans see race now? How has that changed—and not changed—over the half-century? After eras framed by words like "multicultural" and "post-racial," do we see each other any more clearly?
Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress. In this follow-up to the award-winning classic Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang brings fresh energy, style, and sweep to the essential American story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312571290
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 7.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jeff Chang's first book was the award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He has been a USA Ford Fellow in Literature and was named by The Utne Reader one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World." He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

Who We Be

The Colorization of America

By Jeff Chang

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Jeff Chang
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-57129-0




For all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd.

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The night of Barack Obama's presidential victory in 2008, the eighty-six-year-old cartoonist Bil Keane called his old friend Morrie Turner, a sprightly eighty-four years old himself. Turner was working on his strip Wee Pals in the office of his tiny bungalow in South Berkeley, leaning over his woodgrain, worn Leitz drafting desk, tracing and embellishing the pencil outlines in India ink on Bristol board. A Law & Order rerun played on his tiny black-and-white television, unwatched. For Turner these were familiar rhythms, warm comfort. At that moment the last thing he wanted to see or hear was the news.

Keane's strip, Family Circus, had launched in 1960, the year before Obama was born. Daily he drew the antics of his suburban children in a single round panel, each installment like a portrait-miniature of white boomer wonder years. Five years later, days before Malcolm X was assassinated, months before the Voting Rights Act was signed and Watts burned, his friend's strip Wee Pals debuted. Its launch made Morrie Turner the first nationally syndicated African American cartoonist. Turner's strip presented an urban, multiracial group of kids figuring out how to get along. Nothing like it had ever been seen on the funny pages.

Keane and Turner had formed their close bond as pacifist World War II vets on a USO trip to Vietnam in 1967. Keane would introduce a Black boy named Morrie into Family Circus at about the same time Charles Schulz added Franklin to Peanuts. Both were tributes to Turner and, in the context of the comics, small acts of desegregation. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Cities were on fire. Blackness was suddenly in demand. Wee Pals went from six newspapers to more than a hundred. For Turner, success was bittersweet. Privately, he would say that it was guilt that got him into the papers.

The hopeful children of Wee Pals belonged to a gentler universe. They were a vision of a post-segregated American future that still seemed so far away. So even in the worst of times Turner would labor on, certain that it was the country that needed to come around to his kids' world, not the other way around. Was Obama's candidacy a sign that that day was finally coming to pass? People had begun using a strange word—"post-racial." Did it mean racism was over? Or just images of racism? Was the word just another form of denial?

Turner had told friends he was happy that Barack Obama was running, but he was terrified Obama would be killed while trying. And now on election night he was sure a Black man, even this one, had zero chance of becoming president. His friends had invited him to election-watching parties. Morrie declined them all. Work was a shield against despair. The night would end. The campaign would be over. The kids would go on.

But at 8:00 p.m., when the polls at the seniors' center around the corner closed and the festive whoops on the block began, Turner's phone rang. It would ring all night. Old friends wanted to share the breathlessness of the moment. Into the bright streets people were swarming, delirious with music and the suddenly cantering rhythms of history. There still were not the words for all the new images.

Bil Keane had called his old friend with congratulations. Through Wee Pals, Keane told Turner, he had helped set America on a path to this historic moment. Turner tried to find the words to reply. Finally, he said to Keane that it was only the second time in his life he had ever felt like an American. Keane was about to ask Turner what he meant, but he stopped.

He heard Turner sobbing.


Like many other forms of American pop culture, comics arose partly from a potent brew of racial fascination, temptation, and debasement. In 1895, two decades before D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid became the first broadly popular cartoon character. The invention of the Kid probably owed something to Charles Saalburg's Ting-Ling Kids, who had debuted in color a few months before the Yellow Kid's first appearance. The Ting-Lings were "Chinese" only in the way blackface minstrelsy was "Negro."

As the cartoon scholar Christopher P. Lehman put it, the funnies relied on caricature and ridicule. For Blacks in the late nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, that meant the antic humiliation of slaves, mammies, and Sambos; for Chinese, the exploitation of alienness. Cartoon Blacks and Chinese were not representations of blackness and yellowness. They were representations of whiteness—the laughs were found in what whites were not. Once real Chinese were legally estranged by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, cartoonists could tame the strangeness left behind, transform the "yellow peril" into a Yellow Kid.

Outcault drew his boy with huge ears, buck teeth, and a big yellow nightie. The result seemed a refined Ting-Ling, a simplified Chinaman. Unlike the silk suits, the Yellow Kid's taut garment—which, because the boy also wore a pretty, vacant smile, doubled as a thought balloon—needed little detail. The shaved head eliminated the mandarin hat and the Manchu queue. Slant eyes were replaced by round blues.

The Yellow Kid was alien, urban, loony, and instantly accessible. He became a killer app for the tabloids, helping elevate the reps and circs of both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Outcault's creation is remembered by history because he had gone beyond Saalburg's Ting-Lings. He had shifted the focus from what whites were not to what whites were.

The Yellow Kid put the bustle and thump of the streets of New York—where immigrant, white, and Black kids were beating out a new national language of play—right onto his nightie: "Dis is a new piece we're pla'in." Yet if street culture could sometimes be leveling, the emerging national visual culture was the opposite. In the 1896 strip "The Yellow Kid's Great Fight," a Black boy—drawn with a monkey face and round white lips—was knocked out by the Kid, then humiliated by a goat. By the final frame, the goat had taken the gloves from the Black boy—he had no name, was simply referred to as "dat nigger"—and the smiling Yellow Kid's nightie read, "Dat goat took my part cause I am a kid."

Whiteness was the power to define, appropriate, and transfigure. Relocation programs, forced-assimilation projects, anti-immigration laws, and court rulings on racial classification were about defining who could be white. Jim Crow was about defining who was Black—and so it was about who could not be white. In the popular culture, whiteness acted fluidly, displacing and absorbing all the strands of non-whiteness and finally masking itself, while remaining center stage. So in the funnies, over the next half-century, the little Black Sambos and whitened Yellow Kids disappeared, and in their place animals took over the show.

Strangely—or maybe not so strangely—this development was traceable to a singular trio of a mouse, a dog, and a Kat invented by a New Orleans-born, Los Angeles-raised biracial Black genius. George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913 to 1944, was a thoroughly American invention.

Krazy was a black cat in love with Ignatz, a white mouse. Ignatz repaid that with bricks to the head, which Krazy took as signs of tender affection. The white Offissa Bull Pupp expressed his own love for Krazy by chasing down Ignatz and locking him up. It was almost like the Civil War restaged as a bizarre love triangle, full of desire and philosophy and race-bending and gender-shifting and broken English and brick-throwing—race and jokes and casual brutality whipping round in circles in a bright American desert of primary colors.

Herriman played with black and white, in life and in art. His grandmother was born in Havana. His parents were listed as "mulatto" in public records and his own birth certificate read "colored." But when he died, "Caucasian" was written on his death certificate. Before Krazy Kat, Herriman's strip Musical Mose wrung laughs from the ways a blackface Mose attempted to pass for white. When he invented Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pupp, he broke out of minstrelsy's conventions into something new—a quintessential American story of identity, with characters whose destinies depended upon each other, where all of the hurts and laughs came through intimate moments of recognition and misrecognition.

But the animals that followed Krazy, Ignatz, and Pupp, especially the cartoon ones, revived minstrelsy in new ways. Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny picked up the big eyes and lips, white gloves, and sideways grins. This "blackface design," as Lehman calls it, was efficient. Inky bodies with big eyes eliminated the need for detail and provided instant comic context.

Many of the neo-minstrel animals were endowed with yes-we-can optimism and improvisational genius and, when sound—specifically the looney merrie sound of African American music—hit the cartoons, a whole lot of rhythm. Mickey was a corked-down jazz-age mouse. Bugs was a Brooklynized Br'er Rabbit. When the animals appeared with Black characters, they appeared more human than the humans, freer than the freed. Eventually the animals also erased kids of color from the funnies page, except for a few remaining Sambo characters.

Blackface design and neo-minstrelsy streamlined processes in another significant way. The whitened vaudeville mouse and the urbanized trickster rabbit shouldered the rise of industrial-era entertainment empires. If a national popular culture was forged in nineteenth-century minstrelsy, twentieth-century cartoon neo-minstrelsy helped propel the development of American visual culture.


After World War II, NAACP protests against the major studios—Warner Bros., Walter Lantz, Paramount, and others—helped end the era of neo-minstrelsy. By the 1950s, Jackie Ormes was flipping Milton Caniff's flyboy adventure scripts with Torchy in Heartbeats, a strip featuring the Beyoncé-esque character Torchy Brown, in search of racial justice, hot fashion, and sweet love in faraway places. Oliver Harrington, whose comic-strip character Brother Bootsie was an ordinary Harlemite dealing with the follies of racism and protest, was fleeing the House Un-American Activities Committee to join expats like James Baldwin and Chester Himes in Paris. Ormes's and Harrington's works could be read only in Black newspapers.

If such history felt weighty, Morrie Turner's characters shrugged it off. In the first Wee Pals strip, published on February 15, 1965, Turner introduced three of his principal characters: Randy, an Afroed Black boy in a smart cardigan; Oliver, a clean-cut, overweight, white Spanky McFarland preppie with huge spectacles; and Turner's alter ego, Nipper, the soul of the strip—a small, unathletic Black child possessed of a gentle trickster wit.

In Alabama, civil rights demonstrators were about to march into a month of deadly clashes with white supremacists and state police. But Turner drew—and would always draw—Nipper's eyes covered by a Civil War–era Confederate soldier's hat, the better to call attention to the boy's perpetual smirk. In that debut strip, Nipper spent the first three panels parading in front of Randy and Oliver waving a rebel flag. "Obviously," Randy remarked to Oliver, "American history is not a required subject of the kindergarten class."

In later strips, Nipper would learn about the Civil War. But he chose to keep the hat. "We pardon in the degree that we love," he'd tell Wellington, a mop-topped, turtleneck-sporting white kid.

The blackface animals were gone. Instead Turner drew kids—usually in midrun on the way to play—having profound discussions about race and community. Youth—as Alain Locke, the herald of the Harlem Renaissance and the savant of Black visual culture, had once put it—speaks for itself.

The ink on the Civil Rights Act had not yet dried. The Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were soon to be signed. But Wee Pals already belonged to the future. Oliver introduced the neighborhood kids to each other. Here was Peter "the Mexican-American," George "the Oriental," Rocky "the full-blooded American Indian," and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was "a Afro-American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother."

"And what are you?" Peter asked Oliver.

"Very careful!" Oliver replied.

The expanding Wee Pals cast would include Ralph, an "Archie Bunker-type character" who served as a narrative foil, a deaf girl named Sally, and a fireball feminist named Connie. She tormented Oliver, because the only hole in his Berkeley-raised political correctness was his gender insensitivity. It was up to Sybil Wrights, a sensitive and sensible Black girl, to check and correct Connie's temperamental excesses.

When the neighborhood baseball team needed to come up with a nickname, the boys began arguing, coming up with names that might befit a sequel to The Warriors. George suggested "The Yellow Dragons," Rocky "The Redskins," Jerry "The Mitzvah Boys," Randy "The Black Bombers," Paul "The Brown Destroyers." It fell to Nipper to suggest the obvious choice: "The Rainbows." Jesse Jackson might have been taking notes.


Morrie Turner was born on December 11, 1923, the youngest of four boys. His parents had met in New Orleans, that first great continental city of miscegeny. His mother, Nora, had attended Southern University and worked as a teacher and a nurse. His father, James, shined shoes until he secured a job as a Pullman porter, working the line to Chicago. By the time Turner was born, they had settled in West Oakland, California, not far from the transcontinental railroad terminus.

Much later, television producers—led by a young exec named Mike Eisner who would go on to build a "Disney Renaissance" on cartoon films like The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan—began adapting Wee Pals into a cartoon renamed Kid Power. They asked Turner where he had come up with the idea. "I told them I lived it. West Oakland, believe it or not, because it was the Depression, it was totally integrated," Turner said. "We were all poor—yeah, ghettoized—but there were all the races there."

From his mantle Turner would pull down a photo of his 1929 kindergarten class at Cole Elementary. The sepia photo had faded, yet the picture bore more color than the American imagination could handle for decades to come. Among the thirty-seven children, there were seven Blacks; six Mexican Americans; two Chinese Americans; a Japanese American; and the Native American girl with the heart-shaped face, the object of his unrequited crush. Some held teddy bears or rag dolls. Three of them waved American flags. Turner pointed out the friends who took him to their Portuguese festivals, Jewish synagogue events, and Chinese lunar New Year parties. "You didn't know what the heck was going on, but you knew there was a lot of food there," he laughed.

While his father was working the rails, the boys ran to the park, played games, or headed to Yosemite Gym to box. His brothers were well known in the neighborhood; elders called them "the fighting Turners" with equal parts exasperation and bemusement. Morrie preferred spending time reading Krazy Kat, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Terry and the Pirates, and drawing imaginary friends. When he was twelve, he wrote to Milton Caniff asking for advice on how to be a cartoonist. Caniff answered with a letter that was six pages long, typed and single-spaced.

When Turner's schoolwork wasn't going so well, he dreaded the days his father returned from Chicago. In the middle of the last beating Turner received, the boy dove under the bed and scampered like a sand crab from one end to the other until his father was laughing so hard he gave up. "I learned the value of humor that day," Turner said.

War broke out. The Japanese American family across the street disappeared. Turner graduated from Berkeley High in 1942 and was drafted. On his way to Kentucky to join the 477th Army Air Forces Bomber Group, an all-Black unit that served as one of the feeders for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, he encountered segregated facilities. At the base, hostilities ran even higher. Turner had arrived shortly after the Freeman Field Mutiny, a proto–civil rights protest in which Black officers desegregated a white officers' club. Over 160 Black airmen had been arrested in the aftermath, and two of the group's squadrons had been inactivated.


Excerpted from Who We Be by Jeff Chang. Copyright © 2014 Jeff Chang. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Seeing America

Part 1: A New Culture, 1963–1979

Chapter 1 Rainbow Power: Morrie Turner and the Kids

Chapter 2 After Jericho: The Struggle against Invisibility

Chapter 3 "The Real Thing": Lifestyling and Its Discontents

Chapter 4 Every Man an Artist, Every Artist a Priest: The Invention of


Chapter 5 Color Theory: Race Trouble in the Avant-Garde

Part 2: Who Are We? 1980–1993

Chapter 6 The End of the World as We Know It: Whiteness, the Rainbow, and

the Culture Wars

Chapter 7 Unity and Reconciliation: The Era of Identity

Chapter 8 Imagine/Ever Wanting/To Be: The Fall of Multiculturalism

Chapter 9 All the Colors in the World: The Mainstreaming of Multiculturalism

Chapter 10 We Are All Multiculturalists Now: Visions of One America


Part 3: The Colorization of America, 1993–2013

Chapter 11 Post Time: Identity in the New Millennium

Chapter 12 Demographobia: Racial Fears and Colorized Futures

Chapter 13 The Wave: The Hope of a New Cultural Majority

Chapter 14 Dis/Union: The Paradox of the Post-Racial Moment

Chapter 15 Who We Be: Debt, Community, and Colorization


Dreaming America

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