What's at the Heart of Black Cool?

"Soul" is explored in this excerpt from Rebecca Walker's tome of essays decoding our swagger.

Michael Jordan and Spike Lee

The following is an excerpted chapter from Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, a collection of essays edited by Rebecca Walker. The foreword to Black Cool was written by The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and The Root will co-sponsor a book signing and panel discussion this Friday evening, Feb. 17, 2012, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. The event, hosted by Teaching for Change, starts at 6:30 p.m., and Rebecca Walker, Helena Andrews (both contributors to The Root), Johnica Reed and Jamyla Bennu will speak.

To learn more about Hank Willis Thomas, read this interview he granted to The Root. 


What is soul? I don't know! Soul is a ham hock in your corn flakes. What is soul? I don't know! Soul is ashy ankles and rusty kneecaps! What is soul? I don't know! Soul is the ring around your bathtub!

            What is soul? Soul is you, baby. Soul is you!

-- Funkadelic

The generation before me was defined by soul. Soul was a virtue born out of the spirituality of gospel, the pain of blues, and the progressive pride of being the standard-bearers of civil rights. They were stylish like Shaft, but noble like Martin. They sang on Sunday mornings, after "sangin'" on Saturday nights. They pressed their thrift store suits with so much starch that the bare-threaded knees were as stiff as if they'd just bought them new at Brooks Brothers. Almost everyone was poor, so there wasn't any shame in it.

Not my generation. We were defined by "cool," an emotionally detached word that provokes a cold response to the world with a narrowly focused ambition for its ice, its bling, and its things. We heard stories of our parents and grandparents fighting for the right to be fully recognized Americans. We saw some folks from the neighborhood come up -- way up. They became ballers, rappers, hustlers, actors -- even a few doctors and lawyers. On TV we saw it happening right before our eyes: the Jeffersons, the Cosbys, Jesse Jackson running for president, and Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Whitney Houston dominating the airwaves.

But the majority of us saw the dreams, passions, and hopes of our parents dashed by the regression of a Black community linked to the welfare system, project housing, rising unemployment, deteriorating education, addiction, and an increase in Black men in the penal system. Good Times and What's Happening!! were funny in the 1970s, but by the eighties they were in reruns and the joke seemed to be on us.

Something broke in the community spirit of my generation. "Easy credit rip-offs" and "scratchin' and survivin'"1 didn't add up to "good times" anymore, so we rejected soul and turned back to cool. But not that Miles Davis, John Coltrane kind of cool. That was too old school. We became fully legitimate Americans -- capitalists -- more concerned with getting that money and "My Adidas" than being "Kind of Blue" and singing "We Shall Overcome." Nobody was makin' it talking about "we" -- it was all about "me." Civil rights slogans like "I am a man" were adapted for the hip-hop audience to say, "I am the man." Our community focus shifted inward -- everyone was out for self. We were primed, and corporate America was prepared for our long-awaited integration into mainstream American commerce.