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.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS
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!
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.
In 1981, I got my first pair of Nike shoes. It was around this same time I learned that I was “Black.” At the time, I saw no connection between the two. I was only five years old, and statistically more likely to be dead or in jail by twenty-one than to be in college. But I didn’t know anything about that; I just knew that I liked the color blue. So when my mom got me blue canvas shoes with blue suede patches at the toe and heel and white leather Swooshes on both sides, I just stared at them in amazement. Something about them was special.
One night, as we rode on a graffiti-covered New York City subway train, I asked my mother, “What does the word on the back mean? Nike?” She didn’t know. I asked, “What does the white design on the sides of the shoes mean?” She didn’t know the answer to that, either.2
Though I asked a lot of questions in those days, I never asked my mother what being “Black” meant, even though I was becoming more aware daily that I was branded with that label, too. In retrospect, I doubt she could have explained that, either. At that age, I didn’t yet see the connection between getting my first label and discovering my racial label. I was unaware of advertising, semiotics, peer pressure, cool, or even racism. Now I marvel at the depth of the significance of my childhood fascination with a simple visual symbol, so cool that it motivated a generation to be its flag bearers.
There’s no way to prove it, but I would argue that almost every urban American child from the 1980s remembers the first time he or she heard of Michael Jordan or his shoes. I will never forget when I first saw them: Nike’s Air Jordans. It was 1985, and my mother and I were at a Foot Locker in a New Jersey mall. All I can remember thinking was, Wha … ?! How could they make such a shoe?
They were high-top sneakers with a drawing of a winged basketball on the back and Nike Swooshes on each side. As if the style were not cool enough, the store display rocked my nine-year-old world with a giant poster of a Black man wearing the red shoes, frozen in midair! With echoes of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in my mind, I marveled, They can make you fly! Just like that, I’d been indoctrinated into the cult of cool.