What's at the Heart of Black Cool?
"Soul" is explored in this excerpt from Rebecca Walker's tome of essays decoding our swagger.
To my dismay, I found myself more akin to Mars than to MJ. To make matters worse, the red "magic slippers" didn't work for me. I remained earthbound and Air Jordan-less, with no real athletic talent.
Not like my cousin Songha; the shoes worked for him. He was a senior, had varsity letters in five sports, was on the honor committee, and led the multicultural forum at our school, Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, the alma mater of John McCain.
In 1991, I moved from New York City, the epicenter of racial and cultural mixing, to this all-white-all-boys boarding school steeped in Southern tradition. Confederate flags were common in the dorm rooms as a symbol of "Southern pride." My grades were average, and I couldn't play sports.
The only reason I got in was because they thought I would be the next Songha, the epitome of cool. But, after seeing me take a jump shot, basketball star Andre Gilbert looked at me with scorn. "You ain't Juice's cousin!" That was Songha's street name in North Philly. I was blessed with the name Hank -- which most often got the response "What kind of name is that for a Black guy?" In other words, Andre made it clear that I had no chance at being cool.
At lunch, all the Black kids would sit together and play the dozens -- "joning," as they put it in D.C. "You helmethead motherfucker, you can't say shit"; "Hank, you look like the Black Bart Simpson. Didn't I see you on a T-shirt somewhere?" Typically, I had no comebacks. Songha, on the other hand, was always ready. "Man, look at you jokers," he would say, "looking like a buncha ... "
It didn't matter what he said -- nobody could ever really top it. He was the captain of the basketball team but, amazingly, never too cool to hang with anybody. He was as comfortable, confident, and content around the nerds as he was with the boys with Dixie flags and racist tendencies. You could find Songha in their rooms, greeting you with a smile and a wink as they jockeyed for his attention and validation -- just like the rest of us.
I was on the other end of the spectrum. I got beat up for challenging a wrestler with Confederate statues in his room. All year long, I rode the bench in football, wrestling, and track. A defining moment was when a white kid named Hunter Brawly gave me a lesson on race in a room full of Black boys. Hunter broke down my lack of cool to its essence: "Man, I'm Blacker than you. I can dance better than you, I can play ball better than you ... as a matter of fact, you don't even talk Black!" I could see by the faces of the other boys in the room that he must have had a point. I was Black in label only.
The next year I transferred to Duke Ellington School for the Arts, a predominantly Black school, and probably one of the coolest places to go to high school. Digable Planets, Stevie Wonder, Jodeci, and Hillary Clinton and the like would pop in regularly for visits. This school was the polar opposite of Episcopal. There was a Black pride assembly virtually every week. The few white, Asian, and Latino kids usually sat there looking a little perplexed.
One thing didn't change, though: I was still an outsider. "Hank! What kind of name is that for a Black person?!7 You can't dance! Why you talk that way? You shyyy!"
Things began to turn around for me during my junior year, when a group of us discovered alternative hip-hop groups like the Hieroglyphics and songs like "93 'Til Infinity," by Souls of Mischief. We formed our own crew of "bohemians."
Likesixtiesfunkywormswithwavesandperms. Justsendin'junky rhythms right down ya block. We be to rap what key be to lock ... But I'm cool like that ...
We discovered Digable Planets' Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space album (1993), took it literally, and called ourselves Earthbound. We were a consortium of graffiti writers, hip musicians, dancers, and actors led by the few Afrocentric girls in the school. Ironically, we were the only integrated clique at Ellington. At first we were cast off as weirdos, but by graduation we were iconoclasts.
Looking back, I recognize that I learned everything I needed to know about race and cool in those years. I remember that one white kid was treated differently than the others: "Topaz ain't white, he's cool!" He played the saxophone and sported a top hat (no brands), spoke to everybody like a friend, and always had a paper bag of funk tapes in his backseat. Like Songha, he always seemed comfortable in situations where others might have looked or felt out of place. It seemed effortless, authentic.
I began to notice that the coolest kids weren't the ones who could perform Blackness or whiteness the best; they were the ones who could flow seamlessly from metaphorical coast to coast without a ruffle. They weren't changed by situations, labels, or peers; peers, labels -- rather, situations -- were changed by them. They were adaptable. Songha and so many of my friends revealed in their special ways a message about cool that contradicted what corporate America was selling -- that cool comes from within.
Although it hadn't hit me yet, the disparity between what the brands were promising me and the gifts these people possessed was deepening greatly.