What's at the Heart of Black Cool?
"Soul" is explored in this excerpt from Rebecca Walker's tome of essays decoding our swagger.
Topaz and I wound up both going to NYU. I noticed that he and the other white kids from Ellington became even cooler once they were reintegrated into white peer groups.
One night I ran into him and he invited me to a club that I got into solely because of his cachet. I felt awkward because I was wearing overalls and didn't drink or smoke, like everyone else around us did. I complained to him about how I felt. Topaz took a drag from his cigarette, looked me in the eyes, and said, "If you didn't like what you were wearing, why the fuck did you leave the house that way?"
His words hit me like a ton of bricks. He was right. Why had I left the house looking like a farmer? The answer was clear as day: because I had felt like it! So why be ashamed? Who cared if people didn't get it? I was still the same guy whom Topaz wanted to kick it with and whom Songha proudly called his little brother. I could flow.
A few months later, Songha revealed his secret for winning people over. We had just glided past the velvet rope at an exclusive club, when I asked him (for the millionth time), "How'd you do it?" He said, "With a wink and a smile." After I prodded him for further explanation, he told me, "They don't know that I only have five dollars in my pocket. It doesn't matter! You see, Hank, I'm the richest poor man alive."
Songha's wealth was in his spirit. He believed in himself, so others did, too. I suppose that's why they called him Juice -- his charisma was electric, though he preferred to be called Eclectic. It was 2000, the dawn of the era of bling, but it didn't matter if he had the most material value, because he had an inner confidence that no one could knock down.
Not long after I had this revelation, Songha was murdered while leaving a club in Philadelphia. The killers were robbing Songha's friends for platinum and diamond-encrusted chains. The quest for legitimacy had shifted from acquiring Jordans to getting flashy chains -- more valuable than community, more valuable than people's lives, or so it seemed.
People wanted more than $150 sneakers. They wanted to be "big pimpin'," with Jay-Z's money. In that materialistic frenzy, a teenage boy told his friends, "I'll be right back, I wanna get a chain." Then, for reasons still unknown, he took the only thing of value on Songha's person that night. Not the silver chain I had brought back to him from Carnival in Trinidad, not the $20 in his pocket -- just his soul.
The words of a friend, when he heard the news, still echo in my mind: "The worst part about this is that we don't have to ask if the killers were Black." He turned out to be right (the crew was caught two months later at the same club, after murdering someone else on a quest for a chain). But the question burned in my head: Why? Over the years, I've come to understand that there are many reasons, but most of all, the killer didn't have someone like Songha to tell him the secret. Otherwise, he would have better understood the value of soul and not forsaken it for cool.
1. Lyrics from the theme song to Good Times, the American sitcom that originally aired from February 8, 1974, until August 1, 1979, on the CBS telveision network.
2. I later found out that the name of my shoes was Nike Cortez, for the conquistador who colonized the inhabitants of Mexico for Spain in the fifteenth century and "discovered" California. I find irony now in this, in light of the strong likelihood that Mexican sweatshop workers manufactured the shoes. But when I was five years old, those things didn't matter much.
3. Michael Eric Dyson. Between God and Gangsta Rap (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 58.
4. Dyson, 58. Also, Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 2002), 76, in which Klein cites a broader trend, " ... where the hip-hop philosophy of ‘living large' saw poor and working-class kids acquiring status in the ghetto by adopting the gear and accoutrements of prohibitively costly leisure activities such as skiing, golfing, even boating ... Once Tommy was firmly established as a ghetto thing, the real selling could begin -- not just to the comparatively small market of poor inner-city youth but to the much larger market of middle-class white and Asian kids who mimic black style in everything from lingo to sports to music ... Hilfiger's marketing journey feeds off the alienation at the heart of America's race relations: selling white youth on the fetishization of black style, and black youth on their fetishization of white wealth."
5. Paul Gilroy, Small Acts (London: Serpents' Tail, 1993).
6. Nike Culture, 102.
7. I was always ready with my list of Black Hanks, including baseball player Hank Aaron, college basketball player Hank Gathers, and jazz great Hank Smith, to no avail.
This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Soft Skull Press.