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.
Each year, when the new model of Air Jordans was introduced, every Black kid I knew, rich or poor, was trying to get those "sneaks." A crisp, clean pair of brand-spanking-new Air Jordan sneakers was a supreme status symbol for anyone who wanted to be cool and "down with the streets."
One kid could be heard saying to another, "Yo! Did you see the new Jordans? Them joints is fly, yo!" A typical response would be "Yeah, man, I got them on layaway" or "They're fresh, but I still like last year's better!" The latter was code for "my mom can't afford them."
The average outsider looking around the projects or a dilapidated inner-city neighborhood might not even have imagined that teenagers were wearing shoes that cost nearly the equivalent of an entire month's rent. The visitor might have wondered, Why not trade the shoes in and move to a better neighborhood? But that would have defeated the purpose of buying the shoes. The point was to be in the concrete jungle and dress like a million bucks. That defiance was the essence of Black cool. It was one way for poor youth to defy the weight and gravity of their social class.
Cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson points to the origin of this inner-city consumer craze: "Madison Avenue sends the message to acquire material goods at any cost, and that chant is piped into Black urban centers where drugs and crime flourish."3 Dyson asserts, "Black youth learn to want to ‘live large,' to emulate capitalism's excesses on their own turf. This force drives some to rob or kill in order to realize their economic goals."4 The wealth and success of Black athletes, entertainers, and certain successful criminals upped the ante for the average young Black male, who wanted to show the world that he was valuable. Exhibiting the "look" of wealth and power (e.g., gold chains, leather jackets, luxury cars — or anything else the market deemed valuable) was integral.
Nike's greatest success in elevating its shoes to larger-than-life status came with the pairing of Michael Jordan and Spike Lee in the "It's gotta be the shoes!" television and print ad campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the commercials, directed by Lee, he reprises his ultra-dorky wannabe, Mars Blackmon, from the 1986 film She's Gotta Have It.
In the ads, Mars is infatuated with Jordan's superhuman basketball talent and how everything (even women) seems to come to MJ so easily. Unable to fathom that Jordan could achieve that much success based on his own merit or cool, Blackmon draws his own conclusion: "It's gotta be the shoes!"
These commercials garnered street credibility by featuring two prominent and inventive Black males debating the powers of a specific product. The product in these ads alternates between Black-male prowess and the shoes. Jordan epitomizes all that is virtuous in a young Black man, while the scrawny, hyperactive, big-square-glasses-wearing Lee is the antithesis of sex appeal, talent, and cool. He makes unabashed appeals to the camera: "Is it the shoes? Is it the extra-long [Nike] shorts? Come on, money, it's gotta be the shoes!" Cultural historian Paul Gilroy has a more critical reading:
[The characters are] revealed as emissaries in a process of cultural colonization, and Mars Blackmon's afterlife as a Nike advertisement is the most insidious result. Through that character above all, Lee set the power of street style and speech to work not just in the service of an imagined racial community but an imaginary Blackness which exists exclusively to further the interests of corporate America.5
As Gilroy charges in his critique, this campaign blatantly displays how black vernacular English (aka Ebonics) and hip-hop signifiers are appropriated in the mainstream marketing of consumer goods. With a hip-hop beat as the soundtrack and Mars Blackmon's B-boy attitude and gold medallion, what Nike is actually selling is thinly veiled. The dorky little thug has all the accoutrements of cool, but he knows he can't really attain authentic coolness (Blackness, in this case) without the symbol of Jordan's power — his shoes. Goldman and Papson find that "it is a strange paradox that the realer the talk that is appropriated, the more the act of appropriation ends up romanticizing resistance and turning it into style."6
This was the secret to selling cool to Black folks: Impose the dream on the thing and have them continue to strive for it. Impose the image of freedom on the label and have them brand themselves. Cool was sold to me at five years old, at nine, at thirteen, and time and time again through numerous ads, displays, and commercials that reached my peers, too, their bodies branded with labels that seemingly gave them the power of cool.
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.
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.