JENINE HOLMES with Rebecca Walker
Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness
(Soft Skull, 2012)
More than eight decades ago, Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance writer, served as an anthropological Matthew Henson, in search of new territories of discovery for authentic African-American stories.
Today, Rebecca Walker, author of Baby Love, and Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, has gathered and edited the work of 21st century African-American writers, essays that center on the unlikely, ineffable subject of Black Cool.
Far from the common take on tread-worn riffs, Walker’s collection is a smart look beyond the boundaries of gender, class, and sexual orientation, aiming a unique, lens on modern definitions of blackness in America.
Jenine Holmes (Rail): In this post-Obama American landscape, how have ideas of blackness and Black Cool changed?
Rebecca Walker: It’s been helpful to see Black Cool move into the White House. Black Cool is bigger than Miles Davis and hip-hop. It’s an aesthetic that, at its best and most understood, embodies a complex and highly moral cosmology. Real Black Cool is inseparable from intellectual rigor, caring for the larger community, and cultivating a stable, healthy family. Viewing Black Cool, and blackness, in this broader way is an important shift in American culture.
Rail: More than eight decades ago, from 1928 to 1932, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to the American south on a kind of anthropological search for authentic African-American stories. Did you set out with a similar goal with your essay collection Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness?
Walker: I suppose, yes. Luckily, I didn’t have to travel too far. I either know, or am familiar with, the work of so many great black thinkers and writers; it was just a matter of turning their beautiful pens toward the subject. That was a challenge: Write me a piece about the ineffable. Find an element of Black Cool and tell me a story about how it works in your life and the world. Not an easy assignment, and truth be told, many writers were unable to do it.
Rail: I understand this project had its first ember during your undergrad years at Yale. How did it resurface?
Walker: I saw an image of Obama in the 2008 campaign getting out of a town car. He was wearing shades, had his jacket thrown over his arm, and emerged from the car with this crackling but calm energy. Everyone agreed he was the epitome of cool, and I had a sense, after studying with Robert Farris Thompson at Yale and looking at the ways African culturalisms are built into African-American art and expression, that there was something distinctly black about the way Obama manifested cool. According to Thompson, three words came to these shores from West Africa with slaves: funky, hip, and cool. From that point on, the project became about decoding that image of Obama, and reclaiming cool as inextricable from blackness—like hula in Hawaiian culture, or yoga in Indian culture—and exploring the implications.
Rail: I noticed many of the essays written by male writers centered on perceptions of coolness through the lens of their maleness and black art forms such as jazz, and even rock through Jimi Hendrix’s reinvention of musical forms. While female writers such as Michaela Angela Davis and Veronica Chambers focused on their internal landscape of coolness, how it shaped their blackness and their view of the world. Your thoughts?
Walker: It wasn’t surprising that many of the women explored the subject in a more personal, interior way because we still live in a culture that sees the external as masculine, and the internal as feminine. I made a conscious effort to stack the deck with more women writers though, because Black Cool is so often located on the bodies, and in the lives and perspectives of black men. My ultimate point is that the elements of Black Cool—authenticity, reserve, audacity, and so on—transcend gender. You see as much audacity of Black Cool in a young woman fighting off a rape—as dream hampton writes about in her essay—as you see in a black man with a Muslim name running for President of the United States.
Rail: The works I enjoyed the most centered on the areas of personal definition and change. The essay “Reserve” by Helena Andrews, regarding the mask some African-American women wear in the corporate world, and at times, in our personal friendships, was striking. Do you think this is a relative theme for many black women in today’s society?
Walker: Absolutely. And what I love about Helena’s essay is her skillful excavation. She shows that reserve is an important mechanism black women use for self-preservation and maintaining dignity, but if worn too long, it can become a suffocating mask that robs the wearer of joy and, to a larger degree, the ability to feel, well, anything.
Rail: Since the 1980s, African-Americans have moved from owning a personal sense of cool, shifting into a marketing mindset where one buys cool, illustrated by the essay where the writer was obsessed with owning a pair of Air Jordans as a child. However, during this same historical timeline, Black Cool has been co-opted and mainstreamed like never before. In today’s world, everyone from national newscasters to society debutantes is utilizing “cool” language without a thought of its source. Your thoughts?
Walker: This is certainly one of the reasons I felt compelled to author the book: to reclaim and reassert the cultural specificity of cool, and to remind the world that cool is encoded with ideas that are redemptive and sustaining, ideas that have less to do with materialism and more to do with resistance, intellect, integrity, and authenticity.
Rail: In 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London held an exhibition, Black British Style, a detailed retrospective on fashion as a modern, evolving expression of the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic. Your essay collection brings that idea to a deeper level of examination. Any thoughts of holding lectures, tours, or conferences in the future?
Walker: Yes, there are several projects in the works. An app is in development, as well as an online portal where people can upload their Black Cool—kind of a Pinterest for Black Cool. Also, photographer and contributor Dawoud Bey and I will be speaking on Black Cool and its commodification at the Studio Museum in Harlem in October. There is another exciting project in the initial stages. Stay tuned.
Rail: What wisdom will you pass on to your son, Tenzin, on the subject of Black Cool?
Walker: My parents always told me to express myself. They meant be myself: smart, bold, and soulful. That’s my birthright, and Tenzin’s, too.