In November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, Jeff Chang and his wife, Lourdes, sat in their house openly weeping tears of joy. Meanwhile, their two sons, now of high school and college age, sat on the couch watching their parents in bewilderment. At the time, they didn't fully understand the significance of the United States electing its first African-American president.
Earlier this month, Chang sat inside of a small café in South Berkeley, not too far from where he lives, and recalled that night. On top of being a husband and a father, Chang is a well-known journalist, author, and the executive director of the Stanford Center for Diversity in the Arts. Behind the round frames of his glasses, his face contorted as he took a break from his beverage to express the similarities between being a father and a professor — especially when it comes to the differences between generational knowledge.
"I was suddenly confronted with all of these gaps. Students would know hip-hop, but they wouldn't know where it came from," said Chang, who was wearing a shirt that read "Sedgwick and Cedar," a nod to the intersection in the South Bronx where hip-hop was born.
"There were these wide swaths of American and global history that they just didn't have any access to," he continued. "So, it put me on this path to thinking: What is my responsibility to pass on to these students, as well as my kids?"
Chang's writing has, in part, been about filling those gaps by introducing important information, interspersed with historical happenings and current cultural and political events. His latest book, a collection of essays entitled We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation and released this week, is an exploration of the current state of race in America. He covers everything from the 2014 police-shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — and its aftermath — to what Beyoncé's latest project, Lemonade, taught us about navigating the five stages of grief in order to create healthier relationships.
Chang is perhaps best known for his first book, Can't Stop Wont' Stop (2005), which documents the origins of hip-hop — not just the emceeing, DJing, and break dancing; but the urban renewal, factory closures, and complex social contexts that brought to life what some hail as the last great American art form.
Chang's second book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (2014), explores demographic and cultural shifts in the U.S. during President Obama's terms. "The central idea of Who We Be was thinking about how the way we see race has changed, and not changed," said Chang. "That led me to the notion of segregation and resegregation."
And that's what Chang tackles in We Gon' Be Alright. In a chapter titled "Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs: On Resegregation," he covers topics ranging from the way people of color who live in the suburbs are segregated from wealthier white suburbs, to the displacement "domino effect" that hit the Bay Area — starting in San Francisco, then rapidly expanding to Oakland and the greater East Bay. "Gentrification is key to understanding what happened to our cities at the turn of the millennium," Chang writes. "But it is only half of the story. It is only the visible side of the larger problem: resegregation."
Through seven sharp essays, the book examines contemporary issues widening race and class divides. In the chapter "Is Diversity For White People: On Fearmongering, Picture Taking and Avoidance," he recalls the time that the University of Wisconsin superimposed the image of an African-American student onto one of its promotional pamphlets. And in "The In-Betweens: On Asian Americaness," he takes an introspective look at his racial identity, asking where he and other Asian Americans stand in the discussion of race in America — a conversation that is often seen as Black and white.
Throughout, Chang prompts crucial questions about what it means to be an American today. Who really benefits from diversity? How did spirituality play a role in the Ferguson protests? What did Beyoncé's Lemonade teach Americans about grief and how can "transformative justice" be used to reconcile broken relationships?
"Transformative justice is the concept that, in the end, there is an interconnection between the person that has caused the harm and the person who has felt the harm," said Chang. "The ultimate end is not just to restore wholeness to the one who has been done harm, as well as the one doing harm. It's to transform them into a higher state — a transformation of the relationship, in other words."
Each time an incident occurs that pushes race to the forefront of the national conversation, reactions include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In We Gon' Be Alright, Chang unpacks these "stages of grief" by making examples out of a few historical moments: 1965, the year of the Watts Rebellions; 1992, the year of the Rodney King rebellions; and our current era of taped police brutality incidents and protests.
In the essay "What A Time To Alive: On Student Protests," Chang writes: "The most difficult thing to do is keep the 'race conversation' going, because its polarizing modalities are better at teaching us what not to say to each other than what to say; better at closing off conversation than starting it."
In order to resolve these issues of racial and class divisions, not just in terms of housing — but education, policing, and more — it's going to take a continued discussion. That's what Chang hopes to inspire. While many believe empathy is the missing element to these discussions, Chang believes that it's going to take that and more.
"Empathy seems like a necessary condition. You need to be able to have that capability for empathy in order to step forward into a new relationship. But, in order to get to that new relationship, there's a lot more distance that you have to travel."
Although Chang is somewhat of a walking encyclopedia of world history, grass-roots political uprisings, and hip-hop culture, he's adamant about not having all the answers — especially when it comes to questions as loaded as the ones laid out in his new book. But when asked about the pressures of being the hand that writes history, Chang said he feels a sense of responsibility to get it right and capture truth beneath the surface. Along with being a precise storyteller, information giver, and an advocate of asking questions, he also aims to give his audience hope.
"I also want to leave the reader with the sense of, 'Okay, let's do something about this, let's figure this out,'" he said. "And it's not that I always know. In fact, I usually don't know the answer. That's why you write."
Despite the daunting reality of American race relations that Chang untangles in his newest book, the self-proclaimed eternal optimist, makes one thing clear: We gon' be alright.
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