It’s been about a million degrees in New York, so I’m reading Rebecca Walker’s Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness. Technically, I’ve been reading it since before the heatwave hit, but whatev. It’s easier to think about Black cool than Friederich Schleiemacher – which is what I should be wrapping my brain around. And that’s saying something. Because it’s actually not at all easy to think about Black cool. Black cool is vexing. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. starts off his introduction to the collection of essays with the line
There are 400 million Black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be Black.
But what struck me as I read the collection is how often this idea of “masks” flows through the streams.
Rachel Harper, in her essay “Crazy” writes “As Black people we wear masks, some that say, I’m okay, I’m normal, I’m nonthreatening, and others that say, I’m strong, I’m invincible, I’m cool. We hide in plain sight.” Helena Andrews in “Reserve,” (this beautiful essay about the way black girls learn to build a wall of survival) writes of coming home from school to learn that her mother was in jail: “the first time I put on the mask…it felt good. I was cool. I had to be-to keep from falling apart.” Andrews calls it “that steely look of detachment,” “the side-eye, the B-girl stance, the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement, and the denial of emotion during slavery. Stoic reserve.” The problem with the mask is that, if we’re not careful, it can become a trap – a wall that we can’t pull down.
As prominent as the mask is this idea of being comfortable in one’s own skin. More than one essayist writes about the geek, the iconoclast, the eccentric – so uncool. Except, there’s something about this being comfortable in one’s own skin – what StaceyAnn Chin calls authenticity. Black style, Black hip, the break, Black blues, Black soul, Black jazz, Black punk, Black rock. Miles Marshall Lewis (named after Miles Davis and James Marshall “JImi” Hendrix) writes about evolution. Mile’s evolution through jazz – hard bop – freebop – and pre-hip hop. Of Bitches Brew Marshall writes, “It (was) plain that Miles Davis was always going to do whatever the fuck he wanted.” And “One of the coolest things about Jimi Hendrix,” he writes, “is how he reframed racial identity by pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be Black. …Black Panthers gave Hendrix heat for conking his hair, idolizing Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and supposedly straying from his musical roots on the chitlin circuit with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and others. None of this stopped him from mastering rock and adding to its canon. …Hendrix was Hendrix, unconcerned with staying true to anyone’s idea of Blackness but his own.”
I love this. Evolution. Authenticity. Reframing Blackness. And then my ipod shuffles on Digable Planets. One of my favorite rap groups. Definitely not ‘hard’ and decidedly ‘uncool’. Except – they know they are cool like dat! And they have one of the best, most comfortable lines ever. In “It’s Good to Be Here,” Mecca raps:
we love it where we’re from, but we kick it where we at
it’s so good to be here
That’s the cool I’m feeling. Tethered to a legacy, but not bound by it. And comfortable enough in my own skin to just kick it where I’m at. And it is, indeed, good to be here.