Are 'We Gon' Be Alright'? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Are 'We Gon' Be Alright'?

Stanford culture critic looks at how diversity and equity fit into America

Journalist, activist, record producer and teacher Jeff Chang took nearly 10 years to write his first book in 2005, "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." It won the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award and established Chang as a leading culture critic.

Chang, who now serves as executive director for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview this week that it took him about eight years to complete his second book examining American culture, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America," published in 2014.

Now, the Berkeley resident follows that volume with "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation," a collection of eight never-before-published essays that he wrote in three months. The book addresses questions of diversity and equity with a new sense of urgency.

"We Gon' Be Alright" began as Chang's attempt to write an introduction for the paperback edition of "Who We Be." Chang submitted material about Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of protests following the police shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr. Chang's publisher urged him to think about making that early draft into a book of its own.

"I took up the challenge," Chang said. "This is the fastest book I've ever done."

Chang will appear in conversation with Angie Coiro at Kepler's on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to talk about this latest book.

"Who We Be" was published a month before the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. Afterward, Chang noticed an abrupt change in the conversations.

"They become much more aggravated, much more intense, much less open, much more hewing to the standard talking points of folks of one ideology or another."

According to Chang, "We Gon' Be Alright" explores "the question of how we moved from having a consensus in 1965 for racial justice and cultural equity, into a moment 50 years later where we have a black president and yet there's no consensus that there needs to be anything done to repair the growing gaps between the races in every social indice."

The new book contains an essay that is unusually personal for Chang. In "The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness," he recounts how, having grown up in Honolulu in a "pretty thoroughly multiracial Chinese-Hawai'ian family," he came to the University of California, Berkeley, in the late '80s "very excited to be on a campus with a history of social justice."

Within weeks of his arrival at Cal, however, Chang found himself being harassed on the street and having racial slurs hurled at him on campus.

"I was suddenly having to confront the notion of being a minority, pretty much for the first time in my life," he said. "I felt like an outsider, felt a different kind of in-betweenness."

Chang said he was able to find a sense of belonging through hip-hop and social activism.

"It didn't feel like a funny thing to be in the KALX radio studio, listening to a record album by a group like Public Enemy and then going out the next morning to participate in a protest or a rally."

After graduating, Chang briefly worked in the State Legislature, wrote about politics and the arts for a wide range of leading publications, co-founded the influential hip-hop label SoleSides and received a master's degree in Asian-American Studies from UCLA

He is about to begin his sixth year at Stanford's IDA. Chang said, "The Institute is place to explore identity, aesthetics and the nexus of arts and social justice questions."

Each year, the Institute chooses a theme around which it bases its curriculum and activities. This year's focus, Chang said, will be on health and healing, "questions that are raised by the Movement for Black Lives around what it means to be well, not just alive."

In his essay "Hands Up: On Ferguson" for "We Gon' Be Alright," Chang recounts the birth of the Movement for Black Lives and other protest groups against excessive use of force by police. Asked to identify an aspect of the protests that many observers missed, Chang said, "People felt as if their work was connected to a higher purpose. The work was certainly about trying to improve conditions, but for most of these organizers and activists, you couldn't reduce it to mere self-interest."

"We Gon' Be Alright" also tackles the issue of resegregation and looks at the forces that push people of color away from the cities and into outlying areas.

"We all know what's happening," Chang said. "We see people being forced to leave San Francisco. Many people are moving to Oakland. In turn, those people are pushing rents up and displacing the longtime residents. Those folks are forced to move to Vallejo or Fairfield or Antioch."

He continued, "You see a lot of folks moving into East Palo Alto, and we hear a lot of the same stories. People see their rents are under pressure, and they're contemplating moving out to Tracy or way beyond."

"To me, gentrification is too small a word. What we're seeing is physical resegregation. People see the Bay Area as Ground Zero for gentrification, but I'm saying that it's bigger than that."

Chang has also watched the concepts of diversity and equity change over the years. "I think diversity is the necessary, but not the sufficient, condition to get us where we need to be. The larger importance of equity is that in another 50 years, we don't want to live in a society that's divided as it is now by color, in which color and caste converge."

"We Gon' Be Alright" feels very much a polemic of the moment, but one that examines the possibility of transformation in the face of loud, persistent and often divisive rhetoric.

"Times are changed," Chang said. "And I think that this book speaks into that kind of noise and tries to get the violence turned down a little bit. Folks should be able to think more hopefully about the situation we're living through."

What: Jeff Chang in conversation with Angie Coiro

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Kepler's or call 650-324-4321

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