Writers Explore What It Means To Be 'Black Cool'

Feb 14, 2012
Originally published on February 15, 2012 12:39 pm

Once just a temperature, "cool" is a word that has come to mean so much more than that: Cool can be applied to an attitude, or a style or a sound — it can even be used to simply mean "OK."

In a new collection of essays, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, writers explore the definition of coolness within African-American culture. Writer Rebecca Walker edited the book and compiled a series of essays aimed to build a "periodic table of black cool, element by element."

She tells NPR's Neal Conan: "I really wanted to name 'black cool' specifically because I think that the more it's appropriated, assimilated, commodified, the more distant ... the cultural contribution to global discourse becomes from actual black people. If blackness is separated from this aesthetic of cool that comes out of our culture ... we lose the understanding of how much we are actually giving to this world."

Walker says the book started to write itself when she was a student at Yale University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Studying under the art historians Sylvia Boone and Robert Farris Thompson, and the writer bell hooks (who uses lowercase letters in her name), first inspired her to explore the myriad meanings of blackness in the United States today.

The next moment of information came when she saw then-Sen. Barack Obama emerging from a black Town Car during the 2008 campaign. She says that for her, "he was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool. And I was drawn to that image because I wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic."

Artist Hank Willis Thomas contributed an essay to the book called "Soul." Thomas remembers discovering the concept of cool when he was just 5 years old — wrapped in a box of Nike Air Jordans. "I realized at that very moment that there was something that I could possess, that I didn't feel innately, if I were able to attain that symbol," Thomas tells Conan.

Walker stresses that though there are a lot of objects that have become symbols of cool, there's an aspect of "black cool" that should be internalized. "The moment at which we think as a people or as a community that we have to look outside of ourselves for this cosmology that expresses itself through this aesthetic, we're lost," says Walker.

As the world has become "increasingly media and advertising-centered," Thomas says he has watched the definition of cool change:

"Our values become often very — not jaded, but kind of affected by kind of the onslaught of ... the latest this or the latest that or the best that. What you really believe you are doesn't matter to the rest of the world. And I think that's a lesson that ... so many of us are still contending with."

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. It's been a long time since the word cool only measured temperature. Cool became an attitude, a sound, a look, and evolution rapidly followed. Cool became an affectation, a commodity. The adjective connotes everything from a supreme compliment to a generalized equivalent to OK.

It can be used to describe the artistry of a Miles Davis, or as the ultimate drug that keeps black men addicted to their status quo and in their place, that from bell hooks.

A new collection of essays edited by Rebecca Walker attempts to, in her words, build a periodic table of black cool, element by element. When was the moment you identified some person or thing and said that's cool? And what did it come to mean later? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an anti-racism campaign in Duluth, Minnesota that's inspired hate mail. But first, Rebecca Walker joins us from our bureau in New York. She's the editor of "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness," and it's nice to have you on the program today.

REBECCA WALKER: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: You begin with an essay by dream hampton that challenges our assumptions of cool not as something observed, but as something experienced.

WALKER: Yes, dream's piece is really lovely. It's called "Audacity." One of the things I wanted to do with this book is to excavate all of the different elements of black cool, so that when we look at things that we think, oh, wow, that's cool, you know, I wanted to go beneath the surface and see what actually transmits that idea of cool, that notion of cool, that vibe of cool.

And dream's piece is a very personal piece, dream hampton writer of "Decoded" with Jay-Z. And it's about the moment that she fought off a potential rapist and actually summoned a kind of audacity, which is the element that I assigned to her. And it was that moment when she fought off this attack that she connected with her cool and realized that there was nothing that she would ever fear again.

And so the book really is about that. It's about exploring these elements as I've identified them and my brilliant writers have explored that really make up the almost ineffable aesthetic that we call black cool.

CONAN: An aesthetic, yet as you, well, try to identify all these different elements, an aesthetic that comes in a lot of different shades.

WALKER: Yes. The book started when I was in college, actually, at Yale, studying with Robert Ferris Thompson and Sylvia Boone and bell hooks. Robert Ferris Thompson, obviously, is a great art historian, anthropologist who began to articulate what we now think of as the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic, connecting West African culturalisms with the ways in which black people in the Diaspora express ourselves.

And, you know, the sort of next moment of creating the book was when I saw the image of Barack Obama during the campaign in 2008 emerging from the black Town Car with his shades on, and he was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool. And I was drawn to that image because I wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic. What was it?

And so yes, there - you know, there's audacity there. There's reserve. There's hunger. There's a sense of constant evolution, all of the elements that we see globally in this thing we call black cool.

CONAN: You mentioned bell hooks, and I gave a little quote from her essay just a moment ago, but something that she describes as something that - you know, she really answered the question about: Is this simply an excuse for a machismo?

WALKER: Yeah, well, Bell and also our other guest here in the studio, Hank Willis Thomas, who writes a piece in the book, they both identify a moment at which black cool - which has been grounded in this West African cultural tradition that Thompson has identified as etutu, which has to do with compassion and equanimity and a kind of soulful presence and moral compass for moving through the world, bell and Hank both identify a moment in the culture in which that was commodified and turned into something else.

And that turning it into something else was turning it into something that we could buy, whether they were sneakers, whether it was gold chains, whether it was cars, and also turned it into an affect that wasn't about equanimity, but that was about a kind of hard, emotionally stoic and shut-down way of being.

And part of why I wanted to do this book is to show that that is not the historical roots of black cool, that cold rage and commodified, you know, moment, that really black cool comes from a much deeper legacy of doing the right thing and is a much more soulful endeavor.

CONAN: You mentioned Hank Willis Thomas, who's there with you in the studio in New York. His current project is "Question Bridge: Black Males," a transmedia art project. He wrote the essay for "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness," and nice to have you with us.

HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Happy Valentine's Day.

CONAN: Thank you. Happy Valentine's Day to both of you. But you describe in your essay that the moment in which you're sort of introduced to the concept of cool is you're five years old, and it's a pair of sneakers.

THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, I - there's something about the - about Nikes that, you know, really just kind of caught the rage, you know, especially in the early '80s. And there was this essence that they were ubiquitous. And with Michael Jordan especially, when he signed on and the Air Jordans came out, it became, you know, all - you know, it became global.

And I realized at that very moment that there was something that I could possess that I didn't feel innately if I were able to attain that symbol.

CONAN: So there was something external that you could apply, a pair of shoes, and it would give you that quality. You could buy it.

THOMAS: Exactly.

WALKER: And that's one of the - that's, I think, one of the critiques that the books makes is, you know, that really, there's something about black cool that is innate, that the moment at which we think as a people or as a community that we have to look outside of ourselves for this cosmology that expresses itself through this aesthetic, we're lost, and that these elements have been with us and have held us in good stead and good sanity and helped us to survive over, you know, hundreds of years.

And the moment we think that it's something we need to buy, that we need to pretend to hold, that's the moment that we're lost, because we don't value our own internal compass, our own internal being.

CONAN: And Hank Willis Thomas, you describe an older brother who possessed all of those qualities superbly: the great athlete, the person comfortable in any environment, the person comfortable, as we sometimes say, in his own skin, who embodied all of the elements of coolness.

THOMAS: Yeah, my cousin Songha. And, yeah, and that was kind of - and he also had the shoes.


CONAN: But that was just part of it.

THOMAS: That was just a part of it, but I think there was this kind of ability to appear to be having it all, but not to be caught up with it, you know, to be able to relate to anyone in any situation, to make everyone feel welcome or appreciated, yet at the same time feel - seem that you're totally content within yourself, no matter what the scenario was. And that just wasn't me.


CONAN: Wasn't most of us, I'm pretty sure. He was able, Songha, to get past - later in life - a rope line in front of a club. These were trying to keep people out, but he clearly managed to impress somebody that he was the coolest guy on the line, even though he had, you know, two dollars in his pocket.

THOMAS: Exactly. I mean, anyone who knew him, and has known him, he had this magic. He just - you know, we'd go to a club, and there'd be 10 people with us, and some of them, like, teenagers, so they shouldn't allowed in there. And he'd just walk up to the front of the line and say hey, bro. I'm here with my family. Do you mind just letting us in? And they would just let us all in.

And, I mean, we were never denied. And I'd say: How'd you do it. And he's, like, you've just got to, you know, smile, smile at people. Let them know that you have positive energy.

CONAN: And then he gets caught up in that friction, that conflict between the commodification of cool and absolute soul, as you describe it.

THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, that's - I think for him, that was definitely kind of - I mean, I think for any young man, kind of coming of age, that's a challenge that you face at a specific point of time in kind of who you feel you are and know yourself to be. But when we are living in this increasingly media and advertising-centered world, our values become often very - not jaded, but kind of affected by kind of the onslaught of, you know, you need to have - you know, forget who you really have been taught you are and know you are if you don't have this, the latest this or the latest that or the best that. What you really believe you are doesn't matter to the rest of the world. And I think that's a lesson that, you know, so many of us are still contending with.

CONAN: And he was sadly killed by some kids trying to get money for those silly symbols.

THOMAS: Exactly. He was killed when he was at a club, and some friends he was with were wearing gold and platinum chains, and these teenagers robbed them for the chain. And the only thing they stole from my cousin was his life. They left him laying face-down in the snow and shot him in the back of the head and left the $20 that he had in his pocket.

So the irony of kind of - for - of him being killed in a robbery over a petty commodity, yet the only thing they took from him was the most valuable thing on him.

WALKER: Yeah, and I think of Songha, in many ways, as kind of the symbol of the death of this more organic, beautiful, soulful cool and the rise of a kind of, you know, degraded version. And so he plays a special role in this narrative that I and the contributors have created.

CONAN: Rebecca Walker is the author, cultural critic and speaker, editor of "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness." It includes the essay "Soul" by our other guest, Hank Willis Thomas. If you see cool, did you recognize it? Did you hear it? What moment was it that you saw this aesthetic for the first time? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Matt Johnson found Black Cool on the playground. His cousin, a fifth-grader, confidently took on a thug who called him out for reading The Economist. It wasn't his precocity that impressed Matt. It was his relaxed attitude that just said I'm smart.

Bell hooks found black cool in the Bay Area, sitting on the floor in bookstores and small clubs, listening to poetry and jazz - a cool tide to youth. Their stories and many others are included in Rebecca Walker's anthology of the phenomenon "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness."

When did you look at a person, a thing, an event and say cool? Call us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rebecca Walker, the editor, is our guest. We're also joined by one of her essayists, Hank Willis Thomas. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Let's go to Martin, Martin with us from Santa Clara in California.

MARTIN: Hey, yeah, guys, thanks for taking my call. This is a great topic because, you know, this kind of cool is exuded in not just a confidence but a level of relaxation that I found even in not necessarily related just to blacks, but also to people that have a level of wealth beyond what most - where they walk into a club, and they could be in the worst jeans or torn T-shirt, but their confidence comes across, their relaxed mode comes across. It makes people want to be near them.

And for me, that moment occurred in the late '60s, when Lauren came on the scene. Right, we were - everyone was into the big collars and the big shirts and things like that, and Ralph Lauren suddenly shows up, and he's wearing jeans and shirts and, you know, riding-crop type things, and that's when, for me, the moment was - I thought, I looked, and I said that's cool.

CONAN: That's cool. Did you run out and buy some?

MARTIN: I absolutely did, and I've been a devout fan of Ralph Lauren all the way through there. But of course, to your forum here, buying that is not necessarily a route to go, that you need to have that confidence and relaxation and aesthetic zeal within yourself. But I do feel I have that.

WALKER: Oh good for you, wonderful.


WALKER: That's a very interesting example that you give, Ralph Lauren. I was just out an event with Russell Simmons, who also, kind of, brought, I would say, street aesthetic or more casual modality into the culture that was predominately all about kind of flash, and bringing ease and a kind of street aesthetic, which I still maintain comes out of a black tradition in many ways. It's very much a part of what this book is about.

And you're absolutely right that it's about believing in your own self and having confidence, and knowing that you will survive and have dignity in, no matter what environment you find yourself. So I'm glad to hear that you feel cool and are cool, because that's a sign that you have a great self-love, you know, and that's what I want this book to be about.

CONAN: It's interesting, you talk about - and Martin, thanks very much for the phone call - Hank Willis Thomas, you describe in your essay there's a moment you're at a club in New York as a young man, and you find yourself wearing a pair of overalls and feeling embarrassed in your dress.

THOMAS: Exactly, I mean, - you know, I sometimes wear shirts that are too tight or, you know, overalls or wrestling shoes out in the street for reasons unbeknownst to me, and in New York, you never know what scenario you might find yourself in.

And I ran into one of my best friends from high school, and his name is Topaz(ph), and he was going out to a club. And he was, like, let's just go. And I was like, OK, because I was so excited to be with him because he was so cool. And once we got in there, I realized I was in, you know, Soho nightclub and wearing, you know, overalls and a bandana and hiking boots and, you know - was really neurotic about, you know, but I don't feel - you know, I'm - and basically, at that moment, he really put me in my place.

He's, like, if you didn't feel confident about what you're wearing, why would you even leave the house? And in a way, it was kind of like a smack. But what it did is it made me be, like, yeah, I did leave the house, and I am wearing this. So I have to accept myself, and obviously if he thought I looked like a fool, he wouldn't have - well, maybe he would've because he's so cool...


THOMAS: But he wouldn't have allowed me to go into that scenario where I wouldn't feel safe or feel comfortable, and I think that's what...

CONAN: Overalls, OK. Just lose the pocket protector, OK?

THOMAS: Exactly.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Diana in New London, Connecticut. She cites Wynton Marsalis' definition of hip, a term that is closely related: Being hip means you have the least possible response to any situation. Rebecca Walker?

WALKER: That's very interesting, the least possible response to any situation. I would say you - not that you have the least response but that you understand how to kind of sink into yourself and not be reactive. So you take in all of the influences that are around you and navigate it skillfully, with grace and with ease and without a sense that you need to perform and act to suit anybody else's desires.

You have a kind of reserve, as Helena Andrews writes about in the book. You have a restraint. That, interestingly, has a magnetism. When you have restraint, people are drawn to you, and that is the epitome of cool. And yes, that's related to hip. Again, Robert Ferris Thompson, who's done all this work, has talked about how even the word cool comes from West African culture, and the same is true of hip, and the same is true of funky.

And so this way of moving is, you know - is part of what is so important for me about this book, is part of our cultural legacy as black people in the Diaspora. You know, it's - go ahead.

CONAN: Yet to call your book "Black Cool" suggests there are other kinds.

WALKER: Yes, there are other kinds. But I really wanted to name black cool specifically because I think that the more it's appropriated, assimilated, commodified, the more distant the contribution, the cultural contribution to global discourse becomes from actual black people.

And, you know, I always give the example we don't celebrate - we don't separate yoga from India or Hinduism. We don't separate French cooking from the French. We don't separate the art of war and strategy from Chinese culture. And so the result of that is that all of these cultures have a kind of social currency on the global stage, but if blackness is separated from this aesthetic of cool that comes out of our culture, that represents our culture, that is transformative and is the lingua Franca around the world, then we lose - you know, as black people we lose respect, we lose financial support. And most of all, in our own lives, we lose the understanding of how much we are actually giving to this world.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mark, and Mark's on the line from Kansas City.

MARK: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: My first experience, I think I was, I don't know, 18 or 19 and listening to Duke Ellington for the first time, and it was just an immediate, visceral reaction, which (technical difficulties) identify as cool. But I have two questions. Is part of being cool through an elegance in meeting the world, and navigating through the world, and found a kind of intelligence?

CONAN: Let me just decipher that because I think the phone was betraying Mark there. Is part of being cool an intelligence, an elegance in meeting the world? And I guess, Rebecca Walker, in some ways yes and in some ways no.

WALKER: Well, I would very much say yes, and part of this book is about identifying those different elements. So yes, so the audacity, in many ways, to move elegantly through a world that is denying you your own subjectivity. The intellectual rigor, as Matt Johnson writes about in his piece "Geek," is another element.

So when you look at Barack Obama exiting the car, you see this is a brilliant man with a lot of audacity, a lot of reserve. I mean, it's amazing to watch him manage this dynamic situation where you can't believe he's able to keep his cool in the midst of just unspeakable...

THOMAS: In the midst of a State of the Union when someone's calling you a liar.

WALKER: Exactly.

THOMAS: But I think it's about this carefree composure, you know, about this ability to seem unaffected, but at the same way, feel like you're very, very much in control of yourself. And I think one of the things that the book does is highlight something that is - that we're - you know, we are losing, in so many ways, through globalization, the roots of so many things. And it's wonderful in a certain level, but you start to recognize through commodity culture as kind of with, you know, BET and MTV and, you know, the NBA or whatever as these kind of media images become translated through different cultures - and all over the world, that they do start in a certain to lose some of their roots.

And by large, we see - I find things funny when I see - I saw an image of a clan rally in someone wearing an Air Jordan T-shirt, which speaks to the kind of ways in which things can get lost because, you know, if you're a clan member, Air Jordan, there's things like - things that I think are really funny in a way. But I would say there - and this is just a little bit of a tangent - but I do think there's something that Michael Jordan left Barack Obama in the swagger of being - when Barack Obama moved to Chicago at that peak of the Chicago Bulls, the peak of Michael Jordan. I think there's something that he borrowed as his approach in that representing his version of cool.

CONAN: A lot of us tried to borrow that. Very few of us manage to pull it off. But in any case, Mark, thanks very much for the phone call. There is - just getting back to bell hook's essay, Rebecca Walker, though, she talks about the passion, not the remove, but the passion that she heard in the blues and how that was seemingly rejected at times.

WALKER: Yes. Again, she's looking at the moment at which black cool, as a place of expiration and inspiration and soulfulness, turned into the culture of gangster rap and a kind of shutdown, patriarchly(ph) dominated, commodified again modality. So she's really looking at that split and longing for the time in which black men allowed themselves a kind of vulnerability, a way of singing their song that was just immeasurably cool because of its beauty and its sort of transcendent qualities. And her piece is a beautiful chronicling of that transition and a call to black men in particular to return to this other way of being and to embrace that again as cool.

CONAN: We're talking with Rebecca Walker, who's the editor of "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness." Also with us, Hank Willis Thomas, an artist who's one of the essayists. His piece is entitled "Soul." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And here's an email we have from Anthony in Larkspur, California: First time I saw cool was in the early 1960s before a baseball game, when I saw Willie Mays catching fly balls by letting the balls sail over his head and fall in the glove behind his back. The ease and humor with which Willie snagged those fly balls was totally cool.

And there's no question about that. Let's see if we can go next to Bob. Bob with us from Austin in Texas.

BOB: Hey guys.


BOB: Yeah. Well, I got - I'm a black type and I got my cool from a white guy. I was coming up in the '60s and came across the "The Thomas Crown Affair" with Steve McQueen. And it totally hit me like a bolt of lightning. And a couple of weeks later, the kids at school started calling me Cool McCool.


BOB: And I swear to you, there are people I went to high school and college with that had no idea what my real name is.

WALKER: Well, I think that's interesting. Both of these last comments are really interesting. I mean, Steve McQueen, like James Dean, I think borrowed the asset of black cool. I mean, you know, we've always talked about Elvis Presley and the way he appropriated a lot of black cool and integrated it into his esthetic. I think Steve McQueen has also done that. This idea of, you know, grace under pressure, a kind of swagger, audacity, but a mind that's very much engaged, these are things, you know, I would say, you know, we may have seen them located on white bodies - and Steve McQueen obviously is super cool - but I do think, you know, we need to look at the roots of that aesthetic that they are performing and give the blackness that is there its due.

BOB: Yeah. I assume that Steve might have gotten some of his cool from Miles who, you know...

WALKER: There you go.

BOB: ...at his peak in the '60s and - but Miles was too cool for me, you know? I could never do the Miles cool, but Steve, you know, like you said, you know, it's just kind of grace under pressure just kind of translated into something I thought I could emulate and, you know...

CONAN: He could do it, not just in the tuxedos that he wore in "The Thomas Crown Affair" but in a T-shirt that he wore in "The Great Escape" too. So..

WALKER: That's so beautiful, though, why did you think - I mean, there's a piece in the book about Miles and how he was cool and how I identify it. And Miles Marshall Lewis, who wrote the piece, identifies it as Miles was always about evolution. He never wanted to stop as an artist. It wasn't enough to do "The Birth of Cool." It wasn't enough to do "Kind of Blue." He went all the way out to "Bitches Brew," and he just kept going. And that's part of this tradition, this legacy. So if you don't mind me asking, if we can go on, what - why did you think you couldn't be like Miles? Why was he so out?

BOB: Why do I think what? I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question.

CONAN: That you couldn't be like Miles.

BOB: Well, I felt Miles, you know, I was a teenager at the time, you know, 15, 16. And Miles was a little too cool for, I guess, for the environment. You know, I'm a New Orleans boy, and, you know, Miles was just kind of out there for me, but you know, maybe at some point I kind of got closer to Miles as I listened to, like you just said, "Bitches Brew," and that kind of got me live (technical difficulty) and Miles electronic, his whole electronic thing. I think at that point, I could relate better to where Miles was coming from. So it, you know, it certainly helped me to get to that place.

WALKER: Beautiful. Beautiful.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much. I wanted to read this email we have from Jim in Kansas City: I'm a 60-year-old white Midwesterner, a pastor and theology professor. In 1976, I was sent to the Bronx to serve as a pastoral intern at a black church. There, in the narthex, before my first worship service, I saw a young black man enter. He was dressed in a purple blazer with his shirt opened down to his navel. He had sunglasses, conked hair, chains around his neck, rings on his finger. He was introduced to me as the organist and choir director. I was shocked. This was nothing like my mother, the organist and choir director I had known all my life. Alex turned out to be a very grounded, caring person, a great musician, a great organist and choir director. He knew his work in music was a ministry, and he could take folk who had never sung and have them singing solos within a month. He knew how to lift people's being and personhood. I came to know black cool in the person of Alex in 1976.


THOMAS: A beautiful homage.

WALKER: So beautiful. That's it in a nutshell. Thank you so much for writing that. It reminds me of Michaela Angela Davis's piece in the book. She's a stylist who styled everyone from Aretha Franklin to Prince to Jay-Z to everyone. And she writes about how black people have performed this aesthetic of cool and how imbued all these qualities are in the way we dress and the way we move. And so that's just what your piece reminds me of among so many other things. Thank you for writing that in.

CONAN: Those essays included in "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness." Rebecca Walker, thanks very much for your time.

WALKER: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And, Hank Willis Thomas, appreciate your time as well.

THOMAS: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up: an anti-racism campaign in Duluth that got hate mail. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.