We Real Cool
A white woman approaches the stage. She has volunteered her skills, promising a familiarity with the rapper’s discography, or at the very least, this particular song. The rapper asks if the white woman is ready. She lifts her mic and responds, “I gotchu.” She begins. She misses a line, slurs an apology, collects herself and proceeds to rap “nigga” three times in a row. By the second nigga, the crowd begins to boo, and after the turn of the third, the rapper cuts the beat.
The white woman is confused and in her confusion, turns defensive.
“What? Am I not cool enough for you, bro?”
* * *
In the late sixteenth century, “cool” transitioned from an adjective of atmosphere to that of demeanor: a descriptor of the rational, calm, and controlled, a trait attributed solely to white men.
We see the mongrelization of “cool” in the late nineteenth century with the emerging white study and documentation of Nonstandard Negro English. Like tourists out on safari, white men wrote furiously, snapped secretly, hoping to return with trophies for the public white gaze. A number of these cultural poachers remarked on the frequency of the use of “cool” in NNE and how the term seemingly differed from the accepted white use.
Baldwin notes that the American Negro slave is unique amongst black people of the world (perhaps, all peoples of the world) in that her past, her history, her name, and language were taken from her with a single blow, and she was forced to create a new identity and culture whilst being bred and beaten like a dog.
If “calm” and “rational” were to be withheld from black folks, then the term had to undergo a transformation. Part of this new cool still connected black folks to balance and containment (for who knows better than the descendants of slaves about the shape of control). However, this term was in need of new wings, particularly for the young black man, since the power attempting to kill his cool, to unbalance his control, was white violence.
Cool is power. If one can control oneself, then one controls the room.
Jazz became cool. Cool became jazz. Cool became spectacle.
Consider the original hipsters, those middle-class white folk of the ‘40s, who went uptown to see black men play that boogie-woogie they were trying to be hip to. They went to touch shoulders, cut a rug, learn a bit of slang, cloak themselves in reefer, and dip before the police raided. They were voyeurs, hoping some of that cool might rub off on them as they snuck a peek at its price tag.
Cool is not financially dependent. Cool cannot be refinanced.
Gucci Mane told us, even when he was broke, he still had the sauce; anyone can obtain material goods that approximate cool—in fact, appropriation banks on it.
Cue white interlocutor: “But what about bling and pimp cups and chains that spin?”
What does it mean to ball out? To floss? What purpose does gaudiness play in black lives?
It can often feel something akin to autonomy (the amount that can be afforded) within capitalism. Consider how often the goods are in relation to body; when you cannot own land, cannot get a loan for a house, are drenched in ketchup and slurs, best believe you’re gonna adorn the one thing you own like royalty.
Clothing is armor. A second-hand suit, ironed every morning, in order to pass, stay safe, climb the various rungs towards the goal of economic stability; or the opposite, leather jackets and berets, black suits and African Liberation bowties, durag and sag, diamonds in your teeth and sunglasses indoors ‘cause you got enough money to no longer have to listen to these white folks and their cries of respectability politics.
Cool was the one thing a black man could own that a white man couldn’t—and all the worse for white men. They had created this word and now were locked out from it, denied its power, having to watch from the sidelines as its porcelain skin was dragged through the tar.
Black-cool was created in contrast, in the space of otherness. It is a kind of resistance. However it is human, all too human, and thus fallible and imprecise. Cool set us free but cool is also a cage. Cool pushed against yet somehow fell into backwards into essentialism. Cool got a taste of freedom and found manipulation on the other side. Cool is Mandingo masculinity. Cool used his blackness to get him a white girl. Cool slipped into the appropriation of supremacy. Cool became misogyny. Cool became no homo. Cool became pause. Cool said that he doesn’t really fuck with black girls. Cool fucks with his shoes on so he never gets sprung. Cool doesn’t trust these hos. Cool stays strapped. Cool asks what you’re doing in his neighborhood. Cool got too drunk last night. Cool got in a fight last night. Cool traps and daps and slapboxes with Jesus. Cool stays blunted. Cool always has niggas testing him. Cool has a million followers on Instagram. Cool is live chatting right now.
* * *
Artie Shaw once described Bing Crosby as the first hip (i.e., cool) white man.
Shaw meant his statement to be transgressive. He meant it to be tongue-in-cheek. A wink to white America; to show how popular and influential Crosby was, in that he could transcend cool because he moved through the racial barrier, finding what Shaw perceived as acceptance from Black America. Crosby performed with black musicians, which lent him some danger and charitable prestige—and what I perceive as black musicians needing to pay the rent.
This is all to say, Crosby was never cool.
Exhibit A: his name.
Exhibit B: the Abraham scene in the film Holiday Inn in which Crosby sings a song of praise about President Lincoln (the song explicitly exalts the emancipation of slaves) dressed as the president in blackface. His band is also in blackface, the white servers serving the white audience are in blackface, and Marjorie Reynolds, who joins in at the end of the number, costumed in what can only be described as hyper-hallucinogenic blackface, resembling some strange composite of Pippi Longstocking and Aunt Jemima.
The film is a beloved Christmas classic and is the cinematic debut of the popular and beloved song “White Christmas,” because of course, we are all dreaming of a white Christmas in blackface.
* * *
Racist caricature and impersonation are longstanding tools of white supremacy. The ability to don mocking stereotypes of black culture, particularly the exaggeration of facial features and expressions, reduces black culture to what can be controlled and what can be undercut—which is everything if it can make a circus out of something as earth shattering as the freeing of enslaved humans—whilst continuing to cement and validate the notion that cultures are indeed garbs used only for gain and convenience, only to be discarded when finished.
To see blackface in action is stunning. It is so insane that the tendency is to place it back in time with the types of overt racism even Republicans accept (e.g., lynchings, depictions of the Mamie, that “jazz” scene in The Jungle Book). However, blackface is not a thing of the past. Not even close. The BBC ran a weekly minstrel show from 1958 till 1978, the Dutch still dress up like Black Pete, and every Halloween in the States, some frat boy decides that it’s funny to paint his face and buy faux jewelry—they never dress up as Nelson Mandela—to approximate his mangled image of black cool.
In 2015, a white teacher (a human who is allowed to mold the minds of little humans) in Alabama dressed up in full black face, neck, and hands as Kanye West. The internet came for him, and on the following day, he was forced to release an “apology” in which he called his blackface an error in judgment and not meant in malice nor directed toward any particular group of people. He went on to discuss his character and heart, and how he has never seen color in his life.
* * *
The white woman, mic ready, assures the rapper, “I gotchu.”
Does this white woman always change her language around black people? If so, who is she trying to put at ease?
* * *
Every year, various media outlets release articles denouncing the most overused words on the internet, prompting some bloggers to go the extra mile and offer other (i.e., Standard Written English) words to learn instead. The majority of words found on these lists come from black vernacular. Basic, lit, fleek, twerk, drag, shade, bae, savage, low-high key, slay, woke, etc. These words and phrases were created by black women, alongside trans people and drag kings and queens of color. And now, white bloggers have the nerve and platform to dictate to these folks what words are passé while the phrases are printed en masse across fast-fashion T-shirts and jackets for white profit, phrases these communities have been using for decades, phrases white people just “discovered,” phrases that weren’t created for fashion so much as out of necessity and resilience and desire for a culture of their own making, whilst having to decide when to use said phrases, less they be seen as ratchet or lesser or ghetto, less they be seen as undesirable, unhirable, whilst their white counterparts suffer little to no repercussions.
The teacher in Alabama was back to work the very next day.
It’s the goddamn American dream.
* * *
Search hip hop shirts on the internet and you’ll see stuff like Mo’ Money Mo’ Shopping, Gym and Juice, Squats and 2Pac. And if it weren’t for the impending doom of climate change, these shirts would certainly be the death of us all.
This irony, like power, is a one-way street. No one is going to laugh if I karaoke some Kenny Chesney; in fact they’ll probably just mistake me for Darius Rucker. If I took on the diction of any regional white dialectic, no one would laugh. Rather, they would accuse me of being white. Yet, two white girls can run around New York City, screaming, “Yas kween” and make a hit show of it because the humor is outward—it has nothing to do with self-effacement. Certainly, there are aspects of, “Look at me I’m awkward and white doing something black and cool,” but they pale in comparison to “Follow my white finger pointing at black buffoonery.”
Do not be fooled by this white liberal notion of imitation as flattery. Who cares if the appropriation is to approximate black cool because the person thinks black people are inherently, tribally cool. It is still implicit that white is default, white is right, white is center, so no matter the point of crossover, there is always the ability to return.
Bing Crosby could be hip like a black man (in white eyes), but he was a white man with actual power.
The body returns to homeostasis. White fades to white.
* * *
This very same irony is the basis of digital blackface, the use of black GIFs and/or black memes, in order to express emphatic and exaggerated emotion. And it’s exhausting that here, one still has to say, of course this does not mean white people cannot use GIFs that feature black people (particularly black women). I am, however, asking you to consider before assuming a black veil and making use of a black GIF, particularly when that GIF employs language that is not your own, for your followers, who are likely not black, to laugh at. This creates a vacuum of white people laughing at sensationalized blackness while having zero context or connection to blackness—very few white people have black people in their lives de-centering those narratives on the regular.
White mouths rendering black vernacular, especially on the internet, have learned from watching performed blackness; whether that means a black actor, musician, or just a black person who is aware of the camera near them. How much can be learned about a people, if your only interaction with them is through a screen? Thus, it is an imagined language. It is another minstrel show. It is the nouveau blackface.
* * *
The rapper replies, “You got to bleep one word, though.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the white woman laughs. “Did I do it?”
* * *
In the coming weeks, the talking heads (both white and black) will scramble to assess blame. Through hard work and measured self-reflection, they will rarefy their anger down to a single phrase: “If you don’t want people to say that word, don’t put it in a song.”
The talk show audience breaks out into applause.
It should be asked: Does white America believe the rapper wrote the song for them? Because the song is about growing up in Compton during its height of violence. It’s about gang-banging and set-tripping and dead cousins. The song conjures up images of Latasha Harlins, Rodney King, and the ensuing riots.
What did the parents of this white woman think of King’s trial?
* * *
The white woman accuses, “I was just saying it like you wrote it, bro.”
The daytime talk show host says, “This was a set-up. I felt sorry for the poor girl.”
* * *
Last week, a white friend called to interview me about race. He asked me to describe the role race plays in my every day. I asked him to describe gravity.
He told me a story: He was kicking it with some black guys, then more black guys showed up, and a few more, and then they started exchanging niggas, which made my white friend feel uncomfortable and he became frustrated, questioning the word and his perceived creation of a division in the room.
“I don’t understand the word,” he said.
I asked him if he realized his comfort fell as theirs rose. He had not.
“That is gravity,” I replied.
I don’t need white America to understand this word—and their insistence upon understanding, why we insist upon this word, why we have taken slur and made it to slat, takes them further from the simple reality that nigger and its derivatives puked from a white mouth hurts black people, and it should be their interest not to hurt other people, regardless of whether they believe it to be substantiated or not—for that is not their call. It is our hurt. Let us define our boundaries, perhaps that is the least they can do for a people this country ran as cattle.
Here, as well as everywhere, it is enough to say: Let us have this word. It is but a crumb. A raindrop to the Atlantic.
* * *
Thesis: Don’t put that word in the song.
Antithesis: How many more things will white America police black America for?
Synthesis: White cover rappers.
* * *
Erykah Badu stares into her phone and says, “This country loves nigga shit but hates niggas.”
* * *
I have invented an app that creates albums, not dissimilar to the censored versions of explicit albums, though this will be the White Version of hip hop albums, where curse words are not omitted but every “nigga” is erased.
* * *
The rapper asks the audience if the white woman should be allowed a second chance. It is an unnerving reversal, one we are trained to distrust, to see a black man address an audience that sides with him.
The following week, a talking head will call the crowd a lynch mob.
A second chance is granted. Again she fumbles the words, though she does avoid the “niggas.”
The music is cut. She is sent offstage. The rapper falls to the floor laughing.
1 Hysterical, from the Latin hystericus meaning “of womb” and believed, at the time (though really that shit carries well on into today), to be caused by a dysfunction of the womb, positing the trait, the condition, to be essential, genetic, undeniable. Obscure and repeat until it is true.
2 It takes a special kind of colonial arrogance to believe that one can understand, codify, and label from a removed standpoint and for that standpoint to be de facto objective, rational, and true.
3 Requisite James Baldwin essay on blackness, “Stranger in the Village,” from Notes on a Native Son
4 Shaw was also a white man and was referred to by his fans as The King of the Clarinet. Very cool.
5 There is a white obsession with the attainment of black-cool. Last year, I found myself at a Halloween party I did not wish to be at. I did not know anyone there, save my partner and the woman hosting the party, who happened to be black. I’m not the biggest fan of mingling, though mingle I did, as to not embarrass my partner. I struck up a conversation with a white woman about beer or lamp shades or something else relevant to her life. The host joined us and at some point in the conversation, unprompted, described the white woman as blacker than she, to which the white woman affirmed, “I am the blackest white girl you’ll ever meet.” I did not challenge her—and part of me remains embarrassed about this like all the other, countless times, I have allowed ignorance. However, when we do decide to challenge, it does not work in our favor. I’m not a learning opportunity. I can’t imagine an inebriated scenario, where we would have been able to parse out why this white woman views black people as a monolith and costume; though I can imagine an infinite number of scenarios where-in this white woman becomes defensive and aggressive.
6 If you wanna dress up as sexy Kanye for Halloween, you don’t have to paint yourself. Just wear a shirt that reads, “Slavery is a choice.”
7 “Standard White English,” as it appears in David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.”
8 “I didn’t even know Darius was a negro!” reads every YouTube comment ever.
9 Literally zero people are trying to take things away from white people.
10 Peep Online Imagined Black English by Manuel Arturo Abreu.