Saturday, December 27, 2014

Jeff Chang: Who We Be

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I really wanted to like this book, and waited a long time till my turn came to get it at the library. Jeff Chang is a local guy and his previous book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," was very well acclaimed. But this book kind of mystifies me. And even though it's only 345 pages, it's an oversized book, so it's really really long. It's also not easy to carry anywhere, or curl up with, because it's so big. It's almost coffee table size, but it's not meant as a coffee table book- it's almost all text. It's interesting, though, because it's also about art- it's like the publishers started out thinking this would be an art book, a book of criticism with lots of pictures so you'd know what Chang was talking about, and made it oversized with glossy pages, unique, bold font, etc., and then forgot to put in all of the art. And then, for some reason, stuck a hundred pages on at the end that had nothing at all to do with art, but rather, political events that had to do with race and multiculturalism, Chang's over-arching theme (sort of). The other part I never understood is that the Oakland Public Library has this book tagged "Young Adult." There is nothing "Young Adult" about this book. I mean, I barely understood most of it, and there's name dropping all over the place, half of which I didn't understand, of theorists, that maybe college students in the arts would understand. If I were a young adult, I'd be bored stiff by this book. I think young adults should absolutely be introduced to the themes in this book, and there's no reason they shouldn't be reading books written by adults, but I kept wondering if I was missing something: Is "Who We Be" actually for a different demographic? Is the physical format designed as a hook for teens? Is the OPL as confused as I am about this book?

I *think the theme of the book was about how the arts (mostly the visual arts) fed into, were influenced by, influenced and fought against the various trends of multiculturalism over the 20th and early 21st centuries. It's not always clear if Chang is taking a position on this, or if his voice, which is very conversational, is meant to reflect the artists that he's speaking about. He picks individual artists (for example, he starts with the local, and recently passed Morrie Turner) to discuss how art changed over time. It's never quite clear if he thinks these artists were representative of the changes- as in, good examples of what was going on- or if he believes these artists were the catalysts for the changes that were going on. It also isn't clear, because of the last hundred pages that take place from 2010 on, if this is a book about the history of art as it relates to multiculturalism, or if he's telling the story of multiculturalism through art. The last hundred pages, about Trayvon Martin, Occupy, the Dream Act, have almost nothing to do with art. They discuss the colorization of America. Are no artists representative of this? The section leads with a discussion of Shepherd Fairey's Obama poster, but that's about it.

I slogged through this one, but I don't get it. Tricia Rose points to some of these same issues in her review for the NYT. Hyphen says that Chang's last book had that same slow-going style that I found with this one. Pages took days (and I finished this book last week, so the review did, too). But mostly, the reviews have a positive tone, and Kirkus's influential review is mostly a summary with positive notes. I wouldn't recommend this, though, and feel stupid for not understanding.