Jeff Chang, celebrated journalist, activist and writer, talks hip hop in the Intercultural Center

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

One side of the wall is developed as much as possible.  A busy road is full of traffic right up along it, eventually feeding into a sea of houses claustrophobically arranged on a big hill.  The other side is almost a desert — a green patch is being robbed of its area to accommodate what will probably be the cousins of a few beige, dusty buildings that look like the house of something between bureaucratic and sinister.  It is the physical representation of the border between the United States and Mexico, and according to Jeff Chang, it is “the image of our time.”

Chang is a celebrated journalist, activist and writer who tasks himself with the critique and study of hip hop music.  He received national acclaim for his 2005 novel, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” and currently heads the Institute for Diversity in the Arts.  He came to Swarthmore on Monday, November 17, to discuss some of the issues addressed in his recently released book, “Who We Be.”

Hosted by the Intercultural Center and held in its big room, the event attracted surprisingly few students, given its power and its pertinence.

Chang opened his presentation with the number 2042 in bold face on a PowerPoint slide.  “It’s the year the minority becomes the majority,” he explained, “whatever that means.”

He transitioned into a moving address on modern perceptions of race, using childhood classic “Are You My Mother” as an instructional tool and defining racism succinctly, powerfully as a “denial of empathy.”  He discussed changing (or, really, unchanging) perceptions of race in recent history and the struggles of incompatible yet neighboring cultural perspectives.

Chang’s presentation explored the idea of “demographobia,” the irrational fear of demographic change expressed by one group of combatants in what is commonly — and most accurately — termed the “culture war.”  Much of the material of his presentation supported his central claim: that in modern society, there are competing notions of ends and beginnings with respect to the faces of culture as the concentration of comfort shifts to better accept and accommodate groups that have been historically marginalized.  He explained the nature of “shock doctrine,” by which issues of class and culture are confused and separation begins to form where it should not — people begin to turn against their class because of cultural divides. Chang pressed a need for artists to “step in and fill the void” left by the uneasy silence of cultural tension, and spoke of the power of artists as “engines” of cultural and intellectual movements.

He then switched courses to offer historical perspective on his work, a perspective likely detailed in his new book (for which, unfortunately, I had not pocketed the cash even for the discounted copies being sold at the event).  The talk covered different artistic movements, as well as highlights of shift in journalistic discourse and scholarly mindset.  Chang pointed out artists like Kori Newkirk, magazine cover stories about the “white anxiety crisis,” and conflicting viewpoints between academicians towards the end of the twentieth century.  The evidence built up to the conclusion that the biggest step to be taken in the American cultural conversation is the one from “who are we?” to “who we are.”

Chang also laid out an elaborate criticism of the corporate “sanding down” of forward-thinking multiculturalism.

“It becomes a way to incorporate underserved markets.  It becomes hip and sexy.  It is dreamt for us and then it is sold back to us,” said Chang.

This was less a broad strokes attack on consumer culture and more a reminder to think about and process a complicated issue that is coated in a sheen of marketability.  To consider who is being served and benefited, really, by the corporate approach to acceptance of activism.

At this point, he introduced the image of the border at Nogales.  It is a powerful symbol of imagined, forced and arbitrary distinction between groups.  Chang believes that the biggest problem is not necessarily visible in the image, but in the lacking visibility of its concept to the relevant public.  Images like that of the border “lie in our collective blind spot,” he argued.

It is also the form of the image (a photograph, a piece of art) that Chang believes is so important.  Central to his theory is that arts and culture are necessary for new modes of thought, and his belief that cultural change always precedes political, structural change.  He mentioned the recent tendency towards the word “wave” in describing a changed political scene, and then added an often overlooked clarification to the word’s usage.  A wave, Chang explained in his presentation, is an “event plus a process.”

After concluding his presentation with lines from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a “revolution of values,” Chang transitioned to a question and answer segment in which he addressed popular use of social media in activism and the tangible power of youthful idealism in exacting change.  It was an event that, hopefully, will precede a process.


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