‘We Gon’ Be Alright’ is author Jeff Chang’s plea for racial justice
By Lou Fancher
The most poignant aspect of Jeff Chang’s collection of essays, “We Gon’ Be Alright” (Picador, $16, 168 pages) is it’s relevancy.
“You never want to have good timing when you’re writing a book that’s pessimistic about racial justice; about how race is a source of division rather than of joy, happiness and belonging,” says Chang, during an interview in his South Berkeley home.
Growing up in Hawaii in a large, extended family of Chinese and native Hawaiian descent, Chang says intermarriages meant that “every race ended up in my family somehow.” His slender volume of fact-filled, unsparing, provocative essays on diversity, racism, resegregation, Asian-American identity and other social and cultural divisions is in no small part a continuation of his search for community. Chang believes there’s a place where diversity and equity coexist; where ethnicity, race and culture aren’t a burden. “I grew up on the water. You learn how to flow with the currents,” he says. “There’s an openness to different cultures.”
Chang’s two previous award-winning books addressed the history of the hip-hop generation and the cultural patterns of race in post-civil rights America. He is a USA Ford Fellow in literature and the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. His articles and essays have appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Mother Jones, Salon and more.
Approximately 35 years ago, Chang was a teenager, hanging out in an air-conditioned public library after a day on the beach. He read comic books and borrowed records to feed his pop music habit, which gravitated to reggae. “It reminded me of the weird words and sentence structures of the pidgin (English) we spoke; the beat itself was closer to the local music I heard.” The lyrics brought Chang’s attention to colonialism and racism. “Pop music was an opening to everything. Then hip-hop comes along and captures these things. It was pure and came from my peers.”
Moving to mainland America to attend UC Berkeley during the 1980s, Chang focused on an academic path that led to thoughts of a political career. He served as a California State Assembly fellow and lobbyist for California State University students in Sacramento before abandoning politics to run a hip-hop record label and work as a freelance journalist. Fired in 2001 from his job at a hip-hop startup when it was bought out by Black Entertainment Television, Chang turned to a just-signed contract for a book about hip-hop..
“You take your whole life to write your first book,” he says.
In actuality, his debut book, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” was published four years after he began writing it in earnest. He began pitching his second book, “Who We Be,” in 2005, sold it in 2008 and saw it published in 2014.
“We Gon’” was a comparative whirlwind. The book began as an essay written after a visit to Ferguson, Missouri, that chronicled the events of August 2015. “I thought it was going to be an intro to the paperback ‘Who We Be,’ but the publisher said, ‘Nope, it’s a new book, if you want to do it.’”
It was December 2015. They wanted it in March 2016. “I wrote it in three months. There was so much to write about, it just poured out of me.”
An inveterate researcher — “I’m prone to bouts of research ecstasy,” he admits — Chang says a book isn’t “alright” until the fourth draft. He sought reduction that would make America’s past and present history of racial strife plain and personal, an effort especially apparent in the essay, “The In-Betweens.” In it, he writes of the instability he felt upon coming to Berkeley and being, for the first time in his life, a minority and subject to racist taunts and binary thinking that teaches people to assume, “there is no in-between.”
The reason he writes about racial discord, he says, is simple. “I don’t want my kids to be having their kids and telling the same story.”
The story that Chang asserts is ongoing throughout history occurs in cycles. In the 20th century, unease about race peaked in 1965, with the assassination of Malcolm X and the Watts riots. In 1992, the Los Angeles riots gripped the nation. In 2015, he visited Appalachia prior to his trip to Ferguson and witnessed in both locations the “bad loop” of institutional and intentional inequality. The media illustrated the communities as polar opposites, according to Chang, but he saw mostly a shared “cry out to try to close the gaps of inequality that have opened up dramatically.”
Which leads him to thoughts of the 2016 presidential campaign. “The election results have us feeling less optimistic about the ability to repair the situation, ” he says. “Not just with friends and colleagues, but a lot of people with whom I don’t agree on the political spectrum recognize a coarseness they didn’t expect. But empathy isn’t enough.”
Reaching for hope, he says harmony will come from engagement and the frank conversations his book is meant to prompt. Writing about grim moments in history, Chang searches for what he calls the “lightness and brightness” that belong to no race, ethnicity, or culture but represent diverse, equitable community.