We all enter the portal of Black cool in our own way. You remember the first time you saw it, felt it, knew it, don’t you? Perhaps your first glimpse of Black cool was on the Miles Davis album cover your father showed you when you were a kid: Miles sitting on the stool in neat khakis, his face giving away nothing and with his horn doing all the talking. Or, maybe it was the day your uncle swaggered up to that hissing car engine and showed you, point by point, how to fix it, as if he had built the damn thing himself.
Maybe it was the moment you watched Michael Jackson moonwalk on TV during the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, in concert, on YouTube—anywhere. Or saw your mother rocking black Yohji Yamamoto with bright red lipstick to a party in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Or maybe, it was that day you stood next to your parents as they told the principal of your elementary school that, actually, you would be in the advanced class, thank you very much, and not tracked to purgatory. It might have been while visiting the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, or watching President Barack Obama step out of a black car wearing shades on his way to board Air Force One.
Black cool, that hard-to-define-but-infinitely-mesmerizing quality, has carried Black people through crazy hard times. It’s a mixture of audacity, determination, genius, authenticity, dignity, style and a dozen other elements that reveal themselves and create their own moment of truth. Black cool is being yourself, fighting for what’s right and looking crazy good—or at least, solidly righteous—while you’re doing it. To those who say Black cool doesn’t belong to Black people, that it’s something all human beings have, I ask, Can everybody cook like the French? Can everybody strategize like the Chinese? People can buy cookbooks and The Art of War all day long, but can you really say it’s the same? I refuse to sell our birthright so easily. Black cool can be emulated, co-opted and appropriated, but its ownership cannot be denied.
Black cool belongs to us. It’s our authenticity. It’s our shield against the arrows. It’s our language of survival. It’s our genius. It’s our very own treasure chest of fabulous. Black cool is forever.
My first conscious brush with Black cool was in the seventh grade, though I know my mother handed it over much earlier, probably while cooking collard greens from her garden and dancing to Stevie Wonder, but that’s another story. I was a proud 13-year-old student at Junior High School 141 in the Bronx, the epicenter of the birth of what we now call hip-hop. We didn’t call it that then. We just wore huge brass nameplates on our Jordache jeans, clipped feather clips to our belt loops and watched the poppers and lockers on the Grand Concourse before we went to the movies. And we played music. New music. Lots of it. I came to know the power of the cool while riding the bus home from school, and one of the original anthems of hip-hop, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, was blasting from someone’s box. The windows were open and all of us kids were bobbing our heads and either singing or shouting the lyrics, depending on what our parents had taught us about appropriate public behavior. All of us were moving our bodies, hanging out the windows of the bus and waving at the kids on the street who caught the beat and shouted, “Rock, rock to the Planet Rock, don’t stop” back at us as we slid down Broadway.
That first indelible Black cool moment lasted about four minutes, but it shaped my sensibility for life. “Planet Rock” was about the funky beat, intergalactic message and mash-up of musical styles that formed the basis for hip-hop as we know it today. That day on the bus wasn’t the first time I’d heard it—it was the hundredth, maybe the thousandth. You couldn’t ride a city bus in Manhattan—or walk down the street in any borough, for that matter—without hearing it. But it was more than the song that made it cool that day, it was the way we used it as a vehicle, a way for us to claim our space and our power. It was a way we, at 13 and 14 years old, created a peaceful demonstration of our genius. Our validity. Our flavor.
Racism surrounded us in those days, and public space seemed to belong to people with White skin, fancy cars and expensive clothes. But instead of being muted, “Planet Rock” gave us license to flip the script. Merging with its energy, we created our own public space, our own planet. All the people we normally stared at with contempt or jealousy or simple confusion about why they didn’t like us had to stare at us, for once. We had the silver. We had the gold. We had the precious, ineffable quotient they could never make themselves. We weren’t tragic or less than; we weren’t “those damn kids.” I saw it in their eyes that day. They couldn’t help but stare. They couldn’t stop us. We were so, so cool. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
Rebecca Walker is the editor of Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness (Soft Skull Press).
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Editor, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness