It all started with a photograph of then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama. After being constantly drawn to the photo and examining it, it dawned on Rebecca Walker, “The Cool in this photo is so palpable it sends a shiver up my spine. It is Black Cool. It is made up of elements that can be traced back to a place, a people, and a culture.”
And what is Black Cool? In this succinct collection of sixteen intimate essays, authors ranging from dream hampton to bell hooks attempt to parse the different qualities that work together to create “Black Cool.” Each essay focuses on a different quality: audacity, geekdom, crazy, reserve, the hipster, the break, resistance, forever, hunger, eccentricity, soul, authenticity, the scream, evolution, the posse, and swagger. Many of the essays are recount painful and/or deeply transformative events from the author’s past. They embrace the power of the personal narrative and place it within the larger context of African American history and culture.
The book begins with one of the most powerful essays, dream hampton’s “Audacity.” She talks about growing up in a rough area, where the sexual harassment of young girls — herself included — was commonplace. She ends her essay with the terrifying story of how close she came to being raped neighborhood boys when she was in eighth grade, and the reasons she has remained mostly silent about it ever since. She flawlessly brings it all back to the theme of audacity. It’s definitely my favorite essay in the collection.
Not all of the essays deal with such heavy subjects. Mat Johnson writes about growing up geek in a community where performances of black male masculinity reigned supreme. He briefly discusses the historical attempts to suppress black intelligence, then brings it back to his experiences and his (geeky) black role model: his older cousin. Other authors also incorporate black history into their writing. I loved the essay Veronica Chambers wrote, “Hunger,” in which she discusses soul food and the importance of gathering at the table with loved ones. Chambers writes about Madam C.J. Walker and the infamous dinner parties she would host during the Harlem Renaissance, then refocuses her essay on the joy she feels hosting dinner parties. Meanwhile, Hank Willis Thomas writes a memorable essay, “Soul,” about — among other things — growing up Black with a name like “Hank,” wanting cool things Nike Air Jordans but being too poor to afford them, finding his cool in high school through music, and learning important life lessons from his friend Songha.
The way the stories are told have long historical roots, and it’s interesting to see how each of the authors interpreted such a broad concept like “Black Cool,” narrowed it down, and made it their own. Black Cool is a collection that will give you plenty to think about long after you’ve finished reading it.
Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness was released in February 2012 by Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint. You can read dream hampton’s essay, “Audacity,” online here where it was published by Gawker.