Jeff Chang has spent the better part of his adult life analyzing and chronicling the role of race in America. The result is Who We Be, a compendium of essays, photos, lyrics, and other snippets that define, well, Who We Be. Here’s how he puts his thoughts in the book (below). And here is Chang’s list, exclusively for Amazon customers, on further reading on related topics.
When the legendary curator Thelma Golden wanted to name the generation of Black contemporary artists who came of age around the turn of the millennium, she jokingly called them "Post-Black," as in post-civil rights, post-Black Arts, and as she put it, "post-Basquiat and post-Biggie." Writers of that generation—you might call even call them part of the hip-hop generation—shared lots of things with Golden's visual artists. They were no less concerned than previous artists with legacies of race and racism, but they had a different relationship to identity. Their elders had dealt with invisibility. They were dealing with visibility. They were writing for audiences who knew all about affirmative action, diversity trainings, and "political correctness"—but were just as stumped at how to forge racial progress. These audiences knew what not to say to each other, but not what to say next. These novels capture the difficulty—and, just as often, the absurd hilarity—of the post-multicultural, post-whatever, post-post era we are living through.
Identity in the New Millennium
But if I have to choose between
I choose me
—Erykah Badu, “Me”, New Amerykah Part One: (4th World War)
There was a joke that was everywhere at the turn of the millennium. It had started long before, among high-school friends, back when the saying was, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” But this post-“Black thing” thing was much smaller than that, even more impenetrable, a sub-tribal sign.
The joke had begun with a group of Black guys at a diverse high school in West Philly. It first surfaced in a two-and-a-half minute film short Stone had made with some of those same friends, called True.
It opens with a shot of Stone lying on the couch watching a football game. The cordless rings and it’s his friend Paul, lying on his own couch watching a kung-fu flick.
“’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin’ man, just chillin’.”
The other characters don’t do much either: Dookie draws comic book characters, Fred picks up the phone and buzzes his friend Porto Rock into the apartment. The dialogue amounts to maybe a dozen words, the most meaningful of which is simply “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” When each says it, he stretches out the “aaauuuuuuuuh,” wags his tongue, bobs his head, improvises his own stupid faces in his own way.
By the end, Paul has changed the channel to the game, and he and Charles watch together, still having a non-conversation conversation.
“So what’s goin’ on, B?”
“Chillin’. ’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin man, just chillin’.”
And that was it—a group of Black men at rest, not called upon to perform, just being who they be. The short was like what an anthropologist might call “thick description,” what a psychologist might call “the opposite of micro-aggression,” what a comedian might call great material. Years later, when director/actor Charles Stone III’s Whassup? commercial for Budweiser debuted in the 2000 Super Bowl, it seemed that millions were let in on the joke, too.
Multiculturalism had allowed artists of color to toy with the possibility of no longer having to play a role already scripted for them. After multiculturalism, they might move beyond the aesthetics of uplift and respectability, be freed from the burden of representing positivity or confirming oppression. They could aspire just to be. They might still choose to represent identity, race, difference, and inequality. But they wanted to consider it a choice.
“Individuality,” wrote the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his 2005 post-multiculturalism book The Ethics of Identity, “is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued.”1
Stone had been a music-video director, making videos like A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebum and The Roots’s What They Do that had slyly subverted Black male stereotypes. By the late 1990s the industry was changing. This short was Stone’s bid for new work. He knew he had something good, so he took his time. He spent two years writing it, and one more to shoot and finish the edit. He debuted True at a music video short festival in the summer of 1999.
An Irish-born-and-raised copywriter at agency DDB Chicago named Vinny Warren spotted True at a festival and brought it to Budweiser. Stone had worried about how the ad would play in the real world. “When people do it and do it badly, it’s like some old Blaxploitation shit, like straight-up minstrel,” he said.
“True” required context and specificity to work. Saying “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” to each other was an act of recognition. I see you. You and I are together in this moment. The ad had to be made by a Black director featuring an all-Black cast. Stone knew there would still be objections that his concept was “niche market.” Warren’s Irishness, his foreign-ness, Stone felt, allowed him to understand the nuances and see the big picture.
They still needed to pitch the concept to all the confused marketers, casting agents, and execs. In those sessions, Stone decided to describe it in gendered terms. “Look, it’s really simple. It’s men holding hands through the phone,” he would tell them. “It talks about that wonderful nothingness that men do that is actually quite complicated.”
One day DDB execs told Stone they wanted to try out a “multicultural” cast. By this, they meant that they wanted to try white actors. Maybe it was progress that whites could now see themselves in the “multicultural” thing. But wasn’t that still kind of missing the point?
On the last day of casting, Stone and Warren asked to bring back four of the five actors from the original True cast, just to compare them to the “multicultural” cast. Stone recalled, “Sure enough, they were like, ‘What are we doing? We should just stay with the original cast.’”
And so Stone turned up the lighting, put bottles of Bud in each character’s hands, and further slashed an already haiku-length script into what would become the commercial called Whassup? At the end the word “true” rested over a Budweiser logo. Six months later, he and his homies were partying in Cannes after receiving the Grand Prix, the global ad industry’s top award.
Fred Thomas—Stone’s old buddy turned international star—told a British reporter, “It was strictly our thing. Strictly our clique.2 It never went all over Philadelphia. Now the whole world is part of our clique.” One of the Cannes judges agreed, “It’s not just an ad campaign, it’s a movement.”3 Who in the history of advertising could have predicted that a sixty-second spot featuring a group of bored Black males would become the first globally viral ad of the millennium?
The joke among friends had become a joke shared around the world. But what was the world seeing?
1Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.
2Simon Hattenstone, “Whassup?”,Guardian, October 25, 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/print/0,,4081177-103680,00.html.
3Michael McCarthy, “Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?!’ TV Ads Claim Grand Prix in Cannes,” USA Today, June 26, 2000.