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Poet Jeff Chang Talks Race In Literature At Lowell Humanities Series

“This is the most important question of your lifetimes, I’d say,” said Jeff Chang, the author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America, in his talk on Wednesday, Nov. 19 for the Lowell Humanities Series. “It’s right up there with the question of the environmental crisis that we’re all facing. If we are all minorities, how do we begin to imagine a new majority?”

Chang is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and received his master’s degree in Asian-American studies from UCLA. He has written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.
Who We Be: The Colorization of America is Chang’s third book and was released in October. His book addresses the issue of race over the last 50 years and the colorization of America through demographic and cultural shifts.

His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, was released in 2005 and won the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award.

“What is special about Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is not only that it’s capable of taking popular culture seriously and making sense of it in such a capacious, generous, and syn thetic way—what makes it special is that it’s actually a part of the culture that it’s writing about,” said professor Min Hyoung Song, who introduced Chang.

During his first visit to BC six years ago to talk about Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Chang was just getting started on Who We Be: The Colorization of America. After he finished writing Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, he realized that it was missing information about the culture wars from the ’80s and the ’90s, he said.

“I wrote Who We Be because I was interested in the cultural shifts that accompanied demographic shifts of the last five decades, the last half century,” Chang said. “I wanted to celebrate artists and visionaries who came after the civil rights era, because they changed, in a lot of ways, the way that we see each other, the way that we see living together.”

Chang touched upon racial issues from the past during the Civil Rights Movement. He also talked about issues from the present, including the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown, and the current situation between police and protestors in Ferguson, Mo.
“We all know, we can all agree, that race is not a question of biology,” he said. “Instead, it’s a question of culture. And it begins as a visual problem—it’s one of vision and visuality.

“Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It’s about what we see, it’s about what we think what we see, it’s about what we think about when we see, and in that sense, it’s larger than just preferences and bonds and affinities and taste.”

He later emphasized the importance of hip-hop music in the development of multiculturalism and cultural desegregation, and he spoke about the cultural hopes and dreams that were inspired by President Barack Obama’s election. He said that in order for the cultural wars between minorities and majorities to stop, cultural changes must happen before political changes.

“We need you to bring an end to all of this—the cultural, the segregation—and to a place where the culture points towards justice and fairness and inclusion for all,” Chang said.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff

November 24, 2014