Black People: Naturally Cool?

A new collection of essays ponders the provocative question of whether black people are naturally cool or if they must work at it. Margo Jefferson and Helena Andrews share their thoughts in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness. They speak with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, this year, to observe Black History Month, we have been digging into memoirs and, as we've said, the tradition of African-American memoir dates back to slavery when formerly enslaved people somehow found a way to set down the stories of what they had endured.

But now, we notice that there seems to be a fresh urgency among African-Americans to tell their stories. So every week this month, we've talked to the author of a recent memoir.

But today, as Black History Month winds down, we have two essayists who have taken on the interesting question of what it means to be black and cool. Helena Andrews and Margo Jefferson were among those who contributed essays for a new collection called "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness." It was edited by the author and activist Rebecca Walker and she created what she envisioned as a periodic table of black cool, element by element, in his words.

She gives some examples of what black cool is, but we want to let these two ladies tell us what's cool. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARGO JEFFERSON: Thank you for having me.

HELENA ANDREWS: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Helena, I'm going to go to you first. Your essay is called "Reserve," and I wanted to ask what inspired you to write this essay, besides whatever Rebecca Walker says to do, you do.

ANDREWS: Exactly. Rebecca sends you an email and you answer her immediately. The funniest thing is that I ignored Rebecca's emails for about six months because she had been working on this project forever and I sent her a graph. She said, you know, I'm working on black cool. Tell me everything you can about black cool, basically.

And I sent her an email. I sent her this graph, just from my perspective. It's like I feel like black women - obviously, I'm a black woman, so I come from that perspective. And I said, I think black women have this mask, just this super hero quality about us, where we're not necessarily interfacing with the outside world always. Sometimes, we're kind of removed for it and, obviously, that's a protective mechanism, but other people perceive it to be this coolness that we have.

And then, a couple months later, Rebecca said, OK. You're going to do "Reserve" and I was like, perfect. And, at the time, I was in Italy, I think, and...

MARTIN: That's cool.

ANDREWS: That was cool. And I was in Italy and then I also went to Morocco and there was just this - for me, being a tourist, being this black woman in those different spaces, I could see myself putting on that mask, that cool mask and reserve. It was perfect.

MARTIN: I'm just going to read a short quote from the essay. It is the steely look of detachment the outside world gets when they call to us from the corner, hey, shorty, or in the club, excuse me, miss, or into an office. This is our coolness coat of arms, our impenetrable shield. And I'm editing a little bit just for time, but you say what some call - and I'm going to use the word, B-word - what some call the B-word face, I call the survival side eye.

ANDREWS: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit.

ANDREWS: I think it's - I mean, like I said before, I think it's definitely a protective mechanism that we pull on, but I think - I don't necessarily think it's a learned behavior. That's when we talk about black cool. We're talking about these parts of us as black people that aren't taught. If anything, handed down from generation to generation, but it's not a learned behavior or something that, you know, a white kid's going to do. It's something that I just almost did automatically, putting on this mask when you go outside in order to protect yourself, in order to feel as if you are keeping part of you for yourself and the outside world gets something different. And I think that black women do that in a really unique way.

MARTIN: Margo Jefferson, your essay is called "Eccentricity" and it's a very interesting meditation on language, among other things. What inspired you?

JEFFERSON: Well, I've always been very intrigued by my own mixed reactions to the kind of eccentricities, the extremities of black language. You know, the way we will make up new names constantly, you know, combined from fragments of old names, movie stars, you know, play heroes, etc. Or make up new verbs or just the way we dress in these wild, often outrageous ways.

But my feelings - and the feelings of many black people - are mixed, you know. We're impressed but we also have this tradition of, oh, my God, there we are with our loud colors again or, you know, oh, no, those loud sandals. And that's what I wanted to get at. Those mixed emotions.

And, also, the ways in which we have been culturally punished, meaning demeaned, diminished and rewarded for these extremes of style.

MARTIN: We're talking about black cool with two ladies who have written their own chapters on the definition of cool. Writers Margo Jefferson - that's who was speaking just now - and Helena Andrews have both contributed essays to the new collection, "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness." It's part of our Black History Month celebration, where we're digging into memoirs.

So, Margo, if I could just read a little bit from your essay about kind of the duality you're talking about. You write: (Reading) On the one hand, we are all proud of our people's contribution to the English language. There are centuries of vernacular resourcefulness.

But on the other hand, you also talk about how - this is very funny to me. It takes a minute to read. An important legacy of that essay is this. (Reading) We must constantly, continually reassess the forms negro eccentricity takes. Plenty of these forms are sanctioned now, thanks to generations of artists and scholars who were resourceful and committed enough to know how easily eccentricity can be seen as ignorance and vulgarity, a course of acute social embarrassment and, like any form developing in the moment, working at the ground level of culture, it experiments wantonly and makes what each of us considers big mistakes.

And then you have in parentheses: (Reading) Young negro men in pants hanging significantly below their butts. Big mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JEFFERSON: I also want to add that I chose to use the word, negro, because it's an - at this point - an eccentric word, but I still think a cool word. It changes according to situation, motivation, circumstance all the time.

MARTIN: Helena Andrews, I'm going to come back to you because you also talk about this. This is not an unmitigated good, this ability to wear a mask, because you said a mask can limit and imprison as much as it can liberate and empower.

I wanted to ask you about that and, if you don't mind, I'd also like to ask if you feel like you've gotten over that mask and you can put it on and take it off when it suits you.

ANDREWS: I think so. I mean, when you have this wall built up, obviously, it's protective. Right? You're building it up in order to protect yourself and be safe, but at the same time, now people can't get in. People can't see the real you. Can you even see the real you? Right? Because there's no mirror now. And I think, in exploring that, especially exploring in my own life, I had - I wrote about it in my memoir. I had a sorority sister who ended up committing suicide and none of knew. None of knew where she was and a lot of people would say that or it's obviously, many times, like a surprise, but...

MARTIN: You had no idea she was suffering?

ANDREWS: No. Not at all. You know what I mean? Because of - I feel part of it was this mask that she put up around us and because we couldn't see who she truly was, even though we thought we knew her so well. You know what I mean? So I felt like there's a duality there. It can protect you, but it can also definitely imprison you, so we have to teach - especially our young girls - yes. Sometimes, when you're walking down the street, you have to know, you know - you've got to have that (unintelligible) face on sometimes when you're walking down U Street or, you know, 125th or wherever you are.

But, at the same time, you have to know when to put that away and you have to know when to really check in with yourself and be your authentic self. There has to be a space for you to feel safe to be authentic.

MARTIN: Margo, a final thought from you.

JEFFERSON: Here, here. I completely agree with all of that. The thing - it's what's so good now is that, you know, the impenetrable masks of how we examine and critique ourselves as a people - that's slipping. We have so much more room than the old duality of celebration or denigration. You know, and I'm really thrilled about that.

MARTIN: I started that with a question, though, Margo. Is it that - and forgive me, but are black people inherently cool or do they have to work at it, in your view? I mean, part of this book is an exploration of the various ways of identity and ways of being that are now permitted of African-Americans. But I wonder - you know, it's a terrible question to ask, but do you think black people are inherently cool or do they have to work at it?

JEFFERSON: We want to believe we are. The effect of cool is to make the observer believe it's inherent. I don't believe any real cool is achieved without some kind of work. It's about technique.

MARTIN: Pulitzer Prize winner. Now, that is cool. Margo Jefferson is a New York-based cultural critic. She's author of "On Michael Jackson." She's also written and performed two theatre pieces. That's also cool. And she teaches writing and she's also working on another book. She was with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you, Margo.

JEFFERSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Helena Andrews is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her memoir - and I'm using a euphemism here - "B Word is the New Black" is now available in paperback and there is a film version in the works. And that's pretty cool, too. And Helena Andrews was here with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you for joining us.

ANDREWS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, outfits were pressed and the stars were dressed for last night's Academy Awards. We're going to talk about the night's big winners in both fashion and film, including Best Supporting Actress winner, Octavia Spencer.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: I share this with everybody. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for changing my life. Thank you, Stacey Snider, for changing my life. Please, wrap up. I'm wrapping up. I'm sorry. I'm freaking out. Thank you, world.

MARTIN: We wrap up the Oscars from the red carpet to the final curtain. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Big banks have made big profits in recent years by charging overdraft fees and young and low income customers have been hit particularly hard. Now, consumer watchdogs are asking how much of this is caused by poor money management by customers and how much is banks gaming the system? We'll take a closer look next time on TELL ME MORE.

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