Books

“We Gon’ Be Alright” by Jeff Chang

c.2016, Picador
$16 ($22 Canada)
193 pages

You had hope that things might be better.

We elected a black man as president, and there was a minute where you could almost see a bit of racial optimism. And then: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, #BlackLivesMatter, and are we back to where we started? Did we ever really make any progress at all? In the new book “We Gon’ Be Alright” by Jeff Chang, the answer is maybe — and it’s fixable.

The last four years have been rough.

Every time you turn on the TV or grab a newspaper, it seems as though another black life has been lost and “the list never seems to cease,” says Chang. It’s a trend that’s escalated to the point that it’s now “blown into white America as well,” which should coalesce us but actually seems to divide us all the more. We seem, as Chang says, to have “slid back toward segregation.”

The current political climate isn’t helping.

Over the past 12 months, whites who felt “undone” by wage gaps and who had “fears of falling” flocked to a candidate that understood how to gain their support by pointing accusing fingers at Mexicans, the Chinese and Muslims. When demonstrations were held to protest this, violence broke out, which only fueled the fires.

Diversity, says Chang, has become a “buzzword.” Schools strive for it but often do it wrong. Hollywood is still “overwhelmingly white,” as are the C-Suites of most major corporations. Colleges struggle with issues of affirmative action, while black students make the same demands of their administrations that they’ve been making “for three decades now.”

And then there’s housing.

Chang uses San Francisco as an example: as the tech industry grows, once-black neighborhoods with affordable rents have been taken over by new, elite, mostly-white residents. Overall, “cities are becoming wealthier and whiter,” they’re becoming divided largely by income, and housing projects are being torn down, bringing us full-circle back to resegregation.

“The revolution is never complete,” Chang says. “But redemption is out there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.”

So what can be done?

Author Jeff Chang (Courtesy photo)
Author Jeff Chang (Courtesy photo)

I didn’t think author Jeff Chang had many concrete solutions here, but in “We Gon’ Be Alright,” he offers an ocean of hope.

In the meantime — long before you get to that — Chang’s provocative essays are wide and quite discouraging. Here, he writes of all that’s wrong in an effort to show how we might feel like we’ve made occasional progress but that nothing’s really changed. Through resegregation, our “progress” is just a problem, rearranged. Most assuredly, that doesn’t make this an eager read.

And yet, there’s grace inside Chang’s observations — grace, which is exactly what he advocates in the end, in a stunning chapter that brings this whole book to a pinnacle.

I wondered if perhaps this book is pocket-sized on purpose: it seems like something you might want to tuck away close and consume in short bursts, in order to ponder. With “We Gon’ Be Alright,” that kind of reading might be better.

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer

WI Contributing Writer

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