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'Who We Be' explores race and culture in America's recent past

In "Who We Be" author and cultural critic Jeff Chang looks at how pop art, TV commercials and political campaigns have deeply shaped how we talk about race today.
Courtesy Jeff Chang

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Rapper DMX captured the rift of racial tension in his 2001 song, "Who We Be," with the following lines:

The tears, the hugs, the love, the slugs
The funerals, the wakes, the churches, the coffins

The heartbroken mothers, it happens, too often
The problems, the things, we use, to solve 'em

The title from that song forms a point of departure for author and cultural critic Jeff Chang's new book, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America."

"Colorization is a term that I've been using to describe the demographic shifts that have occurred over the last century and the cultural shifts that come along with it," said Chang.

Race has long dominated U.S. history. Just in the last 50 years, the country has witnessed the civil rights movement, the impact of immigration, the election of President Obama and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

And even though we may see ourselves as "multicultural" or "post-racial"  – the buzz phrase used after Obama's first election – events like these have deeply shaped how we talk about race today.

Chang explores these themes, taking on pop art, TV commercials and political campaigns.

"I focus on a lot of artists and look at the way they can literally change the way we see each other," said Chang. To that end, he poses a series of tough questions about race, identity and perception – of ourselves and each other.

It's all part of an effort, he says, to look not just at where we've come from, but where we're headed.

"I'm hoping that the book sparks some conversations among people and that we're able to emerge over the next couple years with a better sense, not just of who we've been or who we are, but who we can be," he said.

One of the artists Chang looks at is LA-based visual artist Daniel Joseph Martinez, who stirred up controversy in the art world during a show at the Whitney in 1993. Here's how Chang describes the impact of that moment:

From Who We Be by Jeff Chang. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Upcoming event: Jeff Chang will be reading in Los Angeles on November 8. More info here.