We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang

Reviewed By

But if God got us then we gon’ be alright.

Do you hear me, do you feel me?

We gon’ be alright.

When Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”— a song that fuses a heavy hip-hop beat with a jazzy lilting melody—became the fourth single off his critically acclaimed album, To Pimp a Butterfly, much of the country was still on fire. Seven months earlier, Michael Brown had been killed by a police officer; a mere three months earlier, Eric Garner had been killed by a police chokehold. Neither of the officers involved had been indicted.

“Alright” has borne many unofficial titles since its 2015 release: “Song of the Year,” “Song of the Black Lives Matter Movement,” “Song of a Generation,” even “the New National Black Anthem.” So it is an apt title for music journalist Jeff Chang’s latest book, an essay collection that examines the current state of minority groups living in a not-yet-quite-equal America: We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.

Chang, the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America, is no stranger to the ways politics and culture can end up in a symbiotic tango, one sometimes tripping up the other so terribly that the entire dance comes apart at the seams. We Gon’ Be Alright is a parade of some of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking dances this country has seen; it looks glaringly close at buzzwords such as “affirmative action,” “white flight,” “gentrification,” “diversity,” “Beyoncé,” and—of course—“Donald Trump.” Its topics are so current, its tone so raw, that readers might wonder if Chang finished it minutes before it was due to the printer.

This, as well as Chang’s tendency to resemble that cool professor everyone had in college, is what keeps We Gon’ Be Alright from being a simple rehash of old news. Some passages inundate the reader with facts that might be required reading for a college sociology or black studies course:

Eighty percent of Latino and 74 percent of Black K-12 students attend majority-nonwhite schools. But whites remain the most segregated racial group of all. The average white student attends a public school that is 75 percent white. That fact mirrors another: the average white lives in a neighborhood that is 77 percent white—a rate of racial isolation that is at least twice that of all other racial groups.

But as Stanford University’s Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Chang does not afford—cannot afford—to let the facts speak for themselves. He has heard the counterarguments that have been made by those who do not believe the aforementioned discrepancies between whites and nonwhites are notable, or any cause for alarm. Thus, he digs deeper into the concept of “gentrification” by editorializing:

[G]entrification offers a peculiarly small frame for trying to understand these paradigmatic shifts. When rents reach the tipping point, when old industrial buildings flip or are razed for flimsy new ones made of glass and chipboard, when poor residents have to leave, the gentrification narrative hits its limit. It has the odd, counterintuitive effects of privileging the narratives of those able to hang on in the changing city. But what of those who are displaced? Gentrification has no room for the question “Where did the displaced go?” Instead, the displaced join the disappeared.

We Gon’ Be Alright often calls upon many of these “displaced” people themselves. Chang cites social media more than a few times as a thermometer for various controversies that we might have already forgotten—if only because newer ones have taken their place. He traces trending topics such as “#OscarsSoWhite” and “#ConcernedStudent1950” from their inceptions, further illustrating how cyber-speech can quite literally write history.

Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang

Most intriguing of all is Chang’s essay, “Hands Up: On Ferguson.” It comes late in the collection—long after readers have lost themselves in essays on topics such as protest, representation and resegregation—but it makes up nearly one-third of the entire book.

Like gentrification and Donald Trump, Ferguson is a topic that has been explored exhaustively in thinkpieces, podcasts, and the like. Nevertheless, Chang’s coverage of the events that unfolded directly before and after the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri feels completely necessary. For those of us who did not set foot in the city in the days that followed, he paints what the news did not show. His narrative remains painfully close, sometimes pulling out into a bird’s eye view but never straying too far from those who were on the ground:

MSNBC had a compound on the street and had asked [Reverend Osagyefou] Sekou to come on the air, but they would not allow him to bring in his staff to safety. So he cursed them out and drove his staff across the street into a parking lot behind a chop suey, where they would try to wait out the running battles. After an hour or so, Sekou stepped out of the little station wagon to smoke a cigarette, and a police helicopter flew up and dropped a spotlight on him. He feared he might be killed in that instant. He walked away from his car, and strode quickly toward the police line.

“You better call off your boy,” he yelled at the police lieutenant.

The cop laughed and said, “Oh, we like fucking with you, Rev.” And the helicopter flew off.

Other times, Chang has us not only asking, “What am I reading?” but “When am I reading?”

When windows were broken along Grand, police quickly moved to clear the corner. They fired rubber bullets at people on the sidewalk. Then they fired smoking tear gas canisters directly onto MoKaBe [a café for activists in St. Louis City] patio and through the café’s front door. Gas filled the interior, and dozens of stunned, choking, gagging patrons fled into the basement. As the stricken were treated with eye drops, riot cops marched behind the coffee house to fire more tear gas into the residential neighborhood to prevent patrons from leaving.

Finally, Chang gives us moments when Ferguson no longer feels like it happened two years ago, because just a few months ago—two years after Kendrick Lamar told us we were going to be alright—came Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and countless others.

By now, even the children had seen the body and blood of their neighbor and friend. Dozens more cops were assembling to secure the scene—a white policeman’s killing of an unarmed Black man—as if this street was theirs, as if the young man’s body had never been anything but a mere stage prop in a performance of racial authority. None of these facts were lost on the crowd.

We Gon’ Be Alright is an explanation and an exclamation. Chang reminds us that our country is screaming, even if we think we might not need the reminder. The only way we have any chance of being “alright”—of achieving some sort of liberation from the elements that keep us from being truly equal—is “if we are always,” Chang insists, “in the process of finding love and grace.”

Zakiya Harris is a writer and part-time creative writing instructor who holds an MFA from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, where she spends an inordinate amount of time falling down random Spotify rabbit holes (usually while working on her first novel, but not always). You can find her on Twitter at @zakiya_harris. More from this author →