The Assassination of Cool

The Assassination of Cool


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Jackie was on third base at a crucial time in the game. He took his usually

lead from third and then amazing stole home plate. The act, indicative of Jackie’s

courage and self-esteem, was so audacious that it stunned me and my grandfather.



The Assassination of Cool

A Commentary on an Ebony Magazine Article

By Amin Sharif


Ebony magazine recently published a list of the “25 Coolest Brothers of All Time.” While there are certainly Black men who may be at best borderline candidates for the list, what Ebony  has put together is a fairly acceptable enumeration of Black men who indeed display the classic traits of Old School Cool. Others on the list such as Prince should probably be eliminated. Jay-Z should probably head a list of New Cool players. New Cool builds on the reputation and approach of classic Old School Cool wisdom, expands upon it, and on certain levels transforms classic Cool into something new and vibrant. But more significantly, it offers young Black men a new way of being in the world. 

What should be remembered in any discussion of classic Cool, in its strictest sense, is that it is primarily focused on how a certain class of post World War II Black men came to find and establish meaning in the world that surrounded them. It is the set of attitudes and behaviors circumscribed by this post World War II generation of Black men that significantly makes up what is generally known as Cool. And as such, Cool as we know it today must be seen to have its exclusive authorship in the experiences of African-Americans in the United States. There is simply no other culture in the world that can be associated with Cool in its classic form other than that constructed mainly by African-American men within the United States.

New Cool which is all about dressing well and success is a post-modern reaction of a certain class of younger Black men to newly emerging social and economic conditions in America. It influences hip hop artists like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs to attempt to play the lead male role in a Raisin in the Sun or sample cuts by Miles Davis and Ray Charles. When you listen to the jazz and blues laced renditions of Alicia Keys or Jill Scott, that’s the New Cool percolating up from the streets. And even an old cat like me, can dig it.   

Brother William Jelani Cobb who authored the Ebony article on Cool has constructed a list that is not only entertaining but highly provocative. In discussions I have had with my contemporaries, all of whom were born between 1947 and 1952, heated discussions have always ensued whenever I bring up the article. It is primarily from these heated, and sometimes overheated, discussions that the material for this commentary is drawn. Three points of contention always seem to emerge among older African-American males when any discussion of this article takes place. 

First, every one of my friends had problems with the definition of “Cool” as constructed by Brother Cobb. He defines Cool generally as a “form of Negro Zen.” In the minds of the practitioners of classic Old School Cool, this definition is at best truncated and a little misleading. The main objection to this definition by many older Black men is that it lacks historical context. Although they all will readily admit that there has always been a kind of enlightened self-reflection among the practitioners of Cool. Thelonious Monk, one of the coolest of the Cool, was after all known to leave his piano and dance in a trance on stage.

Cool might better be defined at its core as the post World War II reaction of a certain class of Black men to Jim Crow segregation. Cool must be seen as part of a continuum in which Black men sought and still seek to define themselves in terms of power, creativity, and dignity outside of established norms. So by self-definition, Cool encompassed from its origin a certain amount of non-conventional thinking.

 For all conventional thinking produced by the dominnant American culture sought to subjugate the Black man to roles that dictated his subservience to white control and power. The practitioner of classic Cool honed their skills in a racist atmosphere that viewed Black men as little more then beasts of burden. They sought by a process of artistic creativity, intellectual exploration, and an effected aloofness to transform the Black mythological man/animal that existed in the minds of white America into a fully realized [hu]man.

Cool reached its pinnacle in the rebellious expressions of lifestyles and creativity found in many modern jazz musicians of both the Bop and post-Bop era. But it would be a mistake to think that Cool resided exclusively in the hands of a few gifted musicians. Though Cool began as a non-conventional way of coping with the daily provocations and challenges to being a fully realized Black man in white racist America of the late 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s by jazz musicians, posing Cool soon became a strategy for any Black man who wanted to step outside of the conventional roles established for them by both Black and white conservative forces. And nowhere was Cool more evident than on the streets and in the jazz clubs of urban Black America. Places where Jim Crow laws were less likely to be strictly enforced. Still it cannot be denied that classic Cool, Bop, and Post-Bop jazz are so tightly woven together that it is hard to find where one begins and the other ends. This is why not only Miles Davis but myriads of jazz musicians from Monk, Dizzy, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins to Coltrane—many whom preceded Miles and came after him—must also be seen as contributing to what it means to be Cool.   

Today, we find a New School of Cool reflected in the deep musing of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis for which he has been duly rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize. Wynton is only one of a group of young jazz musicians who have resurrected Cool and maintained it in the face of the popular vulgarism known as Smooth Jazz. Before Wynton, jazz masters such as the Modern Jazz Quartet stood as guardians of classic and elegant Old School Cool jazz—not to be confused with the pitiful cacophony that passes as “cool jazz” today. We need not mention the beauty and sophistication expressed in the style and styling of women like Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Diane Reeves, Abbey Lincoln and others—all of whom represent the female equivalent of what it means to be Cool.  Yes, you can be a Sister and be Cool.

Without an understanding of the historical and even the intellectual context from which Cool emerged, it is easy to understand why certain brothers were favored over others for Brother Cobb’s list.  Popular style often trumps substance in these matters. This lack of historical context is probably why the one of the “coolest” of the Cool—Jackie Robinson—was left off the list, an oversight that we will elucidate upon later. In any case, the resulting article has been viewed by many older African-American males as at best a form of unwitting character assassination of Cool on one hand or representing  blatant ignorance of what Cool stands for on the other.

The second point of contention/inquiry that arose among my friends to the article is why did Ebony magazine decide to publish such an article in the first place? For generations, Ebony and Jet, along with locally published African-American newspapers, was the primary source of information for Black people, if one excludes the Black Church. Back in the Day, a Black family would often display the latest issue of Ebony on their coffee tables in the same manner that white families would display Time and Life Magazine. Such action alone was indicative of the status of Ebony and Jet magazines within the Black Community. The conclusion of my friends was that Ebony has now drifted into the realm of sensationalism that sadly characterizes much of today’s media. This drift is something that we all concluded as very un-Cool. But why else would Ebony’s list be dominated by so many pop and movie stars, many of whom may be the best in their respective industries but have little nothing to do classic Cool?

The third point of contention concerning the article was the exclusion of Jackie Robinson (and other Black men of his importance) from the list. For many older African-American males, Jackie played a pivotal, if not singular, role in the development of Black male self-esteem which is itself an essential aspect of Cool. Again, let me explain my friends’ objection within a historical context. When Jackie integrated baseball, it was not simply about whether a Black man would be allowed to play baseball besides white men. The integration of baseball represented the emergence within the psyche of both white and Black America of a new kind of Black masculinity and an inferred equality with white men. 

Prior to Jackie, the Black athlete was considered to be no more than a brute. And it was precisely as a brute that the Black man was tossed into the boxing ring. As a savage warrior, the Black boxer—arguably the most popular of sport’s figure of the modern era—was viewed as an extension of the myth founded in slavery of the hypersexual and overly aggressive Black male. It was in this form—and in this form only—that the Black athlete became wholly acceptable to white America. Jack Johnson and Paul Robeson were but the first of many Black men summarily sanctioned for stepping outside of their role as the savage warrior. As James Baldwin (who was defiantly Cool) put it, such punishment was merely the “price of the ticket” for being Black and male in America. It was only with the emergence of a fearless and articulate Muhammad Ali that the role of the Black boxer as savage warrior came to a timely demise. But Muhammad Ali’s accomplishment came over a decade after Robinson’s breaking of the color line in professional baseball.

What Robinson did was bring an icy coolness to America’s most loved game. Before tens of thousands of skeptical and many outwardly racist fans, Jackie maintained his composure when many Black men would have simply walked away or refused the challenge of breaking the color line. No matter what white fans did they could not rattle Robinson. Their racial epitaphs and threats rolled off his back. In this atmosphere of open hostility, not only did Jackie survive by his dazzling display of Cool but he eventually excelled at his craft. And in doing so, Robinson personally exorcised the demons of black inferiority from not only the minds of white America but our own imprisoned Black minds. His actions could be paraphrased today as “I can show you better than I can tell you” street theology.

Jackie had to play twice as hard as any white player on the field while at the same time being scrutinized by the Black and white press in America as well as the press throughout the Western world. For when Robinson was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Latin America, and Asia were just emerging. And men of color throughout the world were redefining what it means to be free in a world of their own making.

It was within this context of white doubt and Black exhilaration that Jackie performed a trick not even the most skilled Black political leader of his day could pull off. Jackie Robinson made millions of African-American men visible to white America. Jackie Robinson gave Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man depth and definition at a time when the average African-American had deep misgiving about their humanity. On the streets of Black America, Jackie became the “Man.” Jackie Robinson was Cool.    

The weight of Jackie’s Coolness came home to me one day when I was watching a playoff or World Series game with my grandfather on an old black and white television. Jackie was on third base at a crucial time in the game. He took his usually lead from third and then amazing stole home plate. The act, indicative of Jackie’s courage and self-esteem, was so audacious that it stunned me and my grandfather. We never talked about it openly-it was not Cool to do such things back then. After all, I was a child and he was a grown man. Black tradition dictated that I stay in my place. But I often wondered what my grandfather felt that day seeing Jackie steal home. Did he perceive that a new world was emerging in which the dignity so long denied him had been handed over to others? Perhaps, he thought nothing of it at all. Still, I wish that the wall that remained between me and my grandfather my entire life would have been lowered for just a second. For, in that second, we could have rejoiced at the death of the notion of Black inferiority. That would have been one of the Coolest moments of my life.

There was another vaguer and much harder to articulate point of contention to the Ebony article by my friends. It was surprisingly evidenced in their deeply felt disdain at the casual way in which the article was put together. The article is to say the least careless in its approach to Cool and woefully lacking in depth. But why should this concern an older generation of Black men who have witnessed the general decline in the intellectual engagement of younger generations with anything serious for decades? Their concerns escaped me until I examined the nature of their contentions more closely. It was then that I realized just how much of their identity as Black men was invested in Cool.

These practitioners of classic Cool experienced first hand the devastating impact that the white superiority equals Black inferiority equation had on their fathers, uncles, and brothers. Many of my friends had gone to war in Viet-Nam, marched in the Civil Rights era and wrestled with demons both internal and external to earn the right to be considered men within American society. They had done so with an arsenal of weapons both material and spiritual in nature. And among the most reliable of these weapons had always been their sense of Cool. In this context, Cool may be said to encompass for them a kind of unalterable faith in their ability to survive whatever life threw at them. For these men, Cool is to be counted among the most sacred things in their lives.

It was then that I began to understand why this latter contention had been so hard for my friends to articulate. Within the Code of Cool, there is a rule that states one must never show his true feelings to anyone. What my friends felt about Cool was held so deep within them that it could only be alluded to by vague inference. And this inability on the part of my friends to articulate such a deeply felt emotion, as hard as it is to admit, was my first observable evidence of a negative side of Cool.      

It is precisely because so much of what is Cool can only be understood by inference that makes it so controversial. For example, older jazz musicians and devotees often refer to themselves as “cats.” Why? It is because the cat is an animal that is fiercely independent and aloof. You may make a dog roll over. You may make a parrot sing and talk. You can even make a snake climb out of basket. But a cat, no such luck. The cat says to all and sundry, “Accept me as I am or leave me be.” This was the attitude of many jazz musicians who posed Cool during Jim Crow segregation. And, this attitude was codified when Miles started playing with his back turned to his fans. While Miles’ act held many ramifications for jazz, those who were acquainted with Cool understood and even justified what he did. They knew that one of the many questions implied by Miles’ action was “Do you squares have any idea how much pain playing this music has cost me?” It was when so many empty accolades came back in response to Miles’ painful query that jazz began to be seen as just another form of pop art. Thus Miles as jazz genius became Miles the rock star. Having seen the vulgarization of jazz, the concern by my friends for the status of Cool is probably more then justified.    

It is precisely this question of what things cost us as African-Americans that cut to the core of the Ebony article. One wonders if Brother Cobb ever considered the price being Cool might cost a Black man back in the day when he sat down to compose this list? And if he did understand the cost as epitomized in the pain of Miles, Bird, Billy and Bud artistically and Martin and Malcolm politically, why did he not take more care and consideration in the compilation of the list.

It is clear that a few of these so called coolest brothers have never endured any of the personal or collective pain that gave birth to Cool. Of these few, most could not tell you the difference between what is meant by “going to meet the man” as summarized in the sigh of Rosa Parks as she took her seat on a segregated bus in the heart of the southland and becoming the “man” ala Jackie and Miles. And it is precisely the ability to make such distinctions that separates those who are truly Cool from those who are not.

It may sound like I am being especially critical of Brother Cobb. But I hold no real antagonism toward the young man, After all, he did have the courage to bring Cool out from the shadows and into the light. For this, my friends and I applaud him. If we are disappointed in him, it is only at his lack of understanding of the depth and breath of Cool. For to misunderstand the significance of Cool is to misunderstand a generation and class of Black men who were among the first to say collectively to white America, we will be men made in our own self-conceived image. For this generation and class of Black men to live any other way in the world would have been simply impossible . . . simply un-Cool.  

Related article:

posted 11 August 2008

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Salaam, I see that the article has already caused some discomfort.—Sharif  There will always be generational conflicts. Cool is also related to one’s  image of a “conventional”  manliness. Prince is a cultural rebel, and comes off rather feminine and bisexual, an image which runs against the grain of that which would have been held up in the  40s, 50s, and early 60s as examples of respectability, whether in the black or white communities. His image of rebel comes out clearly as we see in his film. One might say he’s related to a kind of German expressionism, in which emotion and intuition are more valued than control and restraint, values couched in the traditional concept of Cool, as you expressed it. With Prince, individual expression is valued over a responsibility to a community that is at war with those who wish to demean blacks generally.

Prince was a beneficiary of that struggle and that Cool. Sometimes people do a quick read, hairs stand up on their neck, and they imagine that a reckless attack has been made on them personally because they are fans of this or that popular demigod.

Your setting up Jackie Robinson as the traditional model of Cool was excellent. That grounded explicitly your historical Cool. Prince is of a different era and breed, born and reared in a time that most of the opposition that birthed the notion of Cool had been sublimated or defeated.   For me, Sidney Poitier is my personal idea of Cool. Again, we see the central notions of control and inner restraint. Other notions of Cool must recognize the shoulders upon which subsequent notions of Cool are expressed. In short, I stand by what you wrote.—Rudy

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In what aspect of this (these) definition(s) would Prince go lacking????—Vince   Prince’s humping on the stage is one image I recall vividly from his film. That is, his disregard for conventional notions of respectability as we used to know it. We were at war with the dominant notions of the Jim Crow era about black inferiority and black immorality, passed down from the slavery era. All justifications for the continual suppression of their rights as citizens. There is a long road between Jackie Robinson and Prince.   Those notions of inferiority and immorality have returned of late  under the cover of black men’s “lack of responsibility,” which was recently sounded by Obama.  They were first sounded by Ronald Reagan and his expose of the immorality and extravagance of the [black] Welfare Queen riding around in a pink caddy.—Rudy

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How does one go about resisting conditions that do not confront you directly or in your own life?—Vince

One must read first with love and sympathy. For me that’s the first rule of criticism.   I love “Purple Rain” and other of his pieces.  I admire what he has achieved. But that is not the point of Sharif’s essay. His is a historical defense of what initially was called Cool. There is sufficiently enough in his essay to defend his point of view. But one has to go below the surface or beyond several paragraphs. The essay has to be taken in as a whole. Understanding a piece of literature requires as much work from the reader as it took for the writer to pull it together. The Prince objection stood out for me as well. But I read on. I had never thought of Jackie Robinson as representative of the Cool. It was a stroke of genius. Sharif’s essay is a personal statement with a great deal of insight from which we all can gain.—Rudy

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What if hopefully the average Joe Blackman stumbles upon ChickenBones and wants to start to learn and grow, these intellectual articles that tell young people everything they identify with and believe in and hold dear is just garbage is part of what continues to ply upon the gash? —Vince  Yeah, you’re right about that. That’s the chance one takes when one writes anything. The writer cannot control the thinking of every person who reads his work and how he will respond. The writer can only assure that there has been enough placed in the piece to provide a balance and understanding that in some way is representative of his intent. Much of the value of a work depends on what the reader brings to the reading. If one is shallow one will do a shallow reading. If one has depth developed over the years from many readings, one will read with depth and find new meanings and insights. To put it cheaply, it takes two to tango.—Rudy

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Salaam, Vince,

You seem to be a bit upset and I don’t want to offend you. I am not against you having heroes. I am not against Prince. But I did live through the Age of Cool and I think I know something about it. Prince is an entertainer but his work is based in popular culture. If you know anything about the artists of the Cool Era, they went beyond pop culture in all aspects of their lives. I suppose Prince can be considered a giant in the field of Pop Culture—just as Michael Jackson. But that doesn’t make him Cool. Nor does it make Michael Jackson Cool.

I think that you are confusing success and star quality with Cool. Cool transcend all of that. Many of the coolest of the Cool musicians were never commercially successful. If you get a chance rent Ken Burn’s film on jazz. There’s a scene in the film when Dizzy talks about playing jazz in the segregated South. Dizzy was beaten and run out of town. Did Prince ever experience anything on that order? Cool is about the price you pay for being a black man—and under what condition you pay them.

While Prince may have paid some price, I doubt he had to go through anything of that order. Mingus, the great jazz bassist, called his biography Beneath the Underdog. And that expression describes the status of black men during segregation. Prince and the generation of artists he represents can and will never know the reality that Mingus title encompasses. And again, I do not want to belittle Prince and his accomplishments. But If Cool was just about dazzling clothes, money, and success—everybody would be Cool. 

You end your e-mails with a quote from James Baldwin—who should have been on the list of all time coolest black men. Jimmy was known for his quick wit and insightful works. To me, one letter of a word penned by him is worth a hundred songs by Prince. What made Jimmy cool was that he became popular not because he was talented. He used his talent to show the world an aspect of Black life that no one thought was possible. Jimmy pushed pass all the boundaries that were set against him. He did so not for the sake of success. Jimmy did it for the sake of his people. And that is why Baldwin is Cool.

You tell me what Prince has done to fill the shoes of Baldwin and then I will consider him Cool. Until then, he will remain a great pop star. But, he will not be Cool.—sharif

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The Yoruba of West Africa recognize the mystical quality of “itutu” or “coolness” as a virtue.—William Jelani Cobb, “The genius of cool” (Ebony 2008)

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An Aesthetic of the Cool—The aim of this study is to deepen the understanding of a basic West African/Afro-American metaphor of moral aesthetic accomplishment, the concept cool. The primary metaphorical extension of this term in most of these cultures seems to be control, having the value of composure in the individual context, social stability in the context of the group.

These concepts are often linked to the sacred usage of water and chalk (and other substances drenched with associations of coolness and cleanliness) as powers which purify men and women by return to freshness, to immaculate concentration of mind, to the artistic shaping of matter and societal happening.

Coolness in these senses is therefore the purifying means by which worlds are taken out of contingency and raised to the level of aspiration. Put another way, coolness has to do with transcendental balance, as in Manding divination, where good outcomes are signaled by one kola half up, one down, and this is called “cool.”  —Robert Farris Thompson JSTOR

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There is an African conception of cool that predates all of this.  I’ve heard some  historians discuss this over the years and it has to do with command of the situation.  This command means that the one designated as “cool” is in control of him/her self and surroundings and does not panic or wilt under pressure.  This IS Jackie Robinson,  Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Curt Flood, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charshee McIntyre and others who weren’t going to be knocked off track by silliness but in touch with themselves, their culture, their history and unafraid of whatever lay in the darkness before them.  Baldwin, Chester Himes all expressed a variety of definitions of cool in their writings via characters that exuded grace under fire.  Toni Morrison does it and we have known hundreds of others, over a greet many years, who have done the same.


We be’s cool

we don’t be scared and

if we is,

you ain’t gon’ know it

’cause we too cool

to show it.

Cool exudes a chill whenever

a non recently descended African

(we all be’s from Ol duvai…Dinquinesh’s


some of us got filtered through

other environments and cultures

but those who stayed

close to the root

kept the link to cool.

Are the hip hoppers cool?

No more or less than the

rest of us


we knows cool when we

sees cool and we be’s


when time and


calls for it.

chill now………..chill’ens.

Your cartoonist, ChazzE

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Dear Rudy, Chuck’s note reminded me of Robert Farris Thompson’s 1973 essay ‘An Aesthetic of the Cool.’  I have attached the PDF file for the essay. —Peace, Jerry

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Thanks, Jerry. I have accessed the PDF file and have made a digital copy and will make it available.—Rudy

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I see you got some more comments. That’s good. I am well aware of the African concept of Cool. But I contend that it has nothing to do with what was created by African-American males. Cool is a cultural product that was produced long after the cultural connections between Africa and the United States were damaged if not severed. I take nothing away from Africa and the Cool produced by African Culture. But, I doubt if what I am talking about can be traced back to Africa. Perhaps, it would be instructive if someone would write an article tracing or linking the Cool produced in Africa with the Cool produced in the United States. The article would be groundbreaking and I would be glad to comment and contribute to any discussion of a broader concept of Cool.—amin sharif

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You may be right. But there is probably no way of proving that there was no influence or even direct influence. That is, that African “coolness” was or was not an American cultural artifact. Well, more than just an artifact, but was a daily tool used as a means to survive American slavery and Jim Crow. It was Cool or the Rope (or death). But your view is well-taken. The Cool of the 1940s and 1950s is indeed distinct, like the blues or like jazz is distinct, though influenced in ways by the conjunction of African, European, and American cultures.   The common elements are control and restraint under fire. Maybe one might say it is the code of the warrior. From your perspective, of course, there is also grace and style and of other elements uniquely Negro. Ralph Ellison would probably have taken your position. Baraka and Gates would probably be more aligned to RFT’s argument. Nevertheless, it is a delightful discussion.   Jerry Ward, Jr. was kind enough to send me the PDF file for Robert Farris Thompson’s 1973 essay “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” which indeed takes a look at “coolness” in some African cultures.  I am not sure exactly what the url is but I copied it digitally and will send you what I have if you desire it . You may note also that RFT published a book by the same title, which can be purchased at this link: An Aesthetic of the Cool. Rudy

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Do I recall somewhere in Le Roi Jones’ Dutchman, somebody saying that “cool” is really not African?   My definition of cool, in any case, is illustrated by Duke Ellington in a top hat.  I think this says it all.—Wilson

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Yeah, I forgot about Duke. Strange because I continually use his line, “Loving you madly.” Kalamu has a short short story Another Duke Ellington Story, which includes these lines:

“‘Mrs. Squire, I’m sure you have a lovely first name. Might I inquire what it is?’ Duke held his gracefully manicured right hand waist high in front of Mrs. Squire.

Mrs. Squire was slightly taken aback by the man’s forwardness. She had not touched many negroes before and though she appreciated his musicianship she was not interested in any personal contact with this mister Duke Ellington. But he spoke with such manners and deference in his tone, and he bent at the waist slightly in sort of a half bow, and his smile seemed so sincere; her hand floated forward more drawn by Duke’s personal magnetism than guided by her own will” (Another Duke Ellington Story).

It’s a real nice short story. I know nothing of its source. Or how Kalamu came to write it. Rudy

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Fellows, I think the point of confusion lies in the fact that we forget how things continue but, in the process, undergo change.  Cool is spiritual and the spirit travels without regard to time and manifests itself in accordance with the need for it to appear.  I’ve done some reading on African military styles and the conception is there. . . . Native Americans had tests that Europeans described as “stoic.”

If I may digress for a moment to make a point about how concepts morph, I have to tell you a story about a lesson given me by Joyce King’s husband, Dr. Hashimi Maiga (who looks like my late Uncle Ralph).  I was visiting them at their home in New Orleans and Hashimi (with his sly sense of humor) asked me to identify a blues player on one of his tapes.  I went crazy trying to come up with a name.  I was unsuccessful. 

The player, he told me, was playing melodies that were older than the Atlantic Slave Trade.  On the guitar, you heard every element of what we call “country blues” in some circles, “roots” in others. But the flatted fifths and dissonances that we hear in John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Silas Hogan and scores of other elder players and their followers were present. 

With his usual smile after stumping me, he told me that the melodies were being played on a modern guitar (instrumental morph?) by his cousin Ali Farka Toure. 

Cool, as with other aspects of culture, morphs accordingly.    I’m speaking as a member of a society that existed in the South during the period of intense American apartheid.  The system made our parents and neighbors hold on to their base values which were not European but African in their passage from my grandparents and great grandparents and the few folk who were still around that had memories of their childhood as slaves.  One of our problems is a tendency to run away from our roots without examining African survivals in our culture.  These go beyond religion and the influence of the “Massa” culture that so many of our folk are willing to accept.  Remember what George Clinton admonished. “Free your mind . . . and your ass will follow.” CES

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African survivals in our culture

I am not a musicologist. I don’t know what is the truth here. I have heard of the flatted fifth. But I do not know what it is. I know nothing technically about music. I even have problems when listening to a band telling the difference in the sounds of a trombone, a saxophone, and a trumpet.

If the guitarist had been some musician from the African bush, I would be more inclined to find your example quite amazing. But in that the African guitarist was using a modern instrument and was subject to be influenced by American blues as a contemporary of ours, I am not convinced by Maiga’s demonstration. He seems not only a humorous but a trickster as well..

Samuel Charters in his study The Poetry of the Blues also found similarities but eventually concluded that the African and the American were distinct and different, being rather determined by sociology and time. 

I am willing nevertheless to agree that there was some “morphing” that occurred, but probably on a very semi-conscious level, as between Mississippi blues players and Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass, and Elvis Presley, king of rock ‘n roll, influenced but yet distinctive. 

Yet, I will go as far as to say, that American culture is an africanized culture.—Rudy

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I find all of this interesting and will check out the essay when I have a minute, but my interest in the word “cool” is more from a U.S. African American “usage” perspective and what I note is that the word is alive and well at least in my neck of the planet. Each generation seems to pick it up and make it there own “but” the definition/connotation, i.e., to “keep your cool” has held fast—though I doubt very many of my daughter’s peers (she’s 25) know anything about the history of it among Black folk. Peace, Mary

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Being Cool or Nothingness

There were some kids in the classroom acting up and using cell phones to access music. I was substituting at the high school and so they saw that as a chance to have their way. I told them to put the phones away and of course, they just ignored me and tried to be slick when I tried to discover who was doing what. Then a regular teacher, a young white guy, burst in and seized the phones.

So the guys got up on their racial horse of resentment. And in an impulsive response, I said, “Be cool, be cool.” And they thought that was funny. But they cooled out and finally put the phones away. 

Yeah, I think one would need a veritable small African American dictionary to nail down all the variations and expressions of and on the word “cool,” as it has been used in the last half century.

Oh by the way, you’re cool. All artists and writers at their best are in some fashion, cool, in that they displace conflict and disorder, into that which is peace and orderly. But writing can also be used to enhance reckless and mindless conflict.

Some would probably think that 50 cent and Snoop Dogg are cool. The post-70s generations have, I think, flipped the script. That which the pre-60 generations speak of has to do with control and restraint and a classical response to American puritanism and white supremacy, of which Sharif speaks. Check out Kalamu’s Another Duke Ellington Story, as well.

The so called Hip Hop  generation, I believe, has turned Cool on its head to mean individual rebellion, the ability to get away with it, and make a dime on it. That person is COOL, by the young wannabes. Now I haven’t given this much thought. But that is my impression at this moment. Hip Hop COOL is expressively anti-authority, anti respectability, anti-restraint, anti-control. One has to place it below the category of “Do Your Own Thing” or “Everything is Everything.”

Of course, they are not as individually creative as they think. They got uniforms (hoods, oversized pants, shirts, and jackets, T-shirts, sports shirts, sport caps turned backwards) and they are often carbon copies of one another, worshipping the same STARS and uttering mindlessly their rhymes on the street and in the classroom. They are continually feeling themselves up with words and images from CDs, DVDs, iPods, the internet.

It is anti-generational, which is rather artificial because of its lack of independence—“dissing” all that which preceded it, though it is dependent on everything before it for its own existence.

One might say it is a kind of black social anarchy. But anarchy has rules and direction for its attack, usually upward and at institutions, but this hip hop COOL attack is familial, generational, cultural. We see it in films, as in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, in which the older son played by Samuel Jackson has respect for nothing. One might then say today’s cool has Nothingness as its demigod. And SUCCESS today is usually a consequence of Nothingness, one might call it its oldest child.

What makes these new COOL cats saggin and hoodin and doo-raggin extraordinarily dangerous is that they are highly tech-oriented and shallow—cell phones, text-messaging, MySpace, Facebook; operating in small cliques, glorifying gang culture, male and female, with their own specialized language. It takes an expert to get around them in that they are usually much more sophisticated and secretive than previous youth generations.—Rudy

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Rudy, this is so well-put—thanks for sharing. As you’ve stated before it’s important for us to dialogue about whatever, whenever we can—this is where new understandings, ideas, questions etc. happen. The broad overview of hip hop language/music/rap etc. you share here is in part on point but doesn’t reflect the whole scene. What’s happened is Hip Hop  culture (rap, flows, crunk, clothing, Mcing, DJing, b-boying) which started (as we know) as a social movement has been commodified—once dollas come into play corruption or fuckupdedness follows behind it like stank does shit.

And yes, to make it work you have to have young brothers who sellout as in are willing to do what “they” want to make that big money.   The flip is the original movement “still” exists (see for example Omekongo Dbinga, KRS1, Nas, The Roots, LL Kool J (consistently positive, etc. etc.

The problem is the media is an oligarchy that controls what gets played. The problem is the young people today aren’t being taught the history of Hip Hop—so they have no gauge/standard to draw from. For them (my experience anyway) it’s really not about the “’words” sometimes but just the pattern you put them in, the backbeat, does it sound good. On the other hand, I have encountered (countless) numbers of youth who are talented as hell—spit rhymes that make you stop, sit down “and” think, write wonderful socially conscious pieces about Malcolm and Sojourner, and the streets they live on all of that.   I think you have a lot of these babies you are encountering can use. I know they seem hard-headed and like they don’t care sometime—but they do. A great opportunity to reach these kids—if they ain’t doin’ the lessons (almost always the case with substitutes) don’t worry about it—try more of what you wrote me about a few months ago…they “are” reachable and they want somebody to interrupt their bullshit and teach em something.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall for example, if you decided one day to get a discussion going with them about hip hop . . . ask them 1) what is it? 2) what’s the big deal? 3) why it’s been a around so long  4) What do “they” know about its history . . . for example, do they know that scholars are studying hip hop? Peace, Mary

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 18 August 2012




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