4. Cool Muslim Dandies: Signifyin’ Race, Religion, Masculinity, and Nation

From: Muslim Cool

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139 4 Cool Muslim Dandies Signifyin’ Race, Religion, Masculinity, and Nation Eight different Black American men adorned the covers of the August 2008 issue of Ebony magazine. These eight different men on eight different covers represented an effort by the magazine to pay homage to one very powerful characteristic they had in common: Black cool. These men had been declared among “the 25 coolest brothers of all time” (Cobb 2008). Featured in a twenty-page photo spread, the members of this distinguished cohort included Jimi Hendrix, President Barack Obama, and Jay-Z. Alongside each photo was a brief explanation of what made each man cool, be it his walk, his virtuosity, his poise, and so on. The photo spread began with a short introduction, “The Genius of Cool: The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time,” written by historian William Jelani Cobb. Cobb explains: It doesn’t take much to understand that “cool” is a form of Negro Zen, honed under the worst of circumstances this land could offer. If America built its society on efforts to keep black folk perpetually off balance, cool was the ultimate retaliation—a way of not only remaining balanced, but making it look effortless. Look at the key elements of cool—selfpossession , elegance, and the ability to be fluent in body language—and it becomes obvious that cool was our antidote to the heat of hateration. (Cobb 2008, 68–69) In this introduction, Cobb attempts to parse out the origins and elements of a “you know it when you see it” type of social phenomenon. Cool is easily identified but remains theoretically elusive. Cobb identifies the earliest iterations of cool from the Yoruba of West Africa—an ethnic group whose members were among the enslaved in the Americas . Yet in spite of these distant Yoruba roots, Cobb sees cool, as we 140 | Cool Muslim Dandies now know it, as inextricable from the specific Black experience in the United States. Cobb argues that cool is a spirit-mind-body state of equilibrium and insight that has enabled U.S. Black Americans to withstand the assaults of white supremacy. Furthermore, Cobb posits that cool is a practice that has been perfected and passed on through the language of the body. Thus, cool is something performative and embodied that we are able to “see,” and therefore recognize, over time and space. In this definition, cool is fundamentally U.S. Black American (thereby making my earlier use of the modifier “Black,” as in “Black cool,” redundant). But while Cobb appears to locate what makes cool cool in the U.S. Black American experience, his emphasis on cool as an embodied practice reiterates Stuart Hall’s (1998) claim that style and the body are the repertoires of Black expressive culture. These repertoires, which are not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures, highlight the fact that the Blackness of cool is fundamentally Diasporic. Published eight months after the election of the first Black U.S. president , the photo spread is a celebration. It is a visual redemption of U.S. Black men from the “crisis of Black masculinity.” The belief that Black male life is especially precarious is common within U.S. Black American communities. This belief became even more widespread in the wake of the numerous highly publicized deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police and of vigilante citizens beginning with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Yet this precariousness also means social death. For example, social justice activists have shown that Black, particularly male, outcomes can be predicted in grade school. What they initially called the “school-to-prison pipeline” traces the high rates of Black male incarceration to systemic disparities in education, housing, wealth, health, and state violence. Recently, I have heard activists rename this process the “womb-to-prison pipeline.” This renaming expresses the reality faced by many Black men, namely, that subjected to the necropolitics of the state (Mbembe 2003, 40), Black men in the United States may be counted among the “living dead.” Three years into the second term of the first Black president, Comptonbased emcee Kendrick Lamar released his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly , to critical acclaim. The song “i” on that album is set up as a live performance that is interrupted by what sounds like a fight between audience members. Lamar breaks up the fight by passionately asking: Cool Muslim Dandies | 141 How many niggas we done lost, bro? This, this...


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Relations with Muslims.
  • Muslims -- United States -- Social conditions.
  • African American Muslims -- Social conditions.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
  • Hip-hop -- Social aspects -- United States.
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