Hip-hoppers & Do-gooders

An essay in two worlds

One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Originally published in Winter 1993 on page 46
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Graffiti artist and student Upski Wimsatt moves easily between his own middle-class, white culture and the culture of the black urban ghetto. The following exercise in, as Upski puts it, "stereo publication," provides some foundation for building inter-group understanding.

I write this essay in two worlds. One world is IN CONTEXT, a magazine of humane sustainable culture, read mostly by – I use the term loosely – white do-gooders. The other world is Fly Paper, an underground hip-hop magazine read mostly by – again I’m speaking loosely – black rappers, graffiti writers, and their friends. These are my two worlds.

I am like any other do-gooder at Oberlin College, my nice white college in Ohio, but since I am a hip-hopper, I have my hip-hop ways. Where my friends at college write articles in the school paper and on bathroom stalls in the library, I write mine with spray paint on real walls, in rap magazines, and in underground hip-hop papers. Where my friends distribute their publications to campuses and coffee houses, I distribute mine on busses and trains. Where my friends tutor "economically and racially disadvantaged children," I chill with the shorties who live on my street. Where my friends deliver speeches at college rallies, I save mine for city-wide hip-hop meetings. Where my friends write position papers about the black ghetto, I go there as a matter of course. Living in two worlds gives me more options as a do-gooder.

When I entered the world of black hip-hoppers, I didn’t think I’d be doing anybody any good. I was 11 years old and liked to breakdance. My school was predominantly black so I became black too. In time, I too could dance, fight, argue, and "talk" to girls. I saw what was unpleasant about white people, and I began not to behave like one.

I am like any other hip-hopper in Chicago, but since I am an educated white boy, I have my educated white boy ways. Where my homeys write their names in alleyways and bust rhymes at local hip-hop joints, I bust my pieces in national publications. Where my homeys purchase status symbols to prove they ain’t poor, I pinch pennies. Where my homeys strive to get that degree, I study whatever fascinates me. Where my homeys talk abstractly about the white man, I live with the beast in its natural habitat. Where my homeys fall back on clichés, I push forward into original shit. Living in two worlds gives me more options as a hip-hopper.

When I got into reading, I didn’t think I’d be boosting my hip-hop career. I was a curious 14-year-old. My parents were intellectual so I became intellectual too. In time, I, too, could analyze, research, argue, and "talk" to powerful men. I learned what was unpleasant about juvenile delinquents and I began not to behave like one.

I live in two separate worlds with two separate sets of possibilities. My own peace of mind requires me to integrate them. I integrate white friends into the black world. I integrate black friends into the white.

True, many black hip-hoppers already know more than I will ever know about whitebread culture, straight laced conformity and the American Dream. It’s because they spend more time working, watching TV, and worrying about what whites think than I do. A few even excel academically! But they lack an ease with hard-core whiteness. They distrust our nerdy manner, and shun the treasures of Western civilization (the art, music, language, thought, and science), which whites have traditionally used to humiliate blacks, but which blacks can now use to get even (without acting white or kissing ass). It takes being around powerful whites to notice how truly unimpressive they are.

And true, many white college do-gooders already know more than I will ever know about Third World history, literature, and the mechanics of oppression. It’s because they spend more time in multi-cultural studies classes and community service programs than I do. A few can even dance! What they lack is a black social sense, which to me is the best part. They misread the confrontational manner, the sense of irony and playfulness, and don’t grasp the subtle body language which puts black people at ease (just as certain blacks are able to put us at ease while others make us feel tense). It takes being around blacks who haven’t hung around whites enough to know how to act.

The hip-hoppers may be ingenious, but the world at large may never know it. They quibble and fight among themselves, but they can’t seriously address the white power structure. What a waste of energy it is. They feel hip-hop is their only option in life. The ones who make it learn to do their hustlin’ in corporate America.

The do-gooders may be smart too, but they come a dime a dorm-full. They preach, bicker, and whine among themselves, but they can’t seriously communicate with anyone outside of their own. What a waste of energy it is. They do not feel able to overcome their frustrating paralysis. The ones who make it unlearn what they learned in college.

Living in more than one world isn’t for everyone, but here are some hints for anyone who actually wants to do it.

For white do-gooders, the challenge is to explore the black ghetto (which exists of course because of white flight). Most ghettos are a lot more pleasant and normal than they appear to be on television, and it is actually possible to live and raise a white family in a calm, working class section of the ghetto. If you have children, white do-gooder, give them some nice ghetto exposure, the earlier on in life the better. Start by sending them to some kind of class or day camp that happens to be in a ghetto. Friendships will develop, and from these, other commitments.

Black hip-hopper, your challenge is to get inside the ivory tower of white civilization (which stems, of course, from black civilization). Make the library your second home. Read a wide range of challenging material, but make it fun for yourself. Read aloud to hear the music and cadence in the language. Consider the writer’s insights and test them critically against your everyday experience.

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