Once upon a time black male “cool” was defined by the ways in which black men confronted hardships of life without allowing their spirits to be ravaged. They took the pain of life and used it alchemically to turn that pain into gold. That burning process required high heat in the form of soul power. being cool was about maintaining control while never looking as though you might have lost control.
Black male coolness became a way to define what it was to be cool. In black culture, a black male had coolness by his ability to withstand heat and pain while remaining centered. Self-control is a behavior that can be linked to the black male’s inability to control his oppression.
This paradox of the need for self-control in the face of a lack of control nurtured a cool attitude and became a way of survival. Coolness became almost Stoic, in that the black male had to continually decide what was up to him and what was not. He had to learn to care about things that he believed was in his power and show indifference for areas that where not.
So what is black male coolness? Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem in 1959 called “We Real Cool”. Her inspiration for the poem came from her youth as she walked in her community and passed by a pool hall full of boys. When considering how life for a black youth was at that time, she thought to herself “I wonder how they feel about themselves?” Brooks captured the moment and turned it into the seven pool players at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool.
We Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
This poem touched on a variety of themes, but particularly rebellion, youth, mortality, racial tensions, civil rights, fighting the establishment, and music despite its short length. In modern times, I believe that black male coolness relates to these same themes as an indicator of the times. Coolness can be felt by how a person remains calm even under the most overwhelming moments of their lives.
So when and why did it become so cool for black men to be cool? What are its origins? It might be hard to believe, but coolness first developed in black culture mainly as a behavioral attitude practiced by black men in the United States during the time of slavery. Slavery made necessary the cultivation of special defense mechanisms which employed emotional detachment and irony.
A cool attitude helped slaves and former slaves cope with exploitation or simply made it possible to walk the streets at night. They used it during those times when blacks were chattel and thought of as beasts to out-wit whites, and relied on its use long afterwards. During slavery, overt aggression by blacks was punishable by death. Provocation had to remain relatively inoffensive, and any level of serious intent had to be disguised or suppressed. So coolness represented a paradoxical fusion of submission and subversion. It became a way for black males to rebel against authority through creativity and innovation.
In modern times the aesthetics of cool is represented in black culture by its mega trendsetters in movies, music, sports, and other forms of entertainment. Hip hop culture for example has become the center for music and fashion with black aesthetics being used to promote it to a global audience around the world. Black aesthetics, whose stylistic, cognitive, and behavioral tropes are largely based on cool-mindedness, has arguably become “the only distinctive American artistic creation” (White & Cones, Black Man Emerging: Facing the Past and Seizing the Future, 1999, pg.60).
However, modern coolness doesn’t only refer to black male trendsetting. While still representing a form of rebellion it has also grown to personify masculinity and sexuality within black culture. Being cool in modern times sends out a message of inherent mysteriousness. A black man displaying coolness can personify sexiness. In a stylized way, black male coolness has become seductive and can take on an appearance that turns its users into objects of sexual desire.
What distinguishes being cool from not being cool? Coolness implies the power of abstraction without becoming overly abstract. It’s about treating life as if it were a game, because a player learns to take things less seriously enabling the player to become detached while playing. It is in the way a black male wears his clothes, how he walks to a certain beat within, and how he shapes the sounds of the words he speaks. This detached style matters more than the anything else. Coolness squares circles and can be personified in the sound of jazz.
The difference between being cool and not being cool is in the balance of submission and subversion. Cool is not an idea made by imposed standards, it is about being true to oneself without being overly eccentric. For many black males, coolness has become art and philosophy, classical music and jazz, rock & roll and the blues. It’s become about being neither proud nor ashamed. It’s become a matter of balance, maintaining control while never looking as though you might have lost control, losing while still keeping a straight face.