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William Uspki Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs. 2nd edition.


Bomb the Suburbs. 3rd edition. 2000 [1994]

William Uspki Wimsatt. San Francisco: Soft Skull Press, $12. ISBN: 1887128964.

William Upski Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs is an inspired and inspiring discussion of race relations through the eyes of a white, middle class male who earned his acceptance into the world of Chicago hip-hop through the arts of graffiti writing and b-boying. Pieced together from interviews, narratives, letters, and magazine articles, and peppered with drawings and photographs, Bomb the Suburbs provides an intimate account of the state of hip-hop in the early nineties, perhaps the beginnings of the current widespread cultural fascination with all things urban.

As an assemblage cobbled together from various parts, Upski's work lacks the explicit theoretical framework that readers expect in an academic text, but he more than makes up for this lack in his honesty, experience, and complexity. At his most interesting, Upski discusses the fascination of the white suburbanite with black "coolness" in its most promising and most nefarious manifestations. He writes, "They [white kids] want to experience blackness, dramatic and direct," adding, "but not too direct, thank you very much," well aware of the problems of encountering people as the "Other" (23). After a fair amount of humorous and biting criticism directed at white consumers of urban culture, Upski turns inwards, reflecting on his own troubled relationship to a community that he now calls his own, recognizing that he is at once an insider and an outsider. He comes to the conclusion that he must occupy this difficult, ambiguous, and uneasy position to repay the "moral debt" that he, and all white Americans, owe to black Americans as payment for years of racism (40).

This ambiguous subjectivity runs throughout the text, its contradictions making themselves felt the strongest when Upski makes his strongest pleas. Hip-hop at times appears as a survival tactic, of which one interviewee says, "They don't understand the swagger, the way we walk, the way we talk. It comes from when you don't have self esteem" (22). At other times, as the title indicates, it is a site of resistance. Hip-hop is alternately a source of unity and a dividing line. Graffiti alternates from being a creative to destructive and back again. Page after page Upski's point is illustrated in a number of contexts, "none of us is born knowing the best way to live in a place as racially loaded as America -- let alone in the sub-society of hip-hop" (29). As Upski might argue, nobody comes to the situation with colorblind eyes, but we can choose how we respond to this predicament. And for Upski, one appropriate response is to break down the divide between the cities and suburbs.

In the end, Upski calls for a codification of hip-hop, a set of rules "to help us organize our anger, our expression, our communication, our political power, and our resources a little bit better" (147). And while a rationalized and organized hip-hop army would certainly be a force to be reckoned with, bringing bodies, minds, voices, and art to support the struggle, perhaps it is the lack of organization and codification that makes hip-hop a site of community and social interaction. Hip-hop is best when it creates a space for life even within the most harrowing circumstances. Against Upski's claim that "hip-hop is not a way of life" (49) and Raven's (another interviewee) claim that "hip-hop is supposed to eliminate itself" (147), I cannot help but see its continued survival, growth, and change in spite of many embarrassing and exploitative portrayals in popular culture. As Upski explains elsewhere, "Hip-hop's moral center isn't a magical truth out there waiting to be discovered and clutched tightly. It is the understanding that there are many kinds of truth, none of them magic, and all of them competing with each other in the real world" (157).

All in all, Bomb the Suburbs is an ideal book for those who seek a better understanding of race relations in the United States. As a white reader, with my own appreciation for hip-hop culture, I found myself feeling uncomfortable in my skin at times facing my own "double consciousness" -- my desire to connect with people of color even as I am aware of the racisms that run through my own life. But beyond its value as a document of contemporary racial problems, it also offers some practical solutions -- one being, to simply interact with people and learn to love the city. Upski's text is easy to read, funny, informative, entertaining, and provocative, making it an interesting point of departure for discussions of race and culture.

Davin Heckman