Book Review: ‘Black Skinhead,’ by Brandi Collins-Dexter

BLACK SKINHEAD: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future, by Brandi Collins-Dexter

In her debut essay collection, “Black Skinhead,” Brandi Collins-Dexter, a former senior campaign director for the civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, takes on a task I don’t envy even slightly: trying to make sense of Kanye West. The rapper, producer and fashion designer, who now goes by Ye, has been the architect of some of our era’s most enduring popular music, as well as some of the most head-scratching cultural controversies. Collins-Dexter spends the most time unpacking the ordeal that may have alienated the largest portion of his fan base: when Ye, in May 2018, having already endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency a few years prior, went on TMZ Live and said that slavery was a choice.

In the essay “Kanye Was Right-ish,” Collins-Dexter — a self-proclaimed “Kanye-whisperer” — looks to clarify on his behalf. She points out that the next day, on Twitter, Ye tried to explain what he’d meant — not that the enslaved had made a choice to be shackled, but that the institution’s persistence for 400 years, despite the enslaved outnumbering the enslavers, “means that we were mentally enslaved” in a way he warns against perpetuating for 400 more. “There’s a lot in this that’s true,” she writes, citing the “mental terror … inflicted upon Black communities to keep those enslaved subservient,” the beatings, rapes and lynchings meant to deter Black people from revolt. “He was right about the impact of psychological abuse.”

The interpretation feels generous. Ye’s take — “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice” — didn’t appear to be about the psychological terror inflicted on the enslaved, but about a mentality they adopted. It overlooks the number of revolts that took place, the coordinated efforts to escape, the work to buy their freedom, and all their other daily acts of subversion and resistance.

Collins-Dexter’s point here, however, isn’t just about Ye or his understanding of American history: It’s about what he embodies. “A canary in a coal mine,” the artist is for her “an example of an emerging party-ambivalent Black voter base that could upend expected Black voter norms in the coming years.” Taking its title from Ye’s 2013 song, the book aims to identify those on the margins of mainstream Black culture and politics — the Black skinheads — who can tell us something about where our future may lie.

To anyone familiar with modern white supremacist movements, the moniker seems like a contradiction in terms, but Collins-Dexter begins with the origins of the term “skinhead” in 1960s Britain, as a reference to the “multicultural working-class subculture rooted in Black — particularly Jamaican — music.”

For Collins-Dexter, the modern Black skinhead similarly “lives in the cracks and uncertainties” of mainstream culture — a “disillusioned political outlier,” this voter has been defined by a history of Democratic alignment, despite a range of ideologies that are changing demographic norms. Still a nascent contingent, she writes, “they live outside of the bounds of fetishized Black political identity.”

Collins-Dexter compellingly ties her engaging assessments of the Black skinheads’ artistic output to a broader political critique, often drawing on the history of media and labor movements and social justice. In the essay “Hood Vampires,” she traces the birth of drill music in the years following 2008 as a response to the disillusionment of the hope in the first Black presidency. In Chicago, the realities of persistent inequality, divestment from Black communities and violence moved young people to express themselves through the macabre sounds of drill. “Hard Times” finds an entry point to the successes and failures of populism in professional wrestling. Each essay reflects deep research, passion and respect for her subject.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to examining a particular kind of Black skinhead: the Black Trump supporter. Their numbers are slim, but as Collins-Dexter sees it, they are significant enough to undermine whatever confidence the Democratic Party has in securing “the Black vote.”

There are holes in Collins-Dexter’s theory. She mentions that younger Black voters show more interest in socialism than their elders; by her definition, would they not also be considered Black skinheads? Are Black-led L.G.B.T.Q. movements also Black skinheads, standing on the margins and attempting to move the center?

And while Collins-Dexter dismisses the political provocateur Candace Owens for “using her own identity as a Black woman to launder far right ideology,” the distinction she draws between this more established Black conservatism and the newer, self-identified “conscious Black conservatives” is in the latter’s commitment to Black advancement — through, of course, capitalism.

The thing is, this ideology is not as new as the author makes it out to be. Versions of this thinking can be found in Booker T. Washington (name-dropped several times in the book), the Nation of Islam and most Black Democratic officials of the late 20th and early 21st century. It’s what produces misplaced nostalgia for Black Wall Street, and to a degree what animates the judicial philosophy of the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.

Yet the progressive-leaning Collins-Dexter, who repeatedly refers to herself as a “Bernie broad,” lends these “conscious Black conservatives” a sympathetic ear. “At least they have a plan,” she writes. “Do we?” Never mind that this plan perpetuates misogyny, homophobia and transphobia; the answer to her question is yes. The book downplays the demonstrable influence of Black leftist thought and principles in a moment when such “radical” ideas as police and prison abolition and more robust union organizing are seeing more airtime than they have in decades.

I understand where Collins-Dexter is coming from. It’s a common refrain I know from my youth, whenever the problems of Black communities were the topic of conversation: Black unity. “I don’t want it to be an us (left) versus them (liberal) versus them (conservative) dynamic,” Collins-Dexter writes on the subject of mental health in communities. “I remain convinced that any chance we have to thrive relies on being able to come to the table to form a baseline consensus.”

There is something romantic in imagining “a collective Black us,” joined in the fight against a common enemy. But we have to ask what that unity would require of us: Are there any just compromises to be found with an ideology that would replicate capitalist excess and exploitation, but with Black faces at the top? Would Black queer people need to put aside any hope of having their identities affirmed, and material needs met? Is unity worth that price?

My heart wants the same thing Collins-Dexter’s does, and maybe that’s the place to start: an acknowledgment and honoring of those on the margins. Perhaps her point is that we are actually all Black skinheads, conforming in some ways and not in others — all just trying to reconcile our inner Kanye West.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Puffin Foundation fellow at the Type Media Center, and the author of “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching” and “Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream.”

BLACK SKINHEAD: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future | By Brandi Collins-Dexter | 274 pp. | Celadon Books | $26.99