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“I’m the Definition of It”
Let’s begin with what even his greatest admirers may miss: JAY-Z is a prescient theorist of American history. No, he hasn’t shaped our conception of the New World through prodigious research. He hasn’t presented, like Voltaire, a philosophie de l’histoire. He hasn’t floated a new interpretation about the American Revolution. Neither has he unveiled a shiny new understanding of the Civil War. But he has offered a theory of history, explored in the magnificent obsession of his art and career: hustling. Jay was at least a decade ahead of Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter McDougall, who contends in his 2004 book Freedom Just Around the Corner that hustling is the central motif of American history, the dominant measure of the American character.
Surveying the national scene, McDougall turns to long-ago literary lights like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather, and more recent writers like William Safire, to buttress his claim that Americans “are … prone to be hustlers.” McDougall says this doesn’t mean that Americans possess “a nature different or worse than other human beings,” but that they have “enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history.” There is certainly a duality to hustling, a good and bad side determined by what form the activity takes and the moral environment in which it takes root and flourishes. On the one hand, writes McDougall, Melville was on the mark “to portray Americans as hustlers in the sense of self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventers.” On the other hand, hustlers flashed positive attributes as “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers, and a people supremely generous.”
McDougall is careful to show both the glory and grief of hustling, its virtues and vices. But in my view, some of the most prominent defenders of the American self-image, be they right-wing evangelicals or gung-ho nationalists, relentlessly cast hustling as a solely positive example of our pluck and persistence. They often uncritically endorse questionable American enterprises and unjust exploits around the globe driven by imperial quests and a troubling hunger for global dominion. It is a national character trait that is applauded by its most zealous advocates. But hustling is rightly seen by its victims on foreign shores and those in our backyard as the menacing strike of Americanist ideology. Those outside the nation have felt the whip of American empire on their backs. Those closer to home have been lashed in the face by a nation that praises white hustle but despises such agency in their darker kin.
Before we can understand what JAY-Z has done to hustling, and how he has inspired two other cultural icons, we’ve got to understand what hustling has done to black America.
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Black hustle has been scorned as long as black humanity has been despised and black intelligence has been questioned. The roots of black hustle run deep into slavery, where black labor largely existed on white demand. Black folk had limited time or space to themselves to enjoy their labor or lives. They lived literally off the books at the margins of white society. Most things they did for themselves, like getting married, were illegal, and reading was potentially deadly. Even when black folk were freed, Jim Crow brought different kinds of restrictions. Black folk were denied access to equal education, employment, and other social goods and services. Black strivers created voluntary associations of mutual support, such as social clubs and fraternal groups. They also created religious and civic organizations to uplift their less-fortunate kin. But underground and informal networks of affiliation also thrived for ambitious citizens who were neither well educated nor financially well off. These folks struggled to survive through a range of off-the-books pursuits in the underground economy: running numbers, bootlegging liquor, fencing stolen goods, gambling, racketeering, dealing drugs, selling sex, and other illicit activities.
Black hustling was in part the effort to take hold of the American Dream that was touted to the white masses. On 2006’s “Oh My God,” Jay lays claim to that dream. He doesn’t simply hustle, but he hustles the story of hustling, and thereby engages in a kind of meta-hustling. Jay tells a story that celebrates its own narrative as the manifestation of hustling. The song also becomes a conduit for hustling’s spirit and goal. His story is at once representative and unique, both specific and universal. His blackness gives even more color to hustling’s story of rising from the bottom to the top to fulfill the American Dream, and, as his name suggests, his divine destiny.
So if this is your first time hearing this
You’re about to experience someone so cold
A journey seldom seen, the American dream
From the bottom to the top of the globe they call me Hov
On 2007’s “American Dreamin’,” JAY-Z’s narrator is frustrated that circumstances have thwarted his plans to achieve the American Dream of material rewards through a college education. In the narrator’s case, and that of his peers, their dreams are realized through hustling because school isn’t an option, times are urgent, and food and other resources are scarce.
This is the shit you dream about
With the homies steaming out
Back-to-back, backing them Bimmers out
Seems as our plans to get a grant
Then go off to college, didn’t pan or even out
Mama forgive me, should be thinking about Harvard
But that’s too far away, niggas are starving
As with Jay’s hustler, black folks’ lives have been shaped by restrictions on social mobility, economic prosperity, employment opportunities, and housing prospects. Some black folk managed to thrive despite these restrictions because of superior networks of support and encouragement. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries black folk built strong black businesses and stable black schools in all-black neighborhoods. Those who fell between the cracks, like Jay’s narrator in present-day America, were often left to fend for themselves. It was difficult enough for stable or well-to-do black people to survive in a culture that oppressed black folk at every turn. It was virtually impossible for blacks without formal education or social standing to make it without helping themselves in the underground economy.
The brutal class bifurcation between the black thrivers and the black thrashed persists to this day. Big forces loom that punish the black poor. There are broad shifts in the economy away from manufacturing. There are the rise of the knowledge economy and the proliferation of automated technologies that displace human labor. There is the expansion of service industries that call for extensive retraining. And there is the vast re-segregation of public schools. These conditions make the underground inescapable, the best among bad options.
Black hustle has at least three meanings. First, it describes a plight and condition. Like Immanuel Kant’s Ding an sich, it is the thing-in-itself, the game, the hustle. (As Jay said, “You can’t knock the hustle,” and when he said it in 1996, his hustle was rapping, and his “job” was selling drugs.) Second, it expresses, as a verb, an activity, the performance of a hustle. Third, as a noun, it names the person who is the hustler. The hustle, the plight, the condition, is what black folk are caught in when their resources are depleted, their access to legitimate goods severely restricted, their ability to enjoy social and educational equality greatly curtailed. The hustle is the main resort for those who are systematically deprived of benefits and advantages in society. The hustle beckons those who are excluded from privilege and power. Hustling, the action, the performance, is embraced because it often provides the only relief from economic misery. The hustler is determined not to suffer silently and turns distress to opportunity.
On 1999’s “Dope Man,” Jay’s frail narrator indicts a racist society for destroying black dreams of education and professional success. He also accuses society of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs, thus leaving him and his peers little choice but to hustle.
A-hem, I’m a prisoner of circumstance
Frail nigga, I couldn’t much work with my hands
But my mind was strong, I grew where you hold your blacks up
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Eric Dyson