Save the World, Bomb the Suburbs

“You’ll notice I have a tendency to racially polarize,” William Upski Wimsatt is saying. Restless and pacing, screwing up his face to think, the 22-year-old Hyde Park native, college dropout, journalist, author, self-proclaimed “wigger,” community organizer, and, not least, radical graffiti artist is trying to explain the purpose of an upcoming writers conference he’s helping to organize. “What happened with punk rock didn’t happen with hip hop,” he notes, referring to the musicians, radio people, and writers that came out of the late 70s. “There’s no community; we’re trying to build that.”

How the privileged son of an upper-middle-class white family came to embrace black culture is the framing story of Wimsatt’s book, Bomb the Suburbs, which was self-published last year and excerpted in the Reader. It’s a brave and ambitious work that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. The book, now in its second printing, is a spirited paean to graffiti, a screed on the suburbs’ role in the decline of the late-20th-century city, an intellectually fearless exegesis on black-white relations, a hymn to public transportation, and a good, if slightly disconnected and quite pessimistic, overview of the evolution of hip hop in the last five years. Wimsatt–the “Upski” is tagger slang for having your name around, “up,” noticed–has a disarming ability to take on hard subjects. He runs through his own feelings about blacks–from obsession to fear and back again–with a great deal of intellectual clarity. One of Bomb the Suburbs’s continuing metaphors acknowledges the advantages he’s had. “I was, after all, born biking with my back to the wind,” he writes. “If after 11 years, I decide to swing a U and retrace my path going into the wind for a while just to see what it’s like, it does little to even my personal score.”

He feels the same way today. “Some people look at the people I hang around with and say, you know, they have so many problems,” he says, still pacing. “But I can just see how petty my problems have been. That’s how you can tell how sheltered someone has been–by how petty their problems are.”

He stands by his book’s title both for its literal meaning and its slang one, graffiti-speak for tagging. But it’s not the suburbs’ blandness that irks him; it’s the economic decay city-fleers leave behind. Taggers should fight back where it counts, he thinks, and leave the city and public transit alone. “The best places to bomb are rich areas, particularly rich suburbs,” he writes. He also takes on Farrakhan: when his son–a high school classmate–“talk[s] shit about Jews,” Wimsatt lashes back with a time-honored epithet. Interestingly, he rationalizes the minister’s antiwhite rhetoric; his main complaint is against the Nation of Islam’s groupthink. Wimsatt positions himself somewhere between the group and the individual. “The cool thing about America–what de Tocqueville said really makes America work, the foundation of our democracy–is the art of associating, and I’m for that. That’s my mission,” he says. “As long as people are dealing with each other, and have to deal with each other on a one-to-one daily basis, and the less they’re in the ghettos and suburbs, geographically or mentally, the richer all of our lives are. Everything good happens from that.”

The conference, called “Bomb the Ghettos,” is geared toward encouraging young black writers, though it’s not limited to that–his posters welcome “rappers, journalists, comedians, graffiti writers, critics, cartoonists, poets, playwrights, griots, novelists, scholars, and shit-talkers.” Idealistically, he envisions a day of workshops and talks and “booths and shit,” all helping to focus the talents of writers who need it. He’s also ponied up $1,000 of his own money to fund a writing contest. The conference is free and scheduled for April 22, from noon to 6 at the Workhouse, 735 W. Division. Call 409-3555 for details.


Hitsville is still reeling from the Singapore-style caning my colleague Peter Margasak dished out in Spot Check three weeks ago in response to my remarks on the local band Trenchmouth (February 24). His first contention was that Trenchmouth doesn’t sound like Rage Against the Machine, and so strongly did he feel about it that he made it his third point as well. Fine; we disagree. His second point employed a fishing metaphor to rebut my comment that the band wasn’t good enough to be taken seriously on the national level, something about how the band was fishing for minnows in a pond, not marlins in the ocean. But that, of course, was the point of the column, which was a rundown of local bands who’d been signed to majors–which is to say, by Margasak’s own metaphor, bands that are chasing marlins in the ocean. I said they weren’t good enough anglers, and classify his spirited words as those of a local bait-shop owner remaining loyal to his customers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.