Looking the Part: The Liberation & Criminalization of Black Masculinity Through Style & Adornment

I'm very lucky to have had the privilege to study with and befriend, some incredibly smart, conscious people in my time at Parsons The New School for Design. As some of you have read, our approach to fashion has been political, somewhat controversial and a little sideways, but it's this contribution that diversifies the industry and culture of fashion worldwide. 

If you have eyes or ears, you're aware of the numerous cases of police brutality against black men in America, and the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked in response. This is such a critical conversation for people across the world to have, for awareness, justice and an end to structural, symbolic, and direct violence against black people; one my good friend Rikki Byrd has championed throughout her work, inside and out of the academic space. The essay of hers you are about to read was originally submitted as coursework in partial completion for the Master of Arts in Fashion Studies we graduated from together, and later published in the BIAS Journal of Dress Practice produced by Parsons. She's a total babe, an absolute genius, and one of the best friends I made these last two years. It's her birthday today, so what better way than to celebrate her by spreading her warmth and wisdom. 

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RikkiByrd and check out more of her work  here

 Read and be informed, then spread the knowledge. I am, because you are.

Looking the Part: The Liberation and Criminalization of Black Masculinity Through Style and Adornment - Rikki Byrd

When I visited home this past December for the holidays, I asked my father to take me on a ride through Ferguson, MO, the epicenter that some have argued has rebirthed the realities of race relations in this country. After riding past the burned down buildings that protestors had sent up in flames after the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of his killer, police officer Darren Wilson, we drove down Canfield Drive, where Brown’s body had lain for four hours after his murder on August 9, 2014. My father parked at the edge of an apartment complex’s parking lot, while I got out of the car to take pictures of the evolving memorial that sat in the middle of the street filled with flowers, R.I.P. signs and teddy bears.  Among these items was a pair of Crocs shoes and a baseball cap with the logo of the St. Louis Cardinals team that the teen was wearing on that day. While I photographed the items, my dad took pictures from inside of his car, refusing to get out. He wore his fear almost on his sleeve because he, too, was a black man, and despite his freshly cleaned Mercedes Benz with the leather interior, his crisply ironed pants, collared shirt and Oxford sweater, the fear was immensely felt that this could, at any moment, be his memorial. Standing there at the crossroads of Brown’s Crocs and baseball cap and my dad’s luxury car and crisp clothing, I couldn’t help but to think of how significant a marker clothing has become in the criminalization and eventual deaths of black men; even despite the fact that, historically, black men have used clothing to subvert their subaltern positioning and oppression.

    In his essay Race Prejudice As a Sense of Group Position, Herbert Blumer writes “it is the events seemingly loaded with great collective significance that are the focal points of the public discussion (Blumer 1958).” When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2014, the teen’s parents released a photo of him wearing a hoodie, an item that Zimmerman used to describe Martin in his phone call to the police the day he murdered the teen. The photo was a harmless one, but one that became rife with racial implications as the case whirled on unsuccessfully, rendering Martin dead, Zimmerman free and justice certainly not being served. Since the death of Martin, America has been reminded of its widely underscoring race problem, with the killings of innocent black boys and men acting as that reminder.

    As young as 12 years old, black boys and men are yet again getting handed the short end of the stick. In a brief historical analysis of the hoodie, contributing writer to Vice Magazine, Jeremy Lewis writes “hoodies are now tangled up in a seemingly never-ending conversation America is having about race, socioeconomic status, and violence perpetrated against black bodies.” He writes that it is no irony that when Tamir Rice was killed on November 22, 2014, he, too, was wearing a hoodie (Lewis 2014).

    The criminalization of the hoodie is nothing new. As Lewis writes, passing by any gas station one might see a sign saying “no hoodies,” as robbers are often known to wear them. What is problematic, however, is the marginalization of race, specifically concerning black men, through the hoodie. This is something that is perhaps more understood by the black men it affects rather than by those just seeing the hoodie as a clothing item.

    After the death of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie became a sign of solidarity for black men. The Miami Heat basketball team wore hoodies to show their support for Martin’s family and acknowledgement of the teen’s death. In a political stance, Representative Bobby Rush took the floor of Congress, following Martin’s death in 2012, and made a statement about the racial profiling surrounding black men and the hoodie. After his statement, Rush removed his suit jacket and pulled a hooded sweatshirt over his head. Due to laws prohibiting the wearing of hats, Rush was escorted from the House floor. His dismissal from the House floor holds more of a symbolic meaning than him simply violating the rules of the House. His dismissal was a resonance of just how quickly the true issues of injustice are dismissed because America just simply isn’t ready to talk about race and the ways in which its historical construction has systematically plagued black men, or even worse, killed them.

    The solidarity of black men wearing hoodies not only memorialized Trayvon Martin’s unwarranted death, but also acts as a point of reference to the consideration of the ways in which black men have chosen to adorn themselves and how that act has been a site of racialization and criminalization when the intent can be arguably seen as a form of liberation. From zoot suits in the Jazz Age to gold chains and gold teeth worn in the hip-hop era, the intent of the ways in which black men have come to style themselves has as much to do with the subversion of their oppression as it does with their criminalization, a contradiction which I wish to analyze in this paper.

    Clothing seems to be the only freedoms black men have been allowed in order to liberate themselves. And that style has had a cultural influence that supersedes the black community. It has been appropriated at the hands of popular culture, which takes from the black man the only form of liberation that he has been permitted since his enslavement.

    This essay situates style and adornment in the construction of black manhood. Through theories of social class, racial representation, economics and gender, I will use the zoot suit, styles popularized in the hip-hop era and the recent killings of unarmed black boys to examine how clothing acts as a binary conflict in black masculinity by (1) being used as a tool for subverting racialized constructs of the subaltern positioning of black men, and (2) questioning how elements of that subversion is used as a tool by the dominant culture as a site of racial profiling and reification of the subordination of black men.

Literature Review

    Scholars have offered in-depth insight on the ways in which black style—even extrapolating to the specificity of the ways black men style themselves—has acted as a mode of freedom for those within the African diaspora. Although Monica Miller writes that slaves lives “nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes (Miller 2009),” her book Slaves to Fashion, unpacks the ways in which men of the African diaspora have also found liberation through clothing. Even though clothing was to further perpetuate the subaltern positioning of African captives, who would eventually become African Americans, Miller’s analysis considers dandyism as a form of flamboyant dress that allowed African American men to subvert their oppression and exude pride through adornment. 

    Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, in their book Cool Pose, considers a similar notion in the ways in which black men used clothing to define themselves against whiteness (Majors and Mancini Billson 1993). In their discussion of “expressive life-styles,” Majors and Mancini-Billson writes, “…in a society that has kept blacks invisible, it is not surprising that seemingly flamboyant clothes might be worn to heighten visibility.” The authors make the claim that black men’s desire to style themselves was a way for them to not only subvert their oppression, but also display themselves as markedly different and better in being cooler than white men. They write that style was a way for black men to say, “white man this is my turf. You can’t outdo me here.”

    Nevertheless, one can’t ignore the ways in which the adornment that black men have historically used to subvert their subaltern identity has been appropriated and made visible by the mainstream, even if it was is in the form of a “carefully, regulated, segregated visibility (Hall 1998).” In his essay “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture,” Stuart Hall considers popular culture and the ways in which the black body acts as a site of capital, writing that “the black body is the only cultural capital” people of the African diaspora have. “We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of representation.”

    Yet that representation of what Hall, Miller, Majors and Mancini Billson and even bell hooks (hooks 1992) argues is pride within the black community, shifts to a representation of deviance, mal-intent and a way to mark difference, which some scholars argue begin to create a binary within the black community. Both Jonathan Munby (Munby 2011) and Elijah Anderson (Anderson 1994) in their respective works argue that the ways in which men are fashioned in the media—bad, pimps, hustlers, gangbangers—is a reflection of the ways they are perceived within their own communities.

    Anderson, in his essay The Code of the Streets, writes that street credibility in impoverished neighborhoods is often achieved by maintenance of a certain image through clothing. Kids (predominantly black in his analysis) use clothing to show that their “in,” and if a child lacks in such a self-image, they risk becoming “prey” to the other kids who carry such a style. In his book, Under A Bad Sign, Munby writes that the criminal self-representation of black males who take up certain modes of dress, style and deviance—though taken up to distinguish them as something “other than ‘other—‘” has caused them to be both venerated and feared within their own black community (Munby 2011, 9).

    These scholars have certainly paved the way for a dialogue that permits a consideration of the underscoring binary that turns black Americans’, specifically black men, liberation through dress and adornment into a site that reifies their oppression. Although they have heavily researched the ways in which style and adornment has either acted as a point of subversion or a site of criminalization, none of these scholars have put these two distinctions into dialogue to consider how they might inform our vast conversations surrounding racial disparities.  


    In her essay “Reconstructing Black Masculinity” from her book Black Looks, Bell Hooks writes that stereotypes “of black men as lazy and shiftless so quickly became common in public imagination (hooks 1992, 90).” hooks continues this argument by writing that such stereotypes were used by “white racists to erase the significance of black male labor from public consciousness” and later used as “reasons to deny black men jobs.” From education to employment, statistics prove that black men in America suffer great systematic and systemic injustices based solely on the color of their skin.

    When entering the education system, black students face a great deal of discrimination based on race. In their analysis of the desegregation of schools, Darity and Jolla write that talent and ability in the education system is “constructed … on racial grounds (Darity and Jolla 2009).” Furthermore, black men are statistically “overrepresented in low-wage jobs and underrespresented in high wage jobs,” a fact which Algernon, Darity and Hamilton argue is based on labor market discrimination based on race (Algernon, Hamilton and Darity Jr. 2011).

    Even behind bars black men face an “added disadvantage” based solely on race (Pager 2003, 193). As Pager reports, “nearly 10 percent of young black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are behind bars.”  This fact is coupled alongside Pager’s research that supports the claim that black men with criminal records have a harder time finding employment after being incarcerated, leading, most obviously, to a lack in economic capital for black men.

    With these statistics in mind, it makes sense, as William Darity Jr. writes, that blacks have historically been deprived of their ability to acquire wealth (Darity 2005). He writes “blacks have a much smaller stock of wealth because of a sustained historical pattern of deprivation of the capacity to accumulate property (146).” With this in mind, it could be argued that, historically, black men have used their bodies as a form of capital to subvert the disproportionate discrimination that affects their lives daily.

    In his essay, “What is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture,” Stuart Hall argues that the body was the only capital that black people have had (Hall 1998, 27), often using adornment, style and dress as a means of self-expression that allowed for subversion of the aforementioned statistics that systematically worked—and continue to work—against them. Furthermore, in her essay, “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” bell hooks writes, “black men have never critiqued the dominant culture’s norms of masculine identity, even though they have reworked those norms to suit their social situation.” Both the zoot suit and the styles of the hip-hop era serve as case studies in understanding such arguments.

    The zoot suit during the Jazz Age offers a preliminary example of how black men altered their bodies to reclaim themselves against their systematic consequences based on race. In her essay on the history and influence of the zoot suit, Holly Arnold writes that the suit was often worn by young men in the 1930s and 1940s, who were “socially and culturally disadvantaged,” and that it was a “refusal or gesture to submit to the norm of not only white society, but of the older generation (Arnold 2004, 228).”

     Arnold writes that beyond the visual aesthetic of the suit, which was often purchased in elaborate colors and featured a plaid or houndstooth print, was argot. Arnold writes that argot was a type of slang used primarily by the African American community and was used “partly to put the white man off, partly to put him down (Arnold 2004, 227).” The same can be noted in the vernacular of hip hop, which also came with its inflections of style that offered black male DJs and MCs the opportunity to evolve from their oppression through self-expression.

    In his essay “The Signature of Hip Hop,” E. Jerry Persaud writes that hip hop “was created as rhetoric resistance primarily to racial discrimination and oppression” and that it “emerged in direct response to ruling class power (Persaud 2011, 629).”

In similar fashion as the zoot suit, the hip-hop era, which was birth in the 1980s, provided an element of self-expression through music and dress. In its beginning stages, rap artists often paid homage to black political leaders, wearing hats, t-shirts and more with the names of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and more. Run DMC went on to popularize the Adidas shell-toe sneakers and track suits, and the Kangol bucket hat. As the era further evolved into the 1990s and early 2000s, gangster rap moved in (Persaud 2011, 632), pushing rap artists to wear their money on their sleeves, literally, often wearing luxury brands such as Gucci and Burberry from head to toe or oversized clothing such as baggy pants and shirts and baseball caps turned backward. Their style was a way for them to express the social, cultural and economic capital that they had been denied for so long.

    However, as much as these historical moments in style and adornment and black culture offered liberation for black men and was even appropriated by dominant popular culture, they also act as cases in which style choices of black men have become criminalized. In Stylin, Shane White and Graham J. White write “blacks have created that style in the white world, a world in which black bodies have been regarded with a mixture of envy and contempt, as something to emulate but also as a target for violence (White and White 1998, 3).”

    For example, Arnold goes on to write in her analysis of the zoot suit that “by 1942 the zoot suit wearers began to become stereotyped with criminal activity (Arnold 2004, 230).” In 1943 the Zoot Suit riots cost the lives of 600 Mexican American and African American youth (Arnold 2004, 232) with the youth wearing zoot suits being labeled “zoot suitors” and the media extrapolating the cause of the riots to be the racialized messages that came to be associated with the suit.

    Similar racialized messaging can be noted when considering the style and dress of those in hip hop. In a 1992 Los Angeles Times article titled “Baggin and Saggin,” John L. Mitchell provides an anecdote of shopping with his son. He describes the scene, stating that his son was trying on pants that were more than two times his size because baggy pants represented hip hop, “crossing economic and cultural lines.” In an exchange with his son, in which he expresses his disdain for his choice of clothing, he tells his son he doesn’t want him to wear an item that can be “a life or death decision,” a subtle nod to the ways in which hip-hop style had come to be associated with gang members (Mitchell 1992).

    Additionally, in 2004, both the New York Police Department and Miami Police Department admitted to using special task forces to “gather intelligence and keep tabs on Hip Hop artists and their entourages (Business Wire 2004).” In March of that year, Source Magazine’s cover included the mugshots of several hip-hop artists and posed the question “Are Rappers the New Target of America’s Criminal Justice System.” In an interview with Businesswire, the co-founder and CEO of The Source stated

The mere existence of these so-called ‘Hip Hop Task Forces’ proves that there are serious consequences to the misleading and damaging stereotypes that exist in mainstream society regarding Hip-Hop music, culture and the millions of people across the globe who make up the Hip-Hop generation.

The article goes on to state that the perception of hip hop as violent is linked to the fact that most of the music from artists of the genre come from places with unwavering statistics that disproportionately affect their attempt at success: poor education, unemployment, and lack of proper health care.

    In considering both zoot suits of the 30s and 40s and the style and fashion of hip hop artists from the 80s through the early 2000s, it is not hard then to disconnect the ways in which clothing has acted as a form of criminalizing black males. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown and the many black boys and men in between and after that were innocently killed at the hands of police, their choice of clothing has been used as a form of justification for their deaths.

    Scholars such as Munby and Anderson would argue that black men’s choice of adornment adds to the dysfunction within the black community. Anderson writes “objects play an important and complicated role in establishing self-image.” He goes on to provide examples, such as “a boy wearing a fashionable jacket is vulnerable to attack by another who covets the jacket.” He also argues that kids gain respect by stealing the possessions—often clothing or accessories—from others (Anderson 1994).

    While Anderson primarily writes of black youth culture, Munby focuses on the criminalizing self-images historically taken up by black men, writing that men who fashion themselves in such a way “violate the doctrine of racial uplift that is meant to pave the way for equality.”  Both Anderson and Munby provide sound arguments to the ways in which the clothing choices of black youth and men are a self-perpetuation of the assumed criminality already focused on them by the dominant culture. However, what they don’t consider in their analysis is the important genesis of black style that has allowed black men the liberation to subvert their subordinate positioning despite all other forms of freedom that haven’t always been readily accessible to them.

    In his essay, Dilemmas in African Diaspora Fashion, Van Dyk Lewis writes

 As a visual discourse African diaspora fashion elegantly demonstrates the development of social and psychological issues that the Diaspora comes to terms with by making appearance choices that are distinct but contrary; one type of choice is compliant to the mainstream, the other is protest against it (Van Dyk Lewis).

It cannot be ignored that styles from these various eras have had an undeniable impact on mainstream culture. In both Arnold’s analysis of the zoot suit and Mitchell’s Los Angeles Times article, it is mentioned how these looks were picked up by the white mainstream culture. However, the contrasting criminalization of these style choices disproportionately affects black Americans far more than it affects those who appropriate these looks. Such ignored disparities, even in something as frivolous as clothing, further complicates the growing problems of race relations in this country.

 Policy Recommendations

    For so long, black men have lived in a state of fear based merely on the color of their skin. As I have shown, it seems that their fears also align with what they choose to wear, even if the very ways in which they clothe themselves was a way for them to subvert their fear. In their respective essays, “What is “Black” In Black Popular Culture” and “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” Hall and hooks offer recommendations for how to overcome the issue of representation—which adornment is certainly a part of—concerning blackness and black masculinity. Hall writes that his interest lies in cultural strategies that can make a difference and shift the dispositions of power (Hall 1998, 24). bell hooks writes that changing the representations of black men must be a collective task (hooks 1992, 113).  

    In order to transcend the criminalization and deaths of black men based on clothing, we must first understand the problematic power relations that have allowed adornment to be the only means of outward expression and liberation for black men. As displayed statistically, black men lag behind in everything from education to employment, and occupy the most space in jails and are subject to being innocently killed by police far more often that any other racial group.

    Revealing historical truths, identifying the ways in which such instances have repeated themselves, and identifying the prevailing catalyst that continues to allow such injustices to occur can only remedy such a contrasting issue. It would be an extrapolation to say that effective policies can be achieved without considering the three of these suggestions congruently. With these suggestions in mind, perhaps it can become commonplace to see the advancement and betterment of black men rather than the commonality of seeing their names strewn across t-shirts memorializing their deaths.



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