While re-reading a chapter of historian Kevin K. Gaines’ important book, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture, in the Twentieth Century (1996), I came across a passage that I had not given much thought to beforehand. Writing on African Americans’ strivings for respect within a racist society at the turn of the 20th Century, Gaines explains:
It was difficult for African Americans to avoid minstrelsy, a major obstacle to the assertion of bourgeois black selfhood. Because photography was crucial in transmitting stereotypes, African Americans found the medium well suited for trying to refute negrophobic caricatures. In addition, black painters, illustrators, and sculptors, along with writers of fiction produced antiracist narratives and iconography featuring ideal types of bourgeois black manhood and womanhood. At a broader, grassroots level, there is an extensive photographic record of African Americans’ concern to infuse the black image with dignity, and to embody the “representative” Negro by which the race might be more accurately judged. Studio portraits of uplift and respectability—depicting black families with attributes of cleanliness, leisure, and literacy—found expression in the sitters’ posture, demeanor, dress, and setting. In most portraits, whether of individuals, of wedding portraits, or of groups, one sees an intense concern for projecting a serious, dignified image… Anything less than stylized elegance would betray the ideals of race advancement and, indeed, hold back the race, as did the profusion of commodified, demeaning portraits taken of unsuspecting, often youthful and destitute African Americans. (p. 68)
Contemporary forms of electronic media such as television and the internet are certainly just as, if not more, effective than traditional photography and minstrel theater were for disseminating or challenging racist propaganda. The following recent new media campaigns were all at least partly conceived as platforms for challenging unflattering images of African American men and boys in the popular culture. Each campaign employs various visually grounded emotional appeals directed toward vaguely defined audiences regarding discussions of how black men should strive to appear in public and how the “representative” black man looks and carries himself. By engaging in these politics of respectability, the creators of the campaigns, through one lens, are heroically asserting black men’s agency regarding how they are perceived by the larger society, but through another lens, may simply be projecting a mass of black bourgeois status anxieties onto their poorer skinfolk. As evidenced by the brouhaha over Trayvon Martin’s infamous hoodie, such messages can work to reinforce the deeply reactionary notion that blacks—particularly the poor and working class black men who are the foils for these campaigns—are ultimately responsible for the consequences of white racism by virtue of their own failure to behave properly and present themselves respectably in public.
The “Stop the Sag” Campaign
In 2010, then New York State Senator Eric Adams (now the Brooklyn Borough President), as a component of his reelection bid in Brooklyn’s gentrifying 20th District, erected a billboard in Crown Heights featuring the backsides of two young black men with their baggy jeans sagging to where their boxer shorts were in full view. The sign extolled messages intended to uplift the peers of the young men in the picture: “We are better than this!” “Raise your pants, raise your image!” In the corner of the billboard, a campaign photo of Eric Adams in a conservative business suit sat juxtaposed to the image of the young men with their sagging jeans. With the juxtaposition, Representative Adams situated himself as a “representative” black man whose trustworthiness was assured by his unwillingness to stand for the shenanigans of those black youth who were “showing their asses” in public, so to speak.
Adams’ followed his billboard campaign with a widely viewed and shared “Stop the Sag” YouTube video. In the clip, Adams, speaking over flashing images of Jim Crow era racist propaganda and then snippets of black boys sagging, claims that sagging jeans are a part of a long legacy of racist stereotyping in the United States, “but this time it is self-imposed.” By the end of the video Adams is, once again, pictured in a business suit ironically telling young black men, “Don’t surrender control over your own image.” It was an apt message. As Adams was willing to recycle unflattering images of low-status black boys—most of whom were likely too young to vote for or against him—for political expediency, it becomes immediately clear to whom he is not accountable as a public official.
Street Etiquette’s “The Black Ivy”
Around the same time of Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign, another duo of enterprising young black men posted a seminal photo shoot onto Street Etiquette, their popular style blog targeting cosmopolitan young black men. Travis Gumbs’ and Joshua Kissi’s “The Black Ivy” piece featured photos and video of about a dozen impeccably dressed college-aged African American and African guys leisurely hanging out on the campus of City College, CUNY simultaneously paying homage to iconic Ivy League preppy styles as well as mid-20th Century yearbook “campus life” photos from prominent black colleges like Howard University, Morehouse College, and Hampton University. The young men in the photos, dripping with bourgeois confidence and comfort, wore contemporary “black dandy” staples such as colorful slim-fitting khakis, tanned wingtips, tweed sport coats, and bowties in stark contrast to the baggy, hip-hop styles that many have come to expect from young urban black men. The piece was wildly popular, even garnering accolades in a New York Times Fashion & Style article in which everyone from hip-hop artists to college professors gushed on how Gumbs’ and Kissi’s “political expression” was expanding the repertoire of cultural archetypes to which black men can aspire and through which they might be viewed. In that way, the collegiate theme of “The Black Ivy” thus reflects the creators’ aspirations of upward mobility and racial uplift by way of dressing well and respectable comportment—a curious logic that runs contrary to the conventional narrative that material improvements are typically the trappings of upward mobility and not the other way around.
“Suit and Tie at the 217”
Earlier this year, a group of black Illinois high school students came together, with the help of their school counselors and the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prominent African American Greek-letter organization, to create “Suit and Tie in the 217.” In the viral YouTube music video cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” the boys are depicted moving through their school day—dancing in the hallways, studying in class, and playing ball in the gym—while, once again, dressed in the collegiate preppy style, similar to the guys from “The Black Ivy,” indicating their high aspirations and personal discipline. Of course, none of the boys are sagging their jeans or even have their shirts untucked, thus distancing themselves from the supposedly “self-imposed” stereotypes in Eric Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign. All the while that the boys are walking confidently toward the camera and coolly smoothing out their collared shirts, messages flash on the screen: “We are not gangsters and thugs.” “We are scholars.” “We are athletes.” These are certainly important words for a world that views black youth with contempt and fear, and they are messages that the video’s creators, thankfully, were insightful enough to realize that photos of black boys wearing bowties cannot convey. I wonder how such a campaign might have been received had those same positive messages been flashed across the screen in a light-hearted video full of black boys with sagging jeans. Can racism be thwarted by videos of well-dressed black boys? For a historical perspective, Kevin K. Gaines further notes, “Many [early 20th Century] whites, however, remained unmoved by African American’s attempts at respectful self-representation. If images of black respectability were not omitted from the white press altogether, they were relentlessly mocked and parodied through minstrelsy.” (p. 69)
I certainly cannot fault the “Suit and Tie in the 217” boys, the Street Etiquette men, or even Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for wanting to combat negative images of young black men in the larger culture, and it is a testament to their thoughtfulness and ingenuity that they would engage those negative stereotypes through their creative use of new media technologies. Nevertheless, by suggesting so strongly that racial (self) perception is simply a matter of black men’s sartorial style, that the creators as exceptional to other black men, or that it is incumbent upon black men to “evolve” into mature, respectable citizens (evidenced by donning fitted pants and neckties) in order to eliminate racism, the campaigns end up cosigning the very same negative stereotypes that they are trying to dismantle.
Gaines, Kevin Kelly. Uplifting the Race: Black Middle-class Ideology in the Era of the “New Negro,” 1890-1935. N.p.: n.p., 1991. Print.