Throughout the history of time, cultures have used tons of avenues to express themselves. Whether through food, dance or music their uniqueness has been used to help form their cultural identity. One way in which African American’s express their culture is through fashion and appearance.
In the above picture we have three brown skinned men who appear to be between the ages of 35 to 50. Two of the men have on leather sandals while the other has on black leather dress shoes. Even though the three men have differing qualities they seem have one thing in common, their garments. Their garments seem to be more neutral and earth tone colors and also contains beautiful embroidery and pattern. These garments are known throughout the African American community as Dashikis. A Dashiki is a loose fitting shirt that originates and has roots from the regions of West and East Africa. They all also have on caps known as Kufi’s and Sokoto’s also known as pants.
By wearing this African attire the men in the above picture are trying to be representative of their culture. Just like the men in the above picture, men in John Killens, The Cotillion used fashion to identify with their “blackness”. John Killens gives us an example of how narrow minded some blacks were during these times. Back in this time period, blackness was measured by how Afrocentric you appeared to be. If you didn’t constantly express your culture through your dress or attire your blackness came into question. An example of this can be seen through one of Killen’s main male characters.
Lumumba is known throughout Harlem as an established poet and is highly respected within the community. Lumumba is one of the leaders within the community and is known for his African fashion sense and scruffy beard. Even though Lumumba is well respected for his activism, the change in his appearance causes people to question his blackness,” Who in the hell? Do I know you Then recognition lit his face. He was himself already lit.Brother! That ain’t you! Is it? What happened to you, baby” ( Killens, 153).
Once the man recognizes Lumumba he proceeds to tell him about his new look,”It’s them skinny skimpy-ass clothes you got on, Black beard told him, oblivious to Yoruba’s laughter and the staring people. You look like you turning white or something, you look absolutely decadent. I mean, you look like you broke into Uncle Jacke’s pawnshop or something. And Man! What happened to your face? It looks like a naked pussycat, I mean you tryna pass or something?” ( Killens, 154). Due to Lumumba changing his appearance his identity of being a true black man was questioned. This example helps to further prove how important appearance was to people who were involved in the black arts movement.
Like back in the day, clothing is still used as an avenue in which a person can individually express themselves. From a young college man wearing the newest Air Jordan 3 retros, to 5 year old elementary school girl wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, to the 38 year old middle age woman strutting down the hallways of her workplace in her new business suit they all are making some type of statement. The type of clothing you wear is a way to identify a person’s style and offer slight insight into a person’s beliefs.
Fashion is defined as a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior. Fashion in a way has taken on an art form. Before putting on any clothes your body essentially acts a blank canvas. Once you begin to put on each article of clothing you add color to the once blank canvas. The addition of color allows you to make more of a statement and express your style. to The type of clothing you wear is a way to identify a person’s style and offer’s slight insight into a person’s beliefs. Just as girls make fashion statements today by wearing spiked shoes, or 5 inch heels females back in the mid 1900s also had ways of expressing themselves.
One way that females expressed their blackness was through the appearance their hair. Hair appearance is very important to African’s American males but not nearly as important to the females. Hair acts as a creative outlet to allow women to express themselves in many ways. With the unlimited ways a woman could style her hair she essentially becomes a walking billboard. Whatever hairstyle a woman possessed acted as a endorsement. For instance if a African American woman possessed straight hair or relaxed hair she may be criticized. The main critics would argue that the female is abandoning her natural black hair in order to look more European or White. Even though some girls received criticism they also received praise. Good hair or relaxed hair as some call it can seem to trump other physical flaws and can totally account for beauty.
In The Cotillion, we have a prime example of how good hair is considered the ultimate trait to posses,”I’m so happy you making friends with Brenda Brasswork. She’s such a lovely girl. Her skin’s so smooth, Yoruba said, Actually, Brenda’s face is as pimply as a pomegranate. She’s got a terrible case of acne. And she could almost pass for white, her mother said. And she’s got good hair too. It’s even better’n mine.Good hair, Mother? Yes, she’s got good hair. Admit it. Giver her credit. Everybody’s got good hair, Mother, excepting those who hair is falling out. Don’t cross-talk me, girl. You know what I mean. Okay, I know, Mother. You mean Brenda’s got hair like white folks.Yes, her mother answered. That’s what I said at first, she’s got good stuff up on her head.” (Killens, 165).
The idea of having good hair has taken over the black community and some of the people that were once proud to wear their natural nappy hair are now somewhat addicted to the relaxer or the creamy crack as its often called. Whether its exposing your hair and skin to toxic chemicals or spending thousands of dollars on weave and hair extensions,women are willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure their hair looks good.
The above video is a trailer from a movie called Good Hair featuring Chris Rock. In this movie, Chris Rock goes on a journey to learn more about the significance of hair and its importance in the black community. The trailer shows how people in today’s society define good hair and even some of the lengths they go through obtain it. From the opening scene in the trailer, Chris Rock asks a customer in a salon to define good hair. She answers by saying something that is relaxed and nice. This attitude is shared by some of the folks in the movie and only supports the notion that Lady Daphne introduces claiming that relaxed or white like hair is beautiful. The worst part of creamy crack addiction may not be its physical damage but maybe in its psychological damage.
Its psychologically damaging because if good hair is only associated with beauty then it limits the amount of people that can be considered beautiful. People who do not have relaxed hair may often feel inferior or not as pretty as a girl who has relaxed hair. The media has had an active hand in not only polluting the minds of young women but young girls only in elementary school. Chris Rock exposes the viewer to this mindset when his elementary school daughter comes and asks him daddy why don’t I have good hair? This type of insecurity at such a young age is extremely alarming and African American’s should seek to destroy this type of mindset by educating their children on all types of beauty and not limit it to a single thing.
Another way in which females have looked to express their black identity is through clothing as well. In the past women were pressured to dress conservatively and in neutral dull colors. This was very apparent in first pages of Larsen’s , Quicksand when the author described the attire of the women,” Turning from the window, her gaze wandered contemptuously over the dull attire of the women workers. Drab colors, mostly navy blue, black, brown, unrelieved save for scrap of white or tan about the hands and necks. Fragments of a speech made by the dean of women floated through her thoughts-Bright colors are vulgar- Black, gray, brown and navy blue are the most becoming colors for colored people.”(Larsen,16). This mindset was used to help African Americans assimilate into the white culture that had surrounded them.
One way in particular men have tried to identify their blackness is through the particular types of clothes they wear. Urban wear has been a very lucrative business since the early 1990s and was heavily influenced and driven by the taking off hip hop as a musical genre. Media outlets like MTV and BET were able to broadcast rap videos and award shows to hundreds of millions across the nation. With their broad reach, people around the world associated blackness from what they were exposed to in the rap videos.
They were exposed to African American’s cursing , drinking, and smoking amongst other things but the thing I want to focus mainly on is the fashion aspect. In rap videos the clothing at times was predictable and soon became infections. Rappers would often wear baggy pants or shorts, a snap back cap or baseball hat along with either a matching sports jersey, an over sized t-shirt, some Jordan’s, Adidas or Nike sneakers. This look soon caught on and became a way for African Americans to show off their blackness. Over the years young black boys looked at these men as role models and soon began to copy their fashion sense. With baggy jeans, jerseys and snap backs being associated with blackness, young boys soon began to associate other particular styles with whiteness. Blacks would often times criticize other blacks who didn’t dress like the norm and heckle them.
For instance in The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air Carlton would be looked upon as a sellout or an Oreo. An Oreo is a slang term that African American’s often use to describe another African American who physical appears black on the outside but on the inside he acts white. In the nearby picture we have Will and Carlton. Carlton is on the left and is dressed in a preppier fashion. He has on a white sweater vest, white polo shirt and black pants. Based on Carlton’s appearance he would not be able to identify with other blacks around him simply because they would look at his appearance and label him as dressing white.
Carlton’s cousin Will Smith on the other hand would be welcomed into the black community due to his attire. He has a high top fade, a black t-shirt, a sports team jacket and some Levi jeans. All these elements put together would scream blackness back in the day. Due to their dressing styles they would experience different sides of the black community.
Throughout this essay I have given examples of how African American’s have used fashion to identify with their blackness. They have used it uplift certain blacks while unfortunately also trampling on other blacks and putting them down. This type of behavior is appalling and in some ways very limiting to blackness. This was the main critique of people involved in the Post soul movement. By limiting blackness you constantly narrow people’s images of what black is and what black isn’t. Blackness shouldn’t a dividing factor solely be defined by the music you listen to or the clothes you wear. Blackness should be a unifying force bringing people together and also empowering them.
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