Photo by Jamie Taete for the VICE NYFW Photo Blog.
There were a lot of powerful scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “crap masterpiece” Django Unchained. But the film’s most haunting moment for me was when the freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter title character was hanging upside down, butt-ass naked, with his genitals threatened by a red-hot blade wielded by a viciously racist white slaver. Even though Django ultimately escaped castration, the scene was a reminder of the literal and metaphorical emasculation of black men that has gone on, at both the systemic and individual levels, in America since before the states got their independence from England.
Black masculinity isn’t just a topic for discussion among historians and other academics. Recent developments, like the rise of gangster rap, which contributed to the thugification of the black male in modern media, and the country’s first black president who asserts his manhood through his intellect, have altered the paths by which black males can and do express themselves. As oppressive laws have been torn down, and the blatant racism like that of the villains in Django fades into the past, the battle for what it means to be a black man has turned inward. A new dialogue is developing within in the black community about how we should assert and reaffirm our manhood now that we have the freedom to do so. Last week, as I spent my days hustling from show to show at New York Fashion Week, I could see that the dialogue about this issue was happening as much on the runways as it was among black public intellectuals like Byron Hurt and Touré.
Me and Shayne Oliver backstage at Hood By Air's Boychild FW13 show. (He was in pretty good spirits until I put my arm around him…)
Two Saturdays ago, I watched the Hood By Air runway show, during which several black men, including rap phenom A$AP Rocky, strut in garments that would probably evoke a “faggot” or two if they were worn in the wrong neighbourhood. Hood By Air was founded in 2006 by Minnesota-born and Caribbean-raised gay and black designer, Shayne Oliver; it began as a small-run T-shirt line worn by Shayne and his friends in the GHE20GOTH1K scene of Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn and grew into a brand that bridges the gap between the blunt bravado of streetwear and the experimentalism of avant-garde fashion. After the show, Shayne enlightened me on the contemptuous mix of machismo and androgyny in his designs. “I’ve been in situations where I had on pom-poms and thigh-high boots,” he told me, “but I wore it right and received props from boys who were like, ‘That fag is swagged out.’”
For Hood By Air to have an artist like Rocky – who’s rap persona is all about old-school concepts of manhood – walking in a fashion show designed by a gay man with painted nails was kind of a revelation. And Shayne thinks of this as only the beginning of a trend that will allow black men to dress in ways formerly dismissed as “gay.”
“When my friends and I started doing this – nobody else was in that zone,” he said. “But now that vibe has had a trickle-down effect to people who don’t even know who we are. They don’t know where it’s coming from, they are just feeling the essence of it. “
Even though there has been progress recently in terms of the way black men can dress, it’s hard to miss the opposition to this new movement. Case in point, VICE columnist Michael Knight recently got into a heated debate with members of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths for calling out Lord Jamar, a Five Percenter and founding member of rap group Brand Nubian, for making homophobic statements about Kanye West wearing a kilt. The washed-up rapper had made a dis track titled “Lift Up Your Skirt” and pretty much blamed ‘Ye for the emasculation of young black men.
I share concern for the emasculation of black men in our country today. But I don't see it happening in instances of creative men stepping outside of the box and expressing themselves through fashion – to me, those are defiant acts of freedom. Instead, I see emasculation through the outlandish prison rates of black men in America or oppressive policies like stop-and-frisk that target young black men and turn them into statistics.
The perspective of assholes like Lord Jamar is especially deplorable because not only does it equate black manhood with what you wear, but it also equates clothing with sexual preferences. According to guys like him, you’re a “faggot” unless you dress exactly like them, and “real” black men never suck dick, or deviate an inch from tired heterosexual stereotypes.
I’ve dealt with that kind of nonsense from my fellow brothers in my own life. I nearly got a beat down in the mid-2000s for wearing a pair of nut-hugging Nudie jeans (this was when Nudies were still cool) when I went to pick up a fine-ass red-bone chick from one of the worst hoods in Cleveland, Ohio. Those brothers were practically running down the street after my mum's car screaming shit about my pants. I spent the whole date hoping that they wouldn’t be there when I went back to drop her off and luckily they weren’t. If they had been, I probably would’ve had to buy another pair of jeans on my way home.
After living through experiences like that, where what I wore made my fellow brothers think I was gay or not “black” enough to relate with them, it makes me proud to see guys like Rocky pushing the boundaries of style and still demanding and receiving the respect they deserve as black men. Their actions are opening the door for young guys to think outside of the box and explore new ways of expressing themselves. Hopefully this movement can lead to a day when people realise that being a strong black man (or any man, for that matter) has nothing to do with what you wear or who you fuck, but whether or not you have the will power to stay true to yourself. If that means wearing a dress or swallowing a cock, then so be it. You’re still a man and a brother to me.
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