Models Monday: The Hoodie Distraction

I wish people would stop donning hoodies as a sign of protest. There was a time when I found this gesture meaningful in the way it symbolized the trivialities in American culture that can be used to justify racial terror against black people. We are in a different moment now and so we need a meaningful response beyond symbolism. The verdict favoring George Zimmerman requires an oppositional stance that uses symbolism to initiate material, concrete change. Wearing a hoodie to church or donning one to reflect your social media profile no longer counts as activism; again, we’re beyond that now. Wearing a hoodie can no longer count as this generations’ sit-in or freedom ride; it’s not enough.

Continuing to rock hoodies as protest reflects a very thin reading of American history. Trayvon Martin could have worn a military uniform with ribbons and medals all over it and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. Black men in military uniforms weren’t saved because of their attire after serving their country during World War II. Trayvon Martin could have worn the sharpest three-piece suit you’ve ever seen and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. Addie-Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley weren’t saved because of their genteel garments as they readied themselves for worship at their home church on September 15, 1963. Trayvon Martin could have worn anything and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. I don’t know what Yusef Hawkins was wearing, just like I don’t know what Amadou Diallo was wearing, but no matter their attire,white people killed both of them. As a student of American history, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because he understood that killing a black child wouldn’t cost him very much. Moreover, emphasizing Trayvon Martin’s choice of clothing suggests his complicity in Zimmerman’s crime. Trayvon Martin was in no way responsible for George Zimmerman’s actions.

If you are a black person in America, your choice of clothing will not save you from racial terrorism. This idea that putting on a lab coat, a judge’s robe, a top hat and tails, a priest’s collar, or a nun’s habit makes you safe defies American racial history. Armor for black folk in America involves literacy, not clothing receipts. Calls for literacy in this case means that black folk in America should know how to read their world as it is while still being aware of an ideal world. I read a very interesting story in Jonathan Rieder’s book The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rieder offers this narrative in order to substantiate his claim that King authentically experienced fellowship with ministers outside the baptist faith; especially with those who could identify with black suffering and those who preached against injustice. Citing secondary sources as well as interviews he conducted with Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s family, Rieder tells a story about an invitation King accepted on he and his wife’s behalf to attend dinner at the Rothschild’s home. Here’s the story:

The Kings arrived late, Janice Rothschild remembered. As far as the hosts were concerned, there was no need for explanation. Still, she continued, ‘Martin apologized anyhow and explained that they had been delayed trying to find our house.’ It seems the Kings were forced to knock on doors to get directions. ‘As Martin told us this, he quickly added, ‘But we were careful not to embarrass you with your neighbors. I let Coretta go to the door so they’d think we were just coming to serve a party.’ Janice added, ‘I still get a lump in my throat when I think of it. (281)

From there, Rieder moves on without explicating the Kings’ actions or Mrs. Rothschild’s lump. For me, this account provides great insight into King’s understanding of race in America. Though King accepted the Rothschild’s invitation, he did not interpret their offer as anything more than that. King did not assume that he and Mrs. King had suddenly been invited into a world of racial tolerance. Instead of discounting all that he knew and understood about race, King drew upon this knowledge in order to safely reach his goal of dining in the Rothschild’s home. Once there, King set out to allay Mrs. Rothschild’s fears that his actions would reflect badly upon her. Thus, King’s analysis of race helped to script or to craft the plot of his compassion. Given this interpretation, I’m not sure what to make of the lump in Mrs. Rothschild’s throat. Does it signal shame for what King understood about fears she thought were secret? Is it a sign of her witness to King’s goodness? Does it represent her desire to change the past so as to be as invested in King’s feelings as he was with hers?

King’s actions in this instance provide a model for confronting a truth about race that James Baldwin offered his nephew in 1963: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Neither Baldwin nor King suggest using this reading of the world as the basis for a lesson plan designed to disprove widely held ideas about blackness. In King’s case, he uses what he understands about race to author a response that would allow him to achieve his goals. It would have been interesting for Rieder to have probed what those might have been. What did King find so worthwhile about accepting an invitation whose subtext demanded a deferential posture? Without knowing King’s goals beyond dining with the Rothschilds in their home and supporting the racial narrative they may well have been enacting, King’s actions suggest he was not diminished by presumptions regarding his identity. His grace and compassion exemplify such an insight. Rather than surrender the power to name himself, King pronounced that he held sole authority in this regard. Therefore, King’s authority is instructive because it teaches us that being free requires knowledge of the past and an effective strategy for using that knowledge to survive. Freedom requires conceptualizing new terms for defining worthwhile experiences and rejecting the ones coming from a culture that considers you worthless. Assuming the integrity of those terms has lethal consequences for black people in America. To that end, freedom depends on one’s ability to craft meaningful terms for living a good life that others are bound to respect. Freedom requires naming, not rocking a hoodie.

2 thoughts on “Models Monday: The Hoodie Distraction

  1. I’m a bit embarrassed because I have been struggling to find an imaginative way of including hoodies in my professional wardrobe. I agree that it isn’t the sole path to justice, but I thought it would be a way of demonstrating solidarity while confounding certain notions. Clearly, you have obliterated any idea that simply donning a hoodie would create an America that loves my Black son so I’ll put my little gesture on hold for now.

    1. Thanks for writing.

      It’s true: I really think that in this case, wardrobe discourse distracts from substantive engagement over race. Remember: MLK, jr. was killed while wearing a suit. In fact, he had been joking with Jesse Jackson about the informality of Jackson’s dinner attire only minutes before being assassinated. I like James Baldwin’s remarks so much because they get at the heart of what racism means. American culture despises blackness, which was DuBois’s point when he wrote of this country’s “all pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black.” What DuBois further described as “unforgivable blackness” is the truth we have to contend with in raising our black sons. I am uncertain about my ability to change the racial biases that others carry. While it may be possible to do so, I am choosing to channel my energy towards preparing my son to navigate through a world that, as Baldwin says, “spells out with brutal clarity” its low regard for him. In doing so, I consistently say to my son that when we tell him that we love him, his father and I are doing more than describing our emotions. In telling him that we love him, we are providing him with information. From there, I see it as our job to help him learn to translate that information into knowledge; particularly of his value. To that end, when the culture tells him of his worthlessness, he has grounds upon which to disagree.

      You certainly point out a truth that I did not thoroughly engage in my post. I did not say much about the significance of black sartorial choices. And I actually do think that these choices can be meaningful. For example, my husband and I require that our son wear shirts with collars to school. For us, this sartorial choice is linked to our belief in the seriousness of school work. This decision then, is for the benefit of our son’s approach. We are not convinced that his attire will alter centuries of racial disdain held by others. As far as we’re concerned, there are many costumes, outfits, and uniforms that one can wear to illustrate a sense of self-regard. We do not believe, however, that these garments secure the safety of black people nor do they act as a shield against the low appraisal or estimation of any black person’s significance, importance, or humanity.

      You know, I’ve been thinking about an article I read recently where a journalist who interviewed Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, after his murder reflects on this history in light of the Zimmerman verdict. The journalist claimed to be interested in Mrs. Till-Mobley’s efforts to prepare Emmett to enter into the racial primitiveness he would confront in Mississippi. I doubted this woman’s sincerity because Mrs. Till-Mobley writes about that very thing in her memoir DEATH OF INNOCENCE. In that book, she describes every effort she made in getting her son to believe what she was telling him about the depth of white American contempt for blackness awaiting him in Mississippi. So for me, the most urgent question regarding Mrs. Till-Mobley’s instructions involves the frightening possibility that in loving our sons, they will believe us and therefore find the culture’s view hard to accept; so they will treat racism too casually. Thus, Mrs. Till-Mobley forces us to confront the complexity posed by our credibility with our children. If our black children believe that we love them, why wouldn’t they conclude that they were lovable? “If I’m worth your love,” a child might think, “why would others despise me?” To that end, in raising black children in an environment where they are fiercely loved, brings with it the challenge of helping them recognize the worthlessness that attaches itself to them in American culture. Mrs. Till-Mobley is interesting to me for many reasons, but perhaps the most fascinating thing that she highlights in this instance for any mother of a black child is the task of meaningfully conveying to them that they are both loved and imperiled. At least for me, at the most fundamental level, our time is better spent in working out this problem than integrating hoodies into our wardrobes.

      Thank you again for writing, and for giving me an opportunity to further process these ideas. EMM

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