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A series, inspired by the CNN special, dedicated to race related identity issues concerning Black people in America.

The Story

My homeboy was going on this rant about dudes and jewelry. It was inspired by a random pic of a rapper with this huge Jesus piece. My homeboy was on some “Who they flashing for?!” type thought. I could kind of feel where he was coming from; however, I started to think about the vast criticisms rappers and Black people get in general for our aesthetic choices. this brought to the question: What’s so wrong with being flashy?

The Inheritance

As Black people, we value aesthetics. It has long since been a staple of Black culture to create beauty (which is completely subjective) in our lives — including our bodies. This has it’s roots in our African heritage. For example the Fulani tribe of West Africa very much celebrate aesthetics.

Fulani Fulani2

These earrings worn by the Fulani are not only statements of fashion but also signify a person’s wealth. The wealthier the person is, the more gold they can have added to the earrings. The Fulani are also known for their love of tattoos. Many Fulani women use henna to darken their lips or to tattoo their faces.

Many of the aesthetic choices that are made by African people have to do with culture, tribes, religion, and individual aspects of the personality. African cultures are not the only cultures that relish in beauty. And for Black people being some of the closest descendants of African people, we have inherited their appreciation for beauty. It may be true that Black folks take it to another level, but then why the hell wouldn’t we? After decades of being treated like chattel, followed by decades of being denied access to basic necessities (not even near luxury), why wouldn’t we be the ones to overdose on the chance to express ourselves outwardly.

Black is Beautiful

When you say ‘black is beautiful’ what in fact you are saying to him is: man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being . . . So in a sense the term ‘black is beautiful’ challenges exactly that belief which makes someone negate himself.

-Steve Biko, I Write What I Like

During the Black Power movement the quest for Black identity and self appreciation took a huge leap forward. The concept of loving one’s self just as you are became mainstream in the Black community. That appreciation was symbolized by the afros and natural styles that became popular. There was an emphasis on art and intellectualism as evidenced by the coinciding Black Arts Movement. For the first time Black people began to see themselves from a gaze of their own. White standards of beauty were no longer the measuring stick for Black aesthetics. What followed was something I’m sure no Black person ever saw coming. These new innovations and perspectives on beauty and aesthetics that Black people created found their way into mainstream acceptance. Steve Burrows became the first Black designer to have his own boutique in a major departments store, Beverly Johnson became the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue, and chocolate sisters like Naomi Sims became successful supermodels.

In the 80s the influence of Hip Hop dominated the expressions of Black youth who in turn affected the entire fashion industry. It was at this time that Adidas began the brand that it is from the promotion of Run DMC’s “My Adidas.” Kangol hats, gold rope chains, box radios, and a number of other material expressions gained national notoriety due to the influence of the Black aesthetic.

I would argue that it was during this time that the will to adorn was born in the Black community. It was revolutionary to finally be able to define ourselves without apology. It was astonishing that through the strength of our wills we changed the way the nation saw us and defined us as well. The will to adorn has a legacy of independence, freedom, and social change.

The Will to Adorn

I will bejewel my tongue

So every word from my lips is rich

Extravagant verbs

lauryn-hill-6th-annual-jazz-03moving lavish nouns around

with exorbitant adjectives

Makes you wish

To hear the shit I spit

I’ll plate my soul in gold

and rope my God around my throat

to rest at my chest

Brings me joy encrusted with emeralds

the color of your envy when you see me

Glaring beneath my lids

Two diamonds twinkling

Contradicting the ruby red rebellion within me

Who are you to judge me?

I have a will to adorn 

It’s my right to do itcleo2

My inheritance

My prerogative

Cultural imperative

Visual Black narrative

Do it ’cause I can

I am

what I am

I’ll do

what I will

The Problem

[Black Fashion] It’s a way that people project their own identity, dignity, self-worth and power, and give lie to the stereotypes endemic to the world in which they lived.

– Sarah Henry (Deputy Director of Museum of the City of New York), NPR interview

It may seem frivolous and superficial to discuss things like fashion choices and material expressions. It’s difficult to see the important role that they have played in the evolutions of Black Americans; however, consider that expression is a part of American culture and expression is not limited to legislation, politics, and religion. America was founded on the notion of individual identity. Therefore, identity is a big part of American culture. Identity is a dualistic phenomenon in that it is grounded internally but encountered externally and creates a struggle in which an individual is always seeking to bring the internal and external together. That place of that struggle is in the aesthetic choices of the individual. And given the impact that occurred for the Black community in the 70s, it is not a frivolous endeavor.

Slick-Rick-Gold-Chain

It is a cultural imperative for Black people to adorn themselves. The mere fact that we take pleasure in appearance is not a bad thing at all. However, I believe what cause people to becom critical of Black adornment is that fact that it is often an indicator of an individual who has attached values related to self-esteem and success to those material things. In the Black community, because of our lack of understanding of American economics, we often ignorantly become focused on the things that wealth allows one to acquire. We see celebrities in their Ashton Martin’s, their $2,000 shoes and $10,000 ensembles and we believe these things

are symbols of wealth — they’re not — but many of us think so. We will go to great lengths to acquire these symbols without ever actually acquiring the wealth to maintain them. We focus on the material objects as a measure for success when they are really just byproducts of success. We should be focused on what a person has had to do to acquire the thing they have.  That said, this misperception about wealth, status, and success are wholly separate from the basic will to adorn.

The Point

Black aesthetics have historically been the medium for the expressing what it means to be Black in America. Black aesthetics have been a vehicle for psychological evolution and revolution in which Black people found the strength to redefine themselves and force the world to change its definition of us. At the root of the will to adorn is a resistance to the status quo. It is, then, no surprise that as new expressions are developed they are criticized and misinterpreted.

The will to adorn is about freedom, independence, and expression. It’s about the ability to define one’s self; to choose for one’s self; to reinvent one’s self. It’s not that material things are bad. It’s that they are just material things. Not every Black person with the will to adorn has it ‘wrong’. Every trend does not work well for everybody nor are they all acceptable in every circumstance, but it is an offense to the very nature of a Black person to assert that they do not have the right to express themselves. We may not like or ascribe to every Black person’s aesthetic expression but we must respect their courage to do so and support their right to do so. The will to adorn is a part of our cultural heritage. It is one of the most overt statements we can make about ourselves to the world. And in a society that is constantly trying to make us someone else, we need more than ever to assert our identities.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

References

African People and Culture: Tribes and People Groups. The African Guide. 2014.

Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. The Bowerdean Press. 1978.

Keyes, Allison. Charting Black America’s Fashion Savvy. NPR.org. 2006.

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