Toward Profit? The Uniform and How America Co-Opts Black Rebellion
Published on September 9th, 2018 on the original blog.
All throughout high school, I was obsessed with the Uniform.
The variation of the Uniform I remember the most came in a rainbow of flavors one could wear, but was consistent on the staples. A New Era fitted hat. A throwback jersey. Baggy jeans, preferably of the Rocawear, Enyce, or Akademiks brand. Air Force Ones or wheat construction Timbs.
My family was still in the early stages of our story of a precarious upward mobility. We lived in a house in East Elmhurst at the time, a few years removed from the projects. Money was something I never saw much of but knew from conversations with my mom was always tight. I resorted to doing people’s homework to earn money to build my wardrobe. I soon had everything, save the throwback jerseys; they were forever outside the orbit of my fiduciary discipline.
The adults in my life at the time felt the Uniform was a way to ease adolescent anxiety. And it probably was one of those things. All the black folk I knew and saw dressed the same. I was unsure of my identify. All I wanted to do was to sink into the crowd and been seen as one.
But the Uniform did not disappear while I was in college as well. I dressed professionally when the occasion called for it. But a recent friend posted a card from the college fellowship I was a member of. It was summer. We were all in Central Park. And while most were dressed like college students, I was proudly decked out in the latest Uniform at the time — a tall white tee, baggy jeans, Air Force Ones, and a gaudy silver chain. I could not chalk this up to adolescent anxiety. Yet I refused to be embarrassed about it. At the time, I laid my head down in Harlem; soon, it would be Clifton, Staten Island. I looked like my people. I never thought of fitting in. Instead, I began thinking of Malcolm X and his zoot suits.
The passages I remember the most from my readings of The Autobiography of Malcolm X were the dance halls. A young Detroit Red, with shiny shoes and conked hair, danced the night away with folks who looked and dressed just like him. It was a form of blackness he rejected later in his life, his hair a poor pantomime of white people’s.
But I can sense the belonging he felt, the elevation of black skin from being a target to becoming a totem that allowed him to sink into his tribe. The more I age, the more I embrace the tribal purposes of clothing. This is because starting toward the end of the 16th Century, my nation embraced a set of laws that associated black skin with slavery; that nation also dressed my ancestors in burlap clothing and sent them to the fields to till cotton, which fueled a revolution in manufacture and commerce that allowed the dominators of the 19th Century to dress themselves in the finest raiment. It’s no wonder that when we had the chance to, we decked ourselves in clothing to show our defiance. We too will be beautiful in a world that historically said we were not.
I feel blessed that I came of age where successful black entertainers insisted on owning the Uniform. The cotton now comes from sources unknown to me, but the profits flowed back into the pockets of my favorite rappers and business people. All throughout my high school and college years, I wore Rocawear, FUBU (until they fell off), Phat Farm, S. Dots, and Sean Jean. I choose those and avoided Ecko and avoided brands where I was unsure of ownership. I wanted my closet to be a fashion catalog of black success, which — when judged again the history of this nation — is always an act of rebellion.
Which is why it is unfortunate that our rebellions have always been converted into revenue. On September 3rd, Nike picked up Colin Kaepernick’s torch and made his crusade against the NFL part of their next advertisement campaign for shoes and socks and sportswear. Tom Ford has also chosen to endorse Cardi B after she physically fought for the honor of her progeny at New York Fashion Week. I stan both people, though I hate that companies see their pride as a source of a robust bottom line. I work and write for a world where the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward profit.
I do not see this as progress, as a blow against folk resisting the browning and blackening of the planet due to population and incremental change in Fahrenheit. I want my Uniform to mean something. Because I this, I’ve fallen in love with Philadelphia Printworks, an organization that makes black resistance and art clothing and funnels their profits to organizations that help those in need. I now live in a world where Joseph Abboud and Kenneth Cole suits are my preferred Uniforms; pursuing radical goals through professional means. But when I am not at work, I am still wearing my preferred Uniform — Timberlands to show love to my New York upbringing, and t-shirts that signal my rebellion toward a more just nation.