“Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum,”* or When DeRay Mckesson and Kerby Jean-Raymond Spoke about the Hoodie at MoMA
Authors: Kerby Jean-Raymond and DeRay Mckesson
Fashion designer / activist
On May 16, 2016, amid a dynamic roster of designers, curators, critics, scholars, and entrepreneurs, activist (and former Baltimore mayoral candidate) DeRay Mckesson and fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond came together to deconstruct one item: the hoodie.
Part performance and part oration, their collaboration (video and transcript below) was one of 26 presentations in a daylong abecedarium exploring fashion as the expression of social and cultural form, using the letters of the alphabet as a framework. The event introduced the upcoming MoMA exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? (opening October 2017).
You can find archived footage of the conversation between DeRay, Kerby, and co-panelists after their presentation — as well as the 25 other presentations, by speakers including Tinker Hatfield, Valerie Steele, Mickey Boardman, Aimee Mullins, Mary Ping, Hari Nef, Omoyemi Akerele, and Sara Ziff — on the abecedarium event page. We’ll post a few more transcripts of specific letters in the weeks to come.
For now, we’re honored to share with you their presentation, H = Hoodie. Before DeRay took the podium, Kerby stood silently at the microphone and reflected on a montage, both deeply personal and broadly public, that portrayed the perceptions of this garment, past and present (catch it on the YouTube video below).
DeRay Mckesson: For the last 19 months, we’ve stood in streets in protest, in Baltimore and in cities over the country. At its root, protest is telling the truth in public. That is what we do when we put our bodies in the middle of streets. We told the truth about a country that killed Mike Brown, and killed Trayvon Martin. When we disrupted board meetings and commission hearings, we were telling the truth about institutions that weren’t using their power in ways that value black lives.
We know that in blackness we’ve always faced issues of erasure, and erasure often manifests in one of two ways. Either the story is never told, or it’s told by everybody but us. In protest, we became the unerased, our own storytellers, we told the truth about blackness in public. We know that fashion, too, is storytelling. When we think about the black body, it’s always functioned as political. The back body has always been political in the sense that it’s been at the interplay of influence and power. And the black body was America’s original currency in so many ways.
[I say this to repeat] a joke: people want everything about blackness but the burden. People love blackness but not black folks. I’m explicit about talking about the black body and not the black soul because we know that they have functioned differently; that it has not been about the worth of Trayvon’s life but that his body was a threat. The black body has always been an independent currency and tool in America. It’s in this context that we understand fashion, that we understand clothing, that we understand that the “modern” in blackness today always harkens back to a more complicated, treacherous past in blackness, one that has not valued black lives.
It is in this context that we understand the significance of the hoodie. It is in this context [that] we explore the iconography that is rooted in the essential question of blackness itself, which is this question of, how do I secure my safety? What does safety mean? And what does that look like in a world that has not always valued blackness and black bodies?
When we think about three primary ways that fashion and clothing function in blackness, one is around conformity or status appropriation. The second is around an expression of identity. The third is about worn resistance. When we think about conformity, it is this idea that clothes allow us closer proximity to the politics of whiteness, and therefore more access in society. When we think about status appropriation, it is this idea that clothing and what I wear can belie my class status. When we think about identity, it is this notion that clothes might amplify my lived reality, and allow me to reclaim parts of my identity — and in blackness, it is often a reminder that we are not only our pain; that we are more than our pain. There is joy in blackness, too.
And when we think about hoodies, and this idea of worn resistance, it is a notion that we can withstand the pressures of this world and that we might be able to call into question the very dynamics and relationships of power and influence that are at play. When we think about the conformity, we see it show up in wearing dress clothes or changing your hair when you go to work. When we think about status appropriation, we see it show up when people wear Gucci and Prada — but can’t really afford it.
And when we think about worn resistance, it is obvious that we might think about things like hoodies. What does it mean to have a hoodie that says the police are not necessarily great people all the time? What does it mean to have natural hair that has a certain connotation in this climate? Hoodies are a reminder that there is much work to be done to ensure the safety of black bodies, to build a world where the question of safety is not the central question in blackness.
To understand the American predicament is to understand at its root that we are all implicated in these questions. That some of us benefit from the tension that says that the central question in blackness is about safety and some of us are burdened by this question, but all of us are implicated. At its root, it’s about a conception of safety that is standard for all people, that is not different because of the color of one’s skin.
We know that fashion often has four primary uses. One is to explain this world, to tell, to be a window. The second is to reinforce, to strengthen an understanding. The third is to disrupt, and that is to upend, to dispel, to call forth, to call into question. The fourth is to imagine and to help us think about new possibilities.
What we know is so powerful about the hoodie, is that the hoodie — though it cloaks black skin, though it can become a covering — does not erase the pressure and the power of the question of the black body and America. With Trayvon, it did not save him. It did not save so many other people. When I leave this podium and I put on a hoodie, when Kerby has on a hoodie, we are just, in some places, black men in America, and that means something — something that is not always safe or beautiful about our blackness, but that is real nonetheless.
When we think about protest, again we think about it telling the truth in public. The hoodie is perhaps our most public truth-telling piece of clothing. Let it be a reminder that you are all implicated in this truth-telling too. That as people who go out and create things in this world, you have an opportunity to create new realities in how we think about how we share this world with each other. We are responsible for this world. You are responsible for this world. This world is ours.
* Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) on the House floor in 2012, responding to the death of Trayvon Martin. He continued: “I applaud the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the real hoodlums in this nation, specifically those who tread on our law wearing official or quasi-official cloaks…. Racial profiling has got to stop. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”