Teaching Fashion & Race
By Kim Jenkins
This piece was originally published on The Fashion Studies Journal on January 9, 2017.
I was back home in Texas for the holidays in 2015 when I received an email from Parsons School of Design. It was a brief, yet warm and congratulatory announcement–the elective course that I had proposed several months’ prior had been accepted into the curriculum for Fall 2016. By titling the course “Fashion and Race,” my aim was to be courageous and concise in hopes that by its title alone, the course might capture the attention of the self-aware and outspoken students attending The New School. In a short period, my course was waitlisted and messages from students making appeals to be “squeezed in” began to appear in my inbox. As news of the course began to circulate, friends of enrolled students began to ask if they could meet with me for research assistance, tapping my academic insight into things they wanted to problematize — like black hair. I couldn’t say no so I acquiesced to every request. They needed this.
As students flocked to enroll in “Fashion and Race,” I couldn’t help but think about the broader sociocultural context in which this course would be taught: racial tensions in the U.S. had boiled over in the past year and our students of color had been completely immersed in it, but were still searching for answers and outlets. I decided to spend the majority of my summer in Texas, and as I began to work through my course plans at my desk, I could hear the news reports of an elusive sniper who was carrying out a racially-motivated rampage in downtown Dallas in the next room. I was consumed by a heightened sense of responsibility, fraught with an irrational need to address everything related to fashion and race. I wanted to introduce my students to pillars in the field: Carol Tulloch, Stuart Hall, Monica Miller, Robin Givhan, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Petrine Archer Straw, Dorinne Kondo, Nicole Fleetwood, Minh-Ha T. Pham, Adrienne Keene, Thuy Linh Tu, Tanisha Ford, Anne Anlin Cheng, Hilton Als. They needed this.
My five-part thematic syllabus outline sought to identify, investigate, and implicate all the problems that I myself grappled with as an emerging fashion scholar and as a black woman. As I hauled books back and forth to the library and gradually patched together my syllabus, my course prep process had become a bonafide interdisciplinary undertaking, reflecting the breadth of the field itself. As the course calendar and corresponding assignments took shape, it became clear to me that this course could perhaps play a larger role in situating race within the broader field of fashion studies.
That fall, as the students began to fill the room on that first day of class, I sat prepared with a list of conversation starters on my iPad that would ease into the course material and anticipate my students’ questions and expectations. As we began our discussion, however, one student (who did not identify as a PoC, in fact) bluntly stated, “I was concerned, because I didn’t want to take this class if the professor was white.” Classmates within earshot laughed in agreement, put at ease in my presence, while numerous others added that they had grown tired of being volunteered by their professors to help explain histories or sociocultural phenomena to the class that the professors had not bothered to research on their own.
As we read through the syllabus together, the students were both excited and overwhelmed by the challenges the course promised. They felt invigorated by the idea that they were entering relatively uncharted academic territory at Parsons. I seized this moment to inquire what the students wished to get out of the course. “To school the ignorant,” one student in the very back pronounced, arms folded. That student went on to use the assignments and final project to work through his contemplation on self-fashioning as a proud black queer male and to heal from the death of his brother, who had been gunned down at the hands of the police only months ago.
By the middle of the period, I asked a question perhaps too delicate to ask: “What do you identify as?” Hands shot up in the air as this question cracked open an existential quandary with which most of my students had been wrestling. As I fielded the responses, making a conscious effort to ensure that every narrative was fully expressed, the few subtle dimensions of my course plan had sharpened and become exponentially multi-faceted, and it became clear this course would be as complicated as our lived experiences. We had an understanding that the room in which we gathered would be a safe space for dialogue, for learning and reclaiming lost or misrepresented histories, and I planned to facilitate self-care to the best of my ability.
In the weeks that followed, we departed from our preliminary concepts in understanding the social construction and implications of race, and surveyed themes and phenomena spanning the fields of art history, critical theory, and cultural history. When Elizabeth Way, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT, graciously presented a guest lecture on black hair from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century (along with some reflections on her exhibition, Black Fashion Designers), she was taken aback by the level of understanding and readiness for critical debate that was showcased by many of the students.
On the same day that Liz came to speak, history scholar Jonathan Michael Square joined us as a guest, seated amongst the class. Creator of Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom, Jonathan has made a valiant effort to carve out a space to reimagine fashion pedagogy and research in the digital landscape. After class, Jonathan and I had coffee at a nearby café, commiserating about the precarity of working as intellectual laborers of color in a (relatively) new field. This conversation wasn’t too unlike the ones that many of my peers in this field have on a regular basis, tucked away in the recesses of a coffee shop or bar. Jonathan urged me to consider PhD programs, and he told me about an elective course on black fashion history that he proposed at another esteemed design school. We hoped for the best and relished in the small victories. I acknowledged how lucky I was — and I also felt the mild pressure of the demands that lay ahead.
As the semester came to a close, my students emphasized how invaluable and enlightening the lectures and reading material were. One student was even inspired to minor in fashion studies, hoping to one day contribute to the field as an Arab fashion scholar. Another was an aspiring fashion photographer who struggled to find black women in the field to model herself after. I sent her to a conversation that WNYC was hosting with Harvard professor Sarah Lewis who was also teaching a course that fall entitled “Vision and Justice.” Following the talk, she met one of the guests, respected photographer Carrie Mae Weems. She told me that the encounter brought her to tears.
Teaching “Fashion and Race” was an experience for which I hadn’t prepared myself in many ways. I was not only there to teach, I was there to explain, mediate, defend, and console. If I had my way, I would teach this course every semester and I’d make a plea to art and design schools to offer the topic as an ongoing elective or even a core course. Although I’ve put my “Fashion and Race” syllabus to rest for the time being, I’m encouraged by the thought that this is only the beginning.
Several months ago, my fashion studies peer Rikki Byrd joined me in creating a working, online syllabus so that prospective students, colleagues, and the fashion-literate community at large can pull from a reservoir of resources that feature the under-researched and overlooked aspects of fashion history and theory. It is with and through these audacious strides and unsteady climbs in academia that we will improve and broaden our perspective, granting the uneasy conversation of “fashion and race” the gravitas it deserves.