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Black History Month: Dressing for the life you want

28 Feb
Grant Harris

Grant Harris, owner of Image Granted in Washington, D.C.

For the second Black History Month post, I am in conversation with Grant Harris, owner & Chief Style Consultant at Image Granted, a Washington, D.C.-based image consulting company dedicated to solving the complex image, style, and fashion issues of today’s professional man. Grant has featured in The Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, Men’s Health, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, CNN, and others.

LM: My first post for Black History Month 2013 put the focus on Hip-Hop as a form of blackface, perpetuating the negative black stereotype and the violent, sag-ass Hip-Hop culture. The costume, huge t-shirts, baseball hats, and low-slung baggy pants are based on farce, and an unstable and unsafe way to dress. Essentially, I see this costume as a rock tied around the neck, a uniform keeping young men stagnant and blind to any other reality. Can you comment on this, Grant?

GH: Many black men think of a suit and tie when they hear the word “uniform”, but there are many uniforms that African-American men can wear to present themselves as a competent part of society and to positively influence those around them – military-influenced uniforms, uniforms of higher education, medicine, aviation and others all have positive connotations for black men, but there is a deficit of modern black male role models for today’s youth to look up to.

Black History Month focuses on yesteryear and the men who helped shaped the present, but it rarely if ever focuses on men in the present helping to shape the future. Young black males with no direction or guidance end up with few choices, and turn to the streets, athletics, or music. Popular media rarely focuses on the positive black male, but instead shines the light on rappers, athletes, and entertainment moguls as if these lives are normal and customary.

There are other uniforms which degrade and decline the image of the black male in society.  The uniform of XXL t-shirts, sagging pants, sneakers, snap back hats and gold chains only displaces the positivity afforded to those before us.  Most of the African-American men wearing these “uniforms” have no idea of the culture from whence they came.

Sagging pants comes from prison where inmates aren’t allowed to wear belts due to the potential of violence, and therefore are left with sagging pants.  Wearing baggy clothes makes it easier to conceal weapons.  The uniform of gang members, prison inmates, ex-convicts and the like are detrimental not only to unsupported inner city youth, but to the overall growth of young African-American males in the U.S. impacting their ability to make a difference on an international level.

LM: I used to volunteer with an agency that pulled wardrobes together for people entering the workforce, and every month, I dressed at-risk youth from Eva’s Phoenix, a wonderful organization that helps street kids get their lives together, in clothes appropriate for job interviews.

One day, I worked with a young African-Canadian man who arrived in baggy clothes and no idea what he should wear. We found a good-fitting suit for him, some shirts, shoes, and I taught him to tie a tie. He had never seen himself look like this before, and he was stunned.

“I look exactly like Jay-Z,” he said, eyes wide.

I really felt blessed to give this young man a different perspective of himself which hopefully opened his imagination to where he could be, and make him realize that he didn’t have to exist in the life he currently lived.

Grant, are there any organizations in the U.S. that help youth turn their lives around with clothing and presentation?

GH: There are organizations around the world helping to improve the lives of men and women through their appearance and presentation.  The goal of these organizations is not to supply the masses with fast fashion, but instead to equip them with the necessary basics that will build a foundation for the future.  In Washington, D.C., there are several non-profit organizations that provide presentation services:

MenzFit An educational non–profit organization ensuring long–term gainful employment and financial fitness to low–income men with little formal education. Clients receive professional interview clothing, career development and financial literacy services.

Martha’s Table  Martha’s Table deals with the immediate effects of poverty and finds long-term solutions with education, nutrition and family support services. At the core of Martha’s Table family support services is a clothing operation where everyone can shop together and choose how they will present and express themselves to the world.

Strive DC STRIVE DC was established in August 1999 to combat unemployment in Washington, DC, and fill the void of effective programs seeking to accomplish this.  Although independently funded and governed, STRIVE DC is one of a network of centers modeled after the acclaimed East Harlem, New York STRIVE employment program, established in 1984.

LM: What is your best style advice for young, at-risk African-American men?

GH: All African-American men are at risk.  Not only because of hostile surroundings or because they come from broken homes.  Black males are at risk of becoming no more than the status quo, or even worse, becoming an average statistic.

At-risk doesn’t always mean gang violence, and drugs.  It also means that black men are at risk at losing their place in society.  Black men are no longer the minority in the US, and we do not earn as many privileges as we have in the past.  We are at risk of becoming obsolete not just from black-on-black crime, but by the threat of upper class America becoming the only class.

The best way to keep pace with progress is to dress, not for the life you have, but for the life you want.

Further reading: Please pull up your pants.

Black History Month: Another side of Hip-Hop

14 Feb


Click me.

Negative stereotypes of Blacks are a staple of Black music videos that glorify gangsterism. In Rap music and videos, the minstrel-show plantation has been born again as the “hood.” While the setting has changed from an idyllic plantation to the mean streets of urban America, the process is the same: a black culture is being marketed for profit, with black performers portraying negative stereotypes. Performers claim that they represent authentic black America, while critics decry the glorification of ugly caricatures and its effects on Black youth.

I’ve had some things on my mind lately, Black History Month (BHM), and a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, by masculinities author and sociologist, Michael Kimmel. By fortunate chance, I recently came across  The Black Man Can, an initiative to actively promote a positive black male image by Brandon Frame, who has helped immensely with this year’s BHM articles.

I read a couple of posts on Brandon’s site that really grabbed my interest: Is Commercial Hip-Hop the New Blackface? by Sharif Rasheed, who suggests Hip-Hop culture as a caricature of African-American youth, and the fabrication and absorption of the Hip-Hop stereotype in black youth culture in When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life. 

Now, as a white, Canadian woman of European descent with a love for Sam Cooke, but no understanding of Soulja Boy let alone Jay-Z, I was gobsmacked at what I read in Rasheed’s article: “Commercial Hip-Hop has become the blueprint for the streets for many of today’s youth. The lyrics tell them what to wear, how to talk, what to like and dislike. These ignorant lyricists are the slave masters that abuse young minds by whipping the oppression into them and hanging the glorification right on them.”

Glen Palmer, of The Gentlemen’s Standard, a site for distinctive men of colour, does not believe that the younger generation understands blackface, let alone black American history.

“The blackface concept still remains,” he says,“artists play to the lowest, stereotypical denominator and project an imagery that mainstream, white America believes people of color to be. The stereotypes have changed a little, as “bling” has been introduced into the equation, but the foundation is still there. Ignorant. Hyper-sexualized. Violent.”

It is alarming that young black men allow themselves to be molded into an antiquated stereotype via Hip-Hop, as is their frenzy to prove their manhood – the brand of masculinity devised by white, Judeo-Christian men.


In Michael Kimmel’s lecture, he explains the traditional pillars of manhood that originated in the mid-20th century that has left millions of men unable to feel, positively express themselves, and be genuine.

  1. “No sissy stuff.” In western patriarchal culture, anything associated with the feminine is a sign of weakness (an apparent cardinal sin). In Hip-Hop, rap artists often call each other out and accuse each other of weakness in their rhymes, using offensive language like “bitch nigga”,  keeping rivalries and feuds alive, and feeding the aggression that hip hop demands.
  2. “Be a big wheel.” Wealth, power, and status equals money, ice (bling), and sex in Hip-Hop culture – the spoils of white patriarchy.
  3. “Be a sturdy oak. Be reliable in a crisis/become an unfeeling inanimate object”. Glen suggested I watch Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an excellent documentary by Byron Hurt. Hurt discusses the projected hardness in Hip-Hop that is ego-driven and encourages men to assert themselves. This  hardness “denies men their own frailty”, and exposes their masculine insecurities, camouflaged by violence, dominance, misogyny, and homophobia.
  4. “Give ‘em hell.”  Be daring, be aggressive, be violent. The projected Hip-Hop image encourages men to threaten and kill each other, abuse women, and endanger and intimidate those around them.

The way Hip-Hop has nestled into these dated (and very unnatural) masculine expectations is startling, but as Brandon says, young black men “lack positive self-identity or  positive identity development, and look for it in other forms like commercial Hip-Hop music. The images created by these artists is merely for entertainment but Black Boys do not see it that way. They see these images as reality…a reality they want to live and embody.”

Little white lies

The scariest concept around all of this stuff is that the Hip-Hop image is false.

The caricature of the rough, tough, dangerous gangsta rapper is projected by profit-generating record labels, run by white men in suits who decide who gets signed, and who they can peddle the blackface image to (largely young white men – 70% of Hip-Hop is consumed by this group).

In When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life, the author outs rap artist, Rick Ross, about the lies he’s been living. Black youth hears music about drug dealing, though many of them “have never even sold candy”, toting guns and murdering, though “a good number of us have never even fired a gun and for sure never killed anyone.

“Our youth listen to these lyrics from these beloved entertainers and take it as gospel. Many take the glorified side of street life as reality and they do not see the dangerous reality until it is too late.”

A new code of masculinity

In researching and writing for this post,  I’ve processed a lot of information and believe I have witnessed the ultimate in insult – the diminishing of human potential. We desperately need a new, healthy, positive definition of masculinity for young men and boys that promotes among other things, self-respect and respect for others.

What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.

– bell hooks, African-American feminist