Tag Archives: Black History Month

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

The black dandy

1 Mar

During February, we looked at black America during the rock and roll period, focusing on music and style. We watched black expression and black identity blossom, echoing the civil rights movement as black people demanded more rights, freedom, and respect. This post is a follow-up to the Black History month series that will discuss black dandyism.

A dandy is a man who places particular importance upon his physical appearance, showy clothing, refined language, and leisurely hobbies. It is a term that originated in Britain during the late 18th century (think Beau Brummell) and carried on into the 19th (Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron are famous dandies of the period).

French poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) defined the dandy as one who elevates aesthetics to a living religion, and “contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” (source)

In another age, philosopher, Albert Camus (1913-1960), had his own opinion about dandies, saying, “The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of negation. “To live and die before a mirror”: that according to Baudelaire, was the dandy’s slogan. It is indeed a coherent slogan. The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance.”

Between these two, dandyism comes across as snobbery and aesthetic spite. But does dandyism still exist, and if it does, what does it look like?

Dandy lions

There is a movement among some urban African-American men who embrace 18th century dandyism and mix it with their African roots. These “dandy lions” express a modern version of black dandyism.

Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator for the photography and film exhibit, “Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity,” explains to The Root DC, the African-American blog on the Washington Post site, that a “dandy lion” is “a new statement on black masculinity within a contemporary context. He is a man of elegance, an individual who remixes a Victorian era fashion and aesthetic with traditional African sensibilities and swagger.” Have a look at some examples of dandy lions here to get a sense of their wonderful styles here.

Ms Lewis says that the universal image of a black male is negative and not reaffirming, and there needs to be more expressions of black masculinity available.

You don’t have to be thug or an athlete or dress like everyone else with the sagging pants, exposed boxers and oversized white tees to be a man. Express creativity and individuality. That’s what dandy lions seek to express, especially to a young generation that’s also paying tribute to the older generation.

It’s interesting that this dandy movement, now over 200 years old, has changed with the times and been embraced by new generations of people. Its current resurgence comes at a time when world economies are sluggish and the brightly-coloured suits, flashy socks, and silk hankies seem ironic, but as Ms Lewis points out, a popular trend is to dress well in inexpensive vintage clothes. Modern dandyism borrows from the past to create a new expression of the present.

“Younger men who are opting out of the traditional form of hip-hop fashion are creating a new expression of hip-hop aesthetic,” she says.

Ghetto Rags

I have been a fan of Big Rude Jake, a fantastic Toronto swing band, for many years and I was lucky enough to be a member of the audience for their recently recorded live album. For that show, Jake wore a long, flashy 3-piece suit,  gooey with fabric, and oozing with style. When I asked him about it, Jake told me that when he tours the U.S., he likes to shop in men’s apparel stores that cater to the black community, and that’s where it came from.

Jake in "ghetto rags".

He tells me that these shops are frequented mostly by poor and working class black families, and the clothes that these shops carry are known as “ghetto rags”.

“The fabric on these suits are not the best material,” he says, “but the styles are always wild and the colours are bright and fun. Same with the shirts, socks, and shoes.  There is a strong retro feel to the designs, and a kind of cool, jaunty elegance. The feedback I get when I wear one of these numbers is alway positive. People rave about them!”
One thing I learned from doing the Black History month series is that the civil rights movement had one goal: freedom, and this came in many forms. Part of the freedom people worked for was freedom of expression through music and through style, and this molded African-American identity. During the 60s and 70s, African-Americans embraced their African heritage through style, bright colour, and clothing, and the modern black dandy, in his fancy suits in vivid colours, also reflects an African influence.
Jake makes an interesting point in that “Wealthier black people often adopt the dreary fashion statements of the dominant white culture, which, these days, tends to favour drab colours over sharpness and pizzazz.”
He says that the truly impoverished make an effort to look glamourous with bright colours and fancy suits when the occasion calls for it. In many ways, this is about self and cultural respect, and it’s no surprise that the people most amazed by Jake’s brilliant stage clothes are white people. “They just never get to see a man in a purple double-breasted suit!”

When people think of dandyism, Oscar Wilde may come to mind. Wilde was a brilliant author and playwright of the 19th century who loved to dress in fancy clothing and happened to carry on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but his dandyism and his affair with Bosie, as Wilde called him, is purely coincidental.

Through her exhibition, Ms Lewis confronts the homophobia that exists in the African-American community because “many people attribute dandyism with sexuality and homosexuality. Just because someone dresses well doesn’t mean they are gay, and just because someone is gay doesn’t mean they dress well.”

The dandy lion exhibition seeks to confront homophobia, breaking any links between taking pride in oneself and sexual orientation (much like the modern urban metrosexuals who despite their good taste in clothing, culture, wines, and grooming products, are straight and proud of it).

“All it takes sometimes is exposure to an idea to be picked up and embraced by young people,” Ms Lewis says.

A range of role models is absolutely to the benefit of black youth throughout the US, challenging the sweeping negative stereotypes of black men so often supported and sustained by the US media. With any luck, the modern dandies, the dandy lions, are breaking that mold and offering a more positive cultural identity to black men in the US and abroad.

Are you interested in looking dandy yourself? Check out Pimpernel Clothing and the Gentleman’s Emporium for Victorian-inspired clothing.

Black history month: birth of the cool

2 Feb

It’s February, the month where we celebrate the lives and times of  African-Americans that have changed the historical landscape. For the next four weeks, In the Key of He will recognize some of the greatest and most stylish black musicians of the modern era.

This week, we begin at the beginning: jazz.

Nat King Cole was a very stylish performer with a smooth, deep voice. He wrapped himself in suave style, wearing sleek, structured suits of the period, cuff links, and always a hankie in his breast pocket.

Nat "King" Cole in houndstooth check.

A true gentleman entertainer and the first African-American to host his own television program, The Nat “King” Cole Show. He wore thin ties, cool cardigans, and short-brimmed hats, and he did the best rendition of “Route 66” anywhere.

Askmen.com says “…this style icon understood the art of fine masculine dressing, but he also knew how to carry himself so that he wore his clothes rather than the other way around.” The site explains “the soulful crooner’s penchant for polished looks included cropped haircuts and clean shaves.”

Cropped haircuts, eh? The writer of this piece misses a very important grooming practice by African-American men from the 1920s to the 60s – the “conk”.

Conks were a method of straightening kinky hair with lye as the active ingredient. Lye is a corrosive alkaline, also known as “caustic soda”, and it can eat through skin. Lye was mixed with eggs and potatoes and applied to the hair which burned the scalp, but the longer as you could stand it, the straighter your hair would be.

I first read about a conk years ago when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Mr. X explains the experience and the social significance of his first conk:

“This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”—and white people “superior”— that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.

“The ironic thing is that I have never heard any woman, white or black, express any admiration for a conk. Of course, any white woman with a black man isn’t thinking about his hair. But I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk — the emblem of his shame that he is black.”

Nat was made to carefully balance his career and indeed “suffered the indignity of being “whited up” for some of his TV performances, to make him more “accessible” to a white audience,” according to PBS. A sad reality of his times, but conks aside, it is truly delightful to watch Nat sing because when he does, it’s clear how much he loves to.

Watch this delightful Technicolor clip of Nat in a wonderful blue shark skin suit with a white shirt, thin black tie, and a linen hankie – a perfect picture of the 50s. (Tailoring note – Nat’s sleeves should be longer. Just saying.)

Our second African-American exuding great style is one of the coolest jazz players of all time, Miles Davis. Miles was a jazz pioneer, he personified cool – so simple, so low-key, dressing in basic, uncluttered pieces punctuated with unique details. He wore turtlenecks with trousers, ascots and scarves with his shirts, Brooks Brothers and custom-made Italian suits, and drove a white Mercedes-Benz.

A style blog I happened upon describes Miles’ style: “…classic dress shirts, unbuttoned just so, and sunglasses lent a fresh air of mid-century cool to the developing jazz scene of the 50s, a genre that had been historically linked to the full-suited look.”

If you take a GQ magazine perspective of the world, Miles has been voted him one of the all-time 20 Black Style Pioneers.

“He exudes that confidence and swagger that was characteristic of many of his peers on the scene, but puts his own twist on everything that was going on at the time. He’s really distinct from everyone on our list… We like that he wasn’t always suited up; he’d go casual, playing with scarves, with polo shirts, with khakis. And he evolved over time in a way you just couldn’t predict.”

And so did his music.

I talked to Jamie Stager, a trombonist and PhD candidate in Musicology about Miles and his musical style. Jamie explained that in the late 1940s, musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, in reaction to the restrictions of swing and popular dance bands, began to create fast, angular melodies that were hard to “get” and certainly difficult to dance to.

“These bebop musicians were the “cats” that spoke in their own secret language, in a code that distanced them from the masses,” Jamie says.

Miles learned and played bebop, but he took it and made it into something else. In 1949, he ushered in a new jazz aesthetic with the recording of Birth of the Cool, a slower and more melodic version of the bebop he was weaned on.

“This new “cool jazz” has more players, it is more orchestrally conceived, more arranged, and there is more “space” in the music,” Jamie says.

Miles’ sound during this period is relaxed, open, and spacious – characteristics that stayed with him during his musical evolution. Miles says so himself: “I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle.”

Just right in the middle. Subtle, quiet, understated.

Miles Davis as a man and as a musician is an understatement. Isn’t that what cool is all about?