Is the Black Dandy the “Civilized” Black Man?
August 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
Late last week Nivea set the Internets atwitter with an ad showing a black man, with a shaved head holding a mask with an afro and facial hair à la Cornel West. The image was emblazoned with the tagline: Re-civilize yourself. A study in contrast, the white version of the ad had the message: Sin City Isn’t an Excuse to Look Like Hell. Other Nivea ads also show other white men – some with facial hair with clean edges, some without – with the simple slogan: Look Like You Give a Damn. Why does Nivea think that the slow crawl towards civilization for a black man requires shedding an afro and facial hair?
The problem, as many bloggers have pointed out, is that the ad relies on the trope of the savage black man, an idea as old as the nation that has only changed rather than disappeared over time. Today, there are “good” and “bad” black men – the former are what then Senator Joe Biden thinks are “articulate and bright and clean” and the latter are probably what he sees on the Music Television. It must have been quite a shock for Biden to see that then Senator Obama did not end his campaign speeches with Yo yo!
The recent Times piece on black dandyism, “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style,” which ran just a day before the Nivea controversy, has received a favorable reception. And yet for me, raises feelings of unease not unlike the Nivea ad. While the article is a celebration of the style and savvy of the bloggers of Street Etiquette, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, the article takes on a slight tone of wonderment I imagine Biden experienced when he saw this young, black man whip him during the Iowa caucuses.
I should be clear: Street Etiquette is one of the best personal style blogs out there. It has everything that any reader interested in fashion would want: history, know-how, cool, and lots of shiny photos of beautiful people. And yet, I found the language they used to champion black dandyism to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the Nivea ad. Speaking about his blog, Kissi says, “It shows people of African descent in a good light…Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense.”
Throughout the piece, “dandyism” is posited as classy, refined, and aspirational, while “hip hop style” is imprecated as unrefined, coarse, and well, uncivilized. The black dandies are constantly trying to get away from the paradigm of hip-hop, but in doing so, embrace another, arguably more dominant, paradigm. As if there were any further indication needed, their largest photo shoot, “The Black Ivy” is a not-so-subtle embrace of “our kind of people.”
Furthermore, this “self-refinement” is expressed not simply as an evolution of style, but also one of growth. “I used to wear size 42 jeans. Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way,” says Kissi. He isn’t wrong. Those baggy pants have been quite a site of contention; in 2007, cities across the South passed anti-sagging pants ordinances. Legislators weren’t just trying to police fashion, but specifically, what they saw as an expression of a dangerous black masculinity. Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin said such laws are a “remedy” for “a prison mentality.” Other lawmakers believed the style invoked fear in others. Ooga booga, indeed.
Is it possible for multiple expressions and styles to coexist? Mos Def, also quoted in the article, probably has it closest: “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.” Multiple style paradigms – and relatedly multiple masculinities – are vital, especially in communities of color. But does the ascension of one necessitate the denigration of another? Can’t I have my high-tops and wear them too?