Fashion and self-expression with my Jordan 11’s

IMG_0817The year 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the original release of the movie “Space Jam.” The film is not only a heartfelt homage to Michael Jordan’s career but also contains some of the most iconic moments in all of sneaker history. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck sneak into Jordan’s home in order to retrieve a pair of Air Jordan 9s. Michael Jordan wears a pair of 11s as he stretches his body to many times its original size in order to make a half-court dunk and win the game that frames the film’s climax.

As many people, including myself, grew up watching Jordan play around with their favorite “Looney Tunes” characters, he became engrained in their childhoods. And over the years, his sneakers have been laced throughout their lives and personal narratives. To be a fan of Jordan and his brand was and still is, in the simplest of terms, a lifestyle. Many people have committed themselves to collecting every one of the 23 signature shoes, an effort spanning many years and requiring many thousands of dollars. The Jordan brand is releasing a special-edition package just before the holiday season, a move that both taps into nostalgia and perhaps also gives fans a gift for their loyalty. The two-shoe collector’s box will contain one pair of 11s as well as the brand’s most recent basketball shoe release: the Air Jordan XXXI.

Knowing that one of my favorite shoe styles will soon be back on shelves (albeit in a different color scheme) has me reflecting on my relationship with the Jordan brand and on how that relationship has evolved over time.

I was four when I received Air Jordan 11s. They are still my favorite pair of shoes that I have ever owned. They were simply a beautiful pair of shoes. The shiny patent leather and red gum sole made them easily distinguishable, and, over time, they became what is arguably the most popular model and color of any Air Jordan ever released. But for me, at four years old, they were a prized possession that I would cherish long into the future.

I lost those shoes. That summer, in 2002, I was enrolled in day camp, and we were required to spend time in the pool every day. We were also required to bring a pair of flip-flops or water shoes to wear. One day, I decided not to change out of my flip-flops immediately after our time in the pool. I innocently roamed through camp activities until assembly at the end of the day. As the camp director surveyed the crowd, she spotted my bare toes and demanded that I go put my shoes on. I found my bag buried under what felt like hundreds of others, although it was more likely five or 10. When I got to my bag, there was only one shoe.

I wouldn’t find the other until a year later, when I was back at camp, one year older and likely two shoe sizes larger. After I lost the shoe that summer, I had watched my mom throw the other shoe into the trash. Now, I stared at the single Jordan 11 in the lost and found, divorced from its once faithful counterpart.

I wear my favorite shoes until I hate them (or lose them), when they are so creased and tattered that their resale value might be cut to a fifth of the original price.

Some people are shoe collectors, allowing their best shoes to sit on shelves to be looked at like art in a gallery. This has never been my approach. I wear my favorite shoes until I hate them (or lose them), when they are so creased and tattered that their resale value might be cut to a fifth of the original price. But I think that’s the only way.

I truly believe that shoes are an extension of the individual and should be worn as such. A neighbor once told me that the most powerful thing that people can do for themselves is to make people truly see them. And shoes, clothing, hairstyles and any other part of a person’s appearance demand to be or to not to be seen. Especially for the marginalized, a loud pattern or bright coloring can be an act of courage, stepping outside of one’s comfort zone in an attempt to discover an even clearer vision of who she is and who she would like to be through the medium of her own reflection, ideally with little regard for how that image might appear to others.

When I was a child, I wore shoes because they had already been validated by the masses. But I now find it almost imperative to take risks in the way of appearance. Linda Rodin, a stylist and general figure in fashion, advised that too many opinions on a product boil it down to nothing. She said the same is true of one’s life and person. And so, I think it was fine as a child to be influenced by everything and everyone, making my decisions of what I liked and who I’d like to be based on what I found acceptable by observing others.

Now that I’m no longer a child, I find it is necessary to stop hiding my individuality because of fear of the opinions of far-off and sometimes nonexistent critics. For the most part, I now try to like my shoes and clothing based on personal taste and ideals of self-expression, an external reminder that just as I transform my appearance, I, too, can transform my person. This progression has allowed me to place a deeper investment in myself. It has made me more mindful and is perhaps the reason that I haven’t lost a shoe since 2002.

Rae Sremmurd’s black boy joy for public consumption

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Shortly following this year’s VMA ceremony, Chance the Rapper tweeted a red carpet photo of himself dressed in khaki overalls, arms outstretched like a human airplane and knees bent so that he came, at most, to half of his normal standing height. The caption read simply #blackboyjoy. The hashtag, having now been used hundreds of times, first appeared as a natural and necessary counterpart to the more established #blackgirlmagic. Both are meant to create a space for black people to celebrate themselves outside of the projections society has placed on them. Stripped of the personas that have been layered on for centuries, the angry black woman and thuggish black man, black people now have a common medium in twitter to present themselves as they are. The renaissance for black portrayal often returns to the medium of hashtag.

 

What stands out in both hashtag titles is their having been relegated to childhood. Many great figures, both historical and contemporary, have either put into words or acted out the deteriorating effects of what it means to be black in America. The acclaimed Black American 20th century novelist, James Baldwin, gave a famous interview in which he discusses the surprise that falls on a black child arriving to full consciousness who realizes that for every black individual, “the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you.” Baldwin often discussed blackness in the visual field as a state that is in many ways constituted by being ignored and made invalid by white counterparts. So in the hashtags, blackboyjoy and blackgirlmagic, you have black people not only creating a space to be seen, but also pledging allegiance to themselves, their greatness, their value.

 

To relegate the titles to childhood is to acknowledge that once a black person, and especially a black American, has reached adulthood, there are sorts of “magic” and “joy” that simply cannot be reclaimed if he or she is at all conscious of reality, a reality that has become increasingly inescapable with the practice of sharing police executions of black citizens on any given twitter or facebook timeline. Chance the Rapper is no longer a boy by most standards; he is 23, a father and a businessman. But still he invokes the energy of boyhood to define himself.

 

In contrast to the virtual space of the hashtag, Chance the Rapper’s presentation both in daily life and as he performs, is largely consumed by white audiences. And might this detract from the freedom of expression that underlies the hashtag’s meaning?

 

I attended a concert for Rae Sremmurd, the two person rap group comprised of brothers, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee, on October 9th thinking that they might exhibit some #blackboyjoy and bring me closer to an understanding of how it plays out in Chance’s field. As I watched from the crowd, nuances of childhood and blackness were in almost every aspect of the show. The giant monitor’s visuals were themed in the style of retro video games for most of the performance. Actual black child dancers, no older than twelve, came out to give background support on at least three separate occasions, doing all of the dance moves made viral by Instagram and twitter. At one point, Swae Lee spilled at least eight bottles of water, seemingly by accident, only to dance slide his way across fifteen feet of stage floor.

 

The energy of the room which was thick and intense with flashing lights, jumping and a continuously booming bass line, seemed to make it almost completely void of the outside world. It was certainly an escape into childhood or #blackboyjoy, but one that for better or worse invited white audiences to join in every aspect. From recording the dancing black children to singing “know some young niggas like to swang”, there seemed to be an inherent danger to escape. If one risks neglecting the consciousness that Baldwin once described, he or she is left vulnerable to society’s ugliest forces, those that allow for the consumption of black joy while dismissing some of life’s most bitter sorrows.

 

If there is any desire to learn why #blackboyjoy has been successful, one need only look to Black Twitter as a whole which has now existed for years as a source of entertainment and commentary centered on what is universal to the black community. There was a dearth of expression for black boy joy before the hashtag came about, and what was present was not yet synthesized. Rapper Kid Cudi’s public acknowledgement of severe depression spread into a larger campaign, again on twitter, for black men to confront struggles with mental illness. Perhaps these are all steps within a larger plan. Just as #blackboyjoy followed #blackgirlmagic, it is possible that the next great rap album by a male artist will be the natural counterpart to Solange Knowles’ A Seat at The Table– an album that so skillfully framed self-care and black female struggle that it resulted in a record first time that two sisters had number one albums in the same calendar year.

 

The album’s probable most important song, F.U.B.U., commands attention in the search to answer the question: is uncensored black joy best left in hashtags and safe-spaces if there is any desire to preserve it? Solange starts by addressing who the song is intended for. In that way, there can be no mistaking her audience, “All my niggas in the whole wide world/ All my niggas in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/ For us, this shit is for us”. She continues in her first verse to say, “When you know you gotta pay the cost/ Play the game just to play the boss/ So you thinking what you gained, you lost/ But you know your shit is taking off, oh/ When you driving in your tinted car/ And you’re criminal, just who you are/ But you know you’re gonna make it far”. With this she speaks in large part to the rappers who perform black boy joy. They pay the cost having every piece of themselves appropriated for the privilege of knowing that they’ve “made it” in a sense. They have the strange position of knowing that being successful and having fans that sing their lyrics also means having the n-word screamed at them by largely white audiences. As they drive in fancy cars, the condition of being black and male and naturally criminalized must not escape them. Still there is a sort of allegiance pledged to self when “you know you’re gonna make it far”.

 

To answer the question of whether or not uncensored black joy is best consumed in greater seclusion, it seems the answer is no. Rather, black people and black artists must constantly strive to produce content for themselves and occupy as much space as is possible. Space that is both physical and mental, with no walls to trap them in. If every piece that came out of the black community was metaphorically watermarked, as in the song F.U.B.U., with its origins and its intended audience then there would be no way for black boy joy, black girl magic, or any other product of blackness to be taken and distorted into anything less than its original intent.