Some black American men are dressing up to deflect negative attention, as a conscious means of survival. – by David Yi
On most weekends, Scott Pegram is a jeans and sneakers kind of guy, typical of any American male in his late 20s. But these days, he never pulls them out.
It’s safer that way.
While other men are out jogging in sweats, casually navigating the streets of New York City sporting a hoodie without second thought, Pegram is rarely seen without a button-up, fitted trousers and fashionable boots.
That means business casual whenever he’s in public, trimming his hair to a shorter length so he’s always presentable and covering up the many tattoos on his muscular arms.
Suppressing his sense of self.
As a young black man living in America in 2015, he knows how he is perceived: angry, aggressive and dangerous. At worst, “hood” or “thug,” two pejorative terms that have been unfairly and casually coded as of late to describe young black men.
Pegram has witnessed what happens to people like him, some of whom were targeted for their blackness and killed. Many happened to be wearing casual outfits. There was Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed while wearing a black hoodie; Michael Brown, Jr. sported baggy attire when he was shot in Ferguson one year ago Sunday; Freddie Gray wore a gray windbreaker attached with a hood when he was arrested in Baltimore.
In 2013, the website Killed by Police documented 770 police related deaths. That statistic spiked to 1,104 in 2014. So far in 2015, there have been 699 reported deaths with countless others that have not been reported or made public. According to statistics, the percentage of blacks killed by police is much higher than other demographics. There are roughly 4.2 out of every million black people killed, compared with 1.6 per million for whites.
has become a life or death choice.
To avoid becoming yet another statistic, black men across the country, like Pegram, have adopted a dress code to deflect negative attention as a conscious means of survival. They want to send this message: “I’m safe. I don’t pose a threat. You can trust me.”
Certainly, many black American men dress up simply because they like to. They don’t necessarily dress fashionably to feel safer in their skin or to avoid police suspicion. One need look no further than style stars like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, up-and-coming dandies like Jidenna, who are trendsetters in their own right.
Fashion bloggers like Sabir Peele say their own sharp sense of style comes from an innate desire to express themselves through clothing. “I’m normally dressed in suits because that’s my personal taste,” the 28-year old says. “I don’t necessarily dress up because I want to deflect any attention from police, no. But I wonder if people would be questioning why a black man is at places, like a fancy hotel, and staring my way if I wasn’t suited up like I usually am.”
The former admissions counselor who resides in Philadelphia is now the creative director for his own business, Men’s Style Pro, a menswear blog.
Though he hasn’t had run-ins with the police in recent years, one incident still resonates. It was New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago when was walking to a party with a friend, in casual clothing: a t-shirt and a black leather jacket. He was stopped by authorities who drew their guns.
“They pulled their guns out on us saying that we fit the profile of a couple of guys who recently robbed a house,” he says. “It was extremely upsetting.”
It’s not a unique experience to Peele, rather, one that many black American males have faced at one time or another.
“There’s this notion of African American males who have chosen to dress in a way that disarms the blackness and the potential for being seen as more black than human,” says says Emmett Price, author ofHip Hop Culture and a professor at Northeastern University.
“In society today, dressing up has become a life or death choice.”
The story is one that is hardly new to the black American saga, Price says. Black Americans have been adhering to this notion of the “politics of respectability” throughout history.
“It’s black men catering to the external expectations to present themselves as respectable and more so human,” he explains. “Once we convey that we are human, then there’s an opportunity for a relationship and not one that is based upon who is dominant and who is subservient.”
The notion of utilizing dress to deflect prejudice dates back to the 19th century, explains Calvin Warren, assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University.
“The strategy of using fashion to gain recognition of one’s humanity has been a strategy we’ve used since the 1800s,” he says. “There was a school of thought that if black people presented themselves as more respectable it would translate to equal treatment.”
THREE LIONS/GETTY IMAGES
RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
In the book Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, author Monica L. Miller describes the history of black men throughout American history as having a contentious relationship with clothing.
“When a captive African was enslaved, when they decided to run away, one of the things they did was they stole clothing,” Warren says, referring to the book’s findings. “Part of being a slave was not having the luxury of fashion. You were given a particular degrading uniform so you could be identified as a slave. If you wanted to leave the plantation, you needed a new set of clothing. So one of the things that distinguished free blacks from slaves was clothing, which is when the black dandy movement began.”
The movement sparked free blacks to celebrate their newfound liberty by dressing in a more ostentatious manner and creating such a distinct style all their own. So much so that they were labeled with the term “black dandies.”
“If they dress up, they showed how grateful and sacred they saw freedom as, therefore showing white people that they could be recognized as humans,” explains Warren.
Clothing has since been used strategically throughout every decade, explains Jabari Asim, professor at Emerson College and editor at Crisis Magazine, published by the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People.
“During the Civil Rights movement men wore their black suits and women in white dresses all in their Sunday bests,” he says. “They were super dignified and they used clothing to show that they would be as productive of citizens as any whites, if given rights.”
In the years proceeding, black men used their sense of clothing as a means of empowerment, Asim explains. The height of popularity with jazz music created the perennially cool image of the black man, with stars like Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan, who championed that notion and became household names.
“Black men then used their style as a means of politics and of empowerment,” says Price. “The ’60s were the dashikis during the political struggles; the ’70s were about growing Afros out to show the individuality of black Americans; and the ’80s about hip hop culture calling out injustices in rap music.”
“There was an almost bit of naive optimism to be free to be who we were, and that we [as black Americans] still had access to the bounty of what America had to offer,” says Asim.
But times have changed, Asim says. And people are hardly deluded with notions that equality can be a near-reaching reality. Asim admits that he, too, has become tired of the promise of equality in a post-racial post-Obama country he’s been told of.
“I have four sons and I hesitate when they wear hoodies,” he admits. “It’s less about respectability and has everything to do with fear.”
Indeed, said fear has been instilled in black men across the country for years. One of the many victims of intimidation is Alex Peay, 28, the founder and president of Rising Sons, a non-profit based in Philadelphia that focuses on empowering and supporting underprivileged minorities. Already, Peay has been arrested twice, both times on false accusations.
The first was when he was 16. He was falsely accused with a crime he did not commit and was handcuffed by authorities. He was only freed when the man accusing him stepped forward and admitted they arrested the wrong person.
The second experience was much later in his adult years, while Peay was traveling from a funeral. Inside an Amtrak station, a man had accused him of attacking him. Without questioning Peay, authorities handcuffed him in broad daylight.
“No one believed me,” he recalls. “They handcuffed me in front of everyone there. It was traumatizing as it was embarrassing. Everyone sees a black man being handcuffed and thinks he must have done something.”
Authorities let Peay go free after discovering that the man who accused him was mentally unstable and had fabricated the entire story.
“The very act of being handcuffed really messes with you,” he says. “Every time I see a cop, I cringe or get worried that they’ll arrest me again. I stop and feel my heart skip. I get nervous. I do a lot of non-profit and do a lot with police commissioners and respect them so much in the community, so it’s totally contradictory.”
The incidences have inspired Peay to alter his fashion choices altogether.
“I like to wear hoodies,” he admits. “But when I put it on, there’s so much more suspicion. I don’t feel comfortable wearing comfortable clothes. I’m worried about what will happen to me. I also see how others see me. People clench their purses, women don’t walk the street when I do. I’ll wave hello and no one waves back.”
He’s since traded in his casual clothes for suits from H&M, dress shirts from Express, watches from Movado and polished footwear from local cobblers.
“It’s like armor to me,” he says. “When I have a suit on I feel like all of a sudden, the world sees me differently. Cops aren’t staring, people wave back, people shake my hand, they open the door for me. It’s like I’m the president of the United States.”
On a recent weekend, though, Peay and his roommate were walking from a community service event when they were stopped by police officers. He was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and Timberland boots.
KRISTON BETHEL, MASHABLE
KRISTON BETHEL, MASHABLE
The incidences have become so commonplace in black culture that comedic duo Key & Peele poked fun with their skit, “Negrotown.” Both characters, who are half-African American, go to “Negrotown,” a world where “you can wear your hoodie and not get shot.”
It’s a humorous skit, one with undertones that are too real to people like Pegram. Having recently graduated from Brooklyn Law school, the 28-year old says he downplays his physicality, often hiding his tattoos and sporting clothing that he says does not describe his own personality.
“On weekends, I tone down the way I dress and mimic what I would wear to work in a casual way,” he says.
Instead of Air Jordans, once his favorite type of shoes, he chooses monk straps or fashionable boots. He strays from loose-fitting jeans and has since replaced them with slacks. Instead of t-shirts, it’s fitted button downs.
“Wearing these doesn’t make me look as unapproachable,” he says. “I do have nice hoodies and jeans with rips for more of a grunge look. But sometimes it does come off as ‘hood,’ especially when you have tattoos.”
He’s self-aware, understanding how his physical appearance at 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds with heavily inked arms looks to other people. One of his arms has the word “Brooklyn.” People might judge it for being gang-related, but it’s actually a nod to his alma mater, he says.
“I’ve had situations where friends say I look really scary,” he says. “I’m a big black guy with tattoos, I get it.”
He recalls an incident a few years ago when he was driving into Manhattan from Long Island with his mother. Clad in a sharp suit, he was driving a few miles above the speed limit and was pulled over by a cop.
“I’ll always remember this because my mom looked over at me and said, ‘Thank God you’re wearing a suit and covering your tattoos.’”
he’s looking at your skin.
While many black men are adhering to the politics of respectability, Asim says it’s a futile action.
“How black men uniform themselves is irrelevant in the eyes of the police,” he says. “He’s not looking at your sneakers; he’s looking at your skin.”
The reality of the situation, he says, is that the politics of respectability has never worked.
“I certainly empathize with [the men who dress up],” he says. “Activists who are against the politics of respectability remind people in some respects that Martin Luther King was the ultimate symbol of that. He was always in suits. Always in his Sunday best. But he was shot to death just like a ‘thug in the street with sagging pants.’”
“It would be radical for black people to think about what makes them comfortable instead of being reactionary to making white people comfortable,” he says.
“The way you dress has never completely protected African Americans,” echoes Warren. “But that doesn’t mean that black men still don’t effectively use fashion in a strategic manner. I personally have realized that your fashion could determine your life chances.”
After the death of Trayvon Martin, Warren says he has had a traumatic relationship with fashion.
“I personally went through a lot of anxiety of what to wear in a public space.”
For Warren, who works in academia, he eventually decided to use style to his advantage. He’s since bought Ferragamo shoes, belts from the same Italian luxury brand, a Marc Jacobs bag and Versace ties. When he pulls them from his closet, it provides him with comfort and security.
“It may not save my life but it will save me from being profiled when walking into the library to write my dissertation,” he says.
At a recent talk at Brown University, his Ferragamos made him feel empowered. “At the podium, instead of these people in academia thinking, ‘Oh there’s a poor black guy giving a speech,’ I was thinking that if I dressed up in better items, maybe the shoes or the outfit could change their opinions.”
Ultimately, Warren understands the pitfalls of this notion. Fashion provides empowerment, sure, but it still won’t keep him alive. “It at least quiets my mind.”
Last semester, Warren taught a class called “Representing Black Men,” where many of these issues of sartorial Darwinism, of black men in dress, of outward presentation were all discussed.
Some students asked what they could do to prevent being stopped. Others asked what they could do to make a change. The one question that was across the board: What can black Americans do to survive?
“The sad reality is that I can’t tell you,” Warren addressed the class. He paused as he looked around the classroom, his students’ eyes gleaming, desperate for an answer.
“Clothing choices are life or death choices.”
It’s a conclusion he, among thousands of other black men, have overwhelmingly decided to make. Right or wrong, it’s one that gives them security, promise and optimism.
And so they iron their shirts, steam press their trousers and keep their shoes shined, hoping that maybe — just maybe — these small details will get them through the day to see the next.