Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 2

The Substance of Style: On Being Unapologetically Black Now

Ebony Patterson Untitled Species I

Image Credit: Ebony Patterson, Untitled Species I,
2010-11, mixed media on handcut paper, 3.75” x 5”.
Courtesy of the artist.

Why does being “unapologetically black” matter now? The Black Lives Matter movement put these words “unapologetically black” in motion through their written statements and the embodied signage of t-shirts, bags, and other body work. A Black Lives Matter t-shirt with the “nutritional facts” label for “Unapologetically Black” declares: “Serving Size: Unlimited, Calories from Fakeness: 0” and ends with “Mental Slavery: 0%.” This t-shirt begs to be compared to Audre Lorde’s move to “bread” in her poem “Naturally” (1974). At the end of this poem that appears in the first pages of the pivotal Black Power feminist anthology The Black Woman (1970), Lorde writes, “But I’ve bought my can of/ Natural Hair Spray—/made and marketed in Watts—/still thinking more/ Proud Beautiful Black Women/ could better make and use/ Black bread.” The poem’s questioning of the substance of style and the figuring of the difference between black style and “black bread” should make us pause and think more about the current continued reliance on style as a way of mobilizing black action.

The Substance of Style

What makes black aesthetics so fascinating is its constant testing of the edge that connects style and action. The edge between style and action is the constant turn, the torque, that shapes the art of black cultural workers. The torque of style becoming action happens every time the aesthetic experience creates the feeling of a world changed (a body changed, a new vision that seems so right here to be touched). Black aesthetics have needed that altered world feeling. The dinginess and normativity of antiblackness makes blackness too dingy to be ordinary and beautiful. The black aesthetic experience collapses the ordinary and the extraordinary. Gwendolyn Brooks, in the poem “Intermission,” as she thinks about the anti-black desire for whiteness and lightness as embodied light, muses, “It is plausible. The sun is a lode.” Brooks captures the reason why the black aesthetic experience is so often the implausible yoking of style and action. Leaning into black style is a lean into an alternative aesthetic logic. Fred Moten muses, “The word [“black”] persists, now, under erasure or eclipse, ceded to the state of law/exception. The word is begrudged, grungy, dingy, encased in a low tinge, always understood as being in need of a highlight it already has or that chromatic saturation that it already is.”

In Americanah (2013), Chimamanda Adichie depicts a character, Ifemelu, who is writing a blog about the all-absorbing nature of the word “Black” in the American context. Her blog captures both the potential grunginess of “Black” as an all-encompassing cover and a tender bonding, a solidarity, of “fellow Non-American blacks” that might be forged through the forced identification. Like Moten, Adichie puts the spotlight on the potential dinginess of the word ‘Black” (the use of this word when we are signaling diasporic solidarity) and, also, the fact that the very tension of making “Black” a unifying concept that defies global white supremacy, often becomes the re-animation of the dinginess. Ifemelu writes, in this blog, “In America, you are black, baby.”

The white aesthetic experience was given a new grounding (a new legitimacy) during the Trump presidential campaign. An owner of Miss Universe beauty pageants, Trump displayed again and again, during the campaign, his unapologetic racialized sexism. This racialized sexism displayed its full horror when one of his supporters proclaimed online his delight that the new first lady would replace the “ape in heels.” Why do we need to be unapologetically black now? Why do we need to recharge the Black Power Movement and Black Arts Movement investment in the substance of style? Right now, white style is being mobilized to create an unspoken push against any investment in black style as part of black liberation. When the words “Black Lives Matter” hurt the ears of those who seemingly are offended by the narrowness of identity politics, we need to pause and consider what is underneath the more liberal, not-just-conservative, not-just-white points of view that see black people’s holding on to “blackness” as counter-productive to forward movement.

The holding on to blackness is movement forward, when we feel the emboldening of white style right now. This emboldening of white style is subtle and not subtle. Black people hold on to black style in subtle and not subtle ways. The “Unapologetically Black Nutritional Facts” t-shirt is a dramatic sartorial choice but the wearing of black identity is also chosen in unapologetically subtle ways. Just as Audre Lorde, in the poem “Naturally,” leans into the need to mobilize the substance of black style (as opposed to pretending that racialized, capitalist patriarchy is not always trying to control black women’s style), in the poem following “Naturally,” she leans (in New York Head Shop and Museum) into an example of illegible black style as action and resistance. This poem, “Song for a Thin Sister,” shows Lorde thinking, in 1974, about how ingrained it is that thinness is “white” as opposed to “the large and the colorful” blackness. The second stanza of this poem presents illegible blackness as a “stranger in flight” who has a “new kind of hunger.” Lorde calls for “black bread” in “Naturally,” and then we turn the page and she gives us “this new kind of hunger.” In our current moment of post-Obama era “blacklash,” everyday black experimentalists are often “strangers in flight” delivering a “new kind of hunger” that becomes illegible forms of black identity politics. This torque of illegible black style as action is what we see in the black experimental style of the everyday afrofuturism that includes “black weirdo” t-shirts, bold blue eyeshadow without any pretense of having blue eyes, bodacious blond hair extensions that are too bold to appear fake, etc.

We may not think the “Unapologetically Black Nutritional Facts” t-shirt has anything in common with the “Black Weirdo” t-shirts, but both are 21st century refusals to pathologize black identity politics. The direct refusal to pathologize blackness is openly proclaimed with the play with “nutritional facts.” The “black weirdo” t-shirts resist the pathologizing of blackness by reclaiming the non-normativity of blackness as something to be cherished.

The performance of a subtle black identity politics was embedded in Obama’s repetition of the words “c’mon man” in his speeches supporting Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. The everyday banter (in the black interior) about Obama’s walk as subtle black style is as intriguing as the subtle black style in his use of the “c’mon man” refrain. As we think about the unapologetic pro-whiteness of Trump’s style of governance, and the “blacklash” that enabled him to win the 2016 election, it is helpful to think about Obama’s subtle black gestures (his black style) that did not translate into a style of governance that was pro-black in any unapologetic manner. Just as Lorde calls for “black bread” (the substance of style) as she critiques the Black Power Movement’s attempt to control black women’s style, we need to seize this moment to think about the difference between the use of black style for a “I can’t be pro-black” style of governance and the black style that could never lend itself to becoming a style of governance or entrance into a dominant power structure. The black style as action that comes from everyday acts of black people choosing to wear their blackness is a style of felt black collectivity. The feeling of togetherness, in the zone of illegible black identity work, connects so many black diasporic subjects. In the midst of fascist styles of governance, the everyday wearing and sharing of signs of black aesthetic resistance is one vital way that people continue to create a more democratic vision of beauty itself.

The Substance of StyleIn London recently, I met young Black British women who, as we talked about the crisis of the style of the current governance, gestured to their buttons and t-shirts in a way that lent even more electricity to their words. As our communion ended, we used our cell phones to take selfies and I took quick snapshots of their buttons and t-shirts. The living archive of black style as the everyday action of feeling the limits of identification and disidentification is what my photographs of their style did not capture. The art of black identity politics continues to matter.

A graduate student (an emergent scholar of African diasporic literature) once shared her desire to critique identity politics through a focus on the limits of the use of the word “black.” She, a South African woman of color, confessed her sense that the use of the word “black” to signal the radical and the unthought may be aproblem, a dead-end, a crutch. After her “bored with blackness” words filled the air of my office (and make me think about Claudia Rankine’s sense, often discussed in her recent lectures, that we know that whiteness is The Substance of Stylean environment because when “the only black person” walks in the room, the air changes), another graduate student, who is African American, walked in my office carrying a fashionable white bag with the words “very black” written in black boldface. I could not help but feel the difference in the air. I needed the “very black” right then and there, as I thought about the limits of any study of black aesthetics that is situated in the environment that crushes the wonder of black identity work. I think about Harryette Mullen’s seriousness playfulness in “Denigration” (2002)—“will I turn any blacker if I renege on this deal?” The Latin roots of the one word title of this poem—“to blacken” —should remind us that the very idea of needing to renege on the deal of blackness is rendered moot when we realize that too many environments remain so very white and too many acts of radical resistance need to remain so very black.

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