This is not a traditional post where I present an argument or my opinion about a recent post although the social implications for studying identity, culture, and race are considered (admittedly as backdrop). Rather, I would like to offer something for discussion to the larger audience that I cannot quite come to terms with. So, I start with two simple, yet complex questions: What does this shirt mean to you? What does this shirt mean for society at large? A piece at The Root entitled “Can You Hear My T-Shirt Now?” called these questions into existence. The article highlights the current work of Renee Cox* of Maroon Rebel who wants to make t-shirts “racial and radical” once again with messages like “Bye Baby” with “Emmett Till Died For This” as the subtext (I think it would have been more powerful if she would have quoted Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother: “I have not a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life”).
The old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What is missing, or rather, what is taken for granted in this old phrase is that each picture means a different thousand words to each individual. Though there will surely be overlap, a plethora of internal conversations between picture and individual are held even when only a few of us come across a single image (Look at the vitriolic comments launched against Malia Obama for wearing a peace sign on her shirt in her last trip overseas with the rest of the First Family).
I am of two minds with respect to t-shirts that claim to be “racial and radical” for a purpose on either continuum of the color spectrum. A host of questions immediately come to mind. Are the shirts just for shock value? Are these shirts made for getting a reaction out of passersby? Or are they to inform? Are they to force us to connect the picture or message—effectively, the representation of reality—to one’s reality? I am not sure. In fact, in writing this post I battled over including the following question as the opening so as to move the question beyond my own limited perspective: are there temporal or contextual constraints or expiration dates (if you will) for different modes of celebrating one’s history, the good and the bad? I changed my viewpoint as soon as the words were on screen because I realized that I was singling out African Americans for implicit in that question is that people should leave history in the past and only worry about the present and future, a perspective I do not subscribe to.
The fact remains that we are forever communicating with a larger audience. The body itself is always in dialogue with others. Taking off of sociologist Erving Goffman, the body both communicates and is communicated in the sense that one is always projecting and receiving social information simply by being copresent. The clothes we wear have cultural roots but they are also an expression of one’s individual and/or collective identity. So, when we wear certain shirts like the one pictured above, what exactly are we communicating?
*The picture headlining this post was taken on someone's person and is not one of Cox's design.
**This particular shirt is one of Cox's design.
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