A Black Power emblem is sold at Forever 21.
A Black Power emblem is sold at Forever 21. Only nine dollars. Nine dollars and I can slip on a new identity. French girl. Cool girl. Black panther. Which one did you think of first?
New York is a wonderful place to try on new identities. New York is a place where identities are up for sale. Nine dollars. Nine dollars in my pocket, who do I want to be today? Maybe everybody loves New York so much because they can be whoever they want over there. They can change their gender, sex, their whole aesthetic. They can drug themselves, age themselves, shoot themselves, turn into a star. A star. A star in a black beret, smoking up. It’s so easy to reinvent yourself here because nobody really cares. Everybody’s a star in New York. You look up at them sometimes, for a moment, and think how pretty or small or bloody or distant, and then you look back down again, putting your shoes on and minding your own business. Glanced at, maybe stared, eventually faded out, and forgotten. Come to New York and you’re somebody and nobody at once. You’re a star.
I took the 3 train up to Harlem today. Outside the 135th station, there’s a research center slash museum called the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is a wing of the New York Public Library. It’s the only museum-like center I’ve been to where there’s loud voices and background music. A photograph of James Baldwin stares from the entrance. His eyes bulge. There’s something almost sinister about his gaze in the picture. It reminds me of a mugshot or a ten-thousand yard stare caught in a camera shutter, just a little softer. Sadder. Tender, that wound open too long. Like Baldwin can see years down a tunnel into all the sadnesses that are yet to come. But maybe he could. Maybe he could see us talking about building walls again in 2018. Maybe he could see me crying over my shoe cupboard this morning, wondering why exactly did hating each other have to be so easy, did my skin have to be darker than white, did all of it have to flounder in a pool of water, all this discourse and law and protest and trauma and property and revolution, like a layer of grease floating atop an ocean, the damn corpse, dead, hurt, but mostly unable to move, to blend in.
The Schomburg center is named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican born black scholar who added his collection of 5000 books, 3000 manuscripts, 2000 etchings and paintings, and several thousand pamphlets produced by or concerning black people to the existing library Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints in 1926. His portrait hangs outside the main floor gallery in glass. I look up to him, the star. He long served as the curator and enabler of mass research, study and circulation of black cultural production, allowing the center to become what it is today: one of the world’s leading research facilities devoted to the preservation of materials on the global experiences of Africans and the African diaspora.
Harlem, is black. It might sound reductive but if you were talking to your friend on the subway, you’d nudge them and say the same. Harlem is black. Harlem has been black, blooming black, bleeding black. It was the site of the Harlem Renaissance, an enlightenment of the United States where black Americans asserted themselves socially, culturally and intellectually in their predominantly white world through the arts. I’ve written about some of its well-known figures: Langston Hughes the jazz poet, Amira Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, the cultural critic, and other black writers and performers who spun their pain and beauty into lasting works that both reflected a complex lived experience while comforting and uplifting those that experienced it. Minton’s Playhouse, once one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, the birthplace of bebop, where the likes of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie have jammed, still stands. So does the opportunity to listen to jazz music inside the small living room where Billie Holiday was first discovered – Bill’s Place. Harlem is black and just as importantly, it is an homage to an ongoing renaissance, rebirth, revolution: once called Black Power, it is now an even more pressing power struggle for the global capability to respect other races and cultures on an open and equal basis.
At the Schomburg Center, I stumble into an impromptu mini tour being given by an ex-Black Panther. He’s taking us through the main exhibit, titled Black Power!, which traces a movement that was considered to be a decade-long violent episode following the Civil Rights Movement. But it shone its impact like a torchlight down the generations, seeing into the future and entrenching itself within the present. Down ten thousand yards like Baldwin’s wide-eyed gaze. The influence of Black Power remains in current natural hair and afro-positive movements, its aesthetics present in African-inspired fashion, those dashikis and beaded necklaces and printed headscarves for sale on the streets near Lenox Avenue, and in the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, the Afropunk festival, the spoken word events carrying the beat of Langston Hughes’ rhythms, in the notion that black is beautiful, black is powerful, black is here, black matters, and in the black beret you buy from Forever 21 – nine dollars.
There is a whole section of the Black Power! exhibit devoted to The Look. A Black Panther typically wore lots of black leather, perhaps some African clothing or jewelry, a powder blue skirt, black shoes and their hair in a natural state, with a black beret. The black beret was a symbol of their revolution. Style was, and really always has been, a statement. In a politically incendiary atmosphere, the skin you wear, whether yours or something else’s, has intense and pronounced meaning. We should know.
I was slightly surprised to learn about this new political layer of meaning that the beret sitting in my closet, swiped for four euros off a street in Paris, suddenly seemed to possess. I’ve always known that fashion has the power to be a political instrument but oddly, my largely Eurocentric reading thus far has led me to believe that the beret was nothing more than a cool French girl’s plaything, accessorized best with a baguette or cigarette or both. With some Googling, I’ve now learnt that the beret was heavily popularized as a revolutionary symbol by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and then adopted as a marker of black pride in the seventies during the Black Power movement. The black beret was part of a uniform that signified less conformity, but unity, in the acceptance and pride in one’s blackness and its beauty. “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this,” a Black Panther member says in the PBS documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “The reason for it you might say is that it’s like a new awareness among black people that their own natural physical appearance is beautiful.” The beret was the cherry on top, its militant history becoming a metaphor for just how much the panthers were willing to fight for their cause, for how they saw themselves at the frontline of a real revolution. Many other activist groups took cues from the panthers and absorbed the beret into their own uniforms and certified Looks or aesthetics, allowing this small piece of fashion to have a mouthpiece of its own within their struggle. In the 2000s’, the black beret has been seen in Chanel’s fashion shows and also on the background dancers in Beyonce’s performance for a Super Bowl halftime show, who were deliberately dressed to look like Black Panthers.
Objects often carry just as many layers of meaning and narrative as a person’s thoughts. It makes sense, because it is precisely human thought and its many permutations throughout history that assigns these very meanings onto objects. A qipao has intense meaning to my Malaysian friend. Indian jhumki earrings matter a lot to me now. That precise draping of fabric and that delicate assortment of beads and metals carry the weight of entire cultures and movements and ocean waves of thought.
The conversation can easily slip into arguments about cultural appropriation and who has ownership over the meaning of objects but that’s not why I’m writing this today. Well. Perhaps I have been thinking about appropriation somewhat. I think about whether it might hurt someone if I buy and wear a Japanese kimono from a thrift store and walk around the streets of Brooklyn. I stop in my tracks. So it’s on my mind. But learning about the black beret reminds me of a crucial first step: recognizing someone or something’s complexity before acting upon it. You don’t need to unpack and research every item in your closet, no. But it’s interesting and useful to learn what different objects signify for people. When someone tells you that an object or dress or book matters so intensely as to shape and even stand as a mouthpiece for some part of their identity, listen. Listen first. Recognize the complexity that object gains from whatever meaning that is assigned to it, and how, and why, and from where, and then go from there. Understanding the complexity and nuance of something is an essential step to showing it respect. Could I have gone on wearing a beret thinking of it as nothing more than a chic, artsy hat? Perhaps. But unpeeling this new layer of the onion makes it an even more interesting object for me to incorporate in my own stylistic structure and aesthetic display of my identity. It makes me think about how and why I myself assign meaning to the other objects in my life and whether through them, I try to communicate something crucial. It makes me aware of the power of assigning meaning and narrative in order to manipulate thought in a certain direction. And what kind of consequences are bound to occur when this meaning is changed or transferred to another person’s culture or identity.
I finally enter the subway in Harlem and emerge an hour later in south Brooklyn. In this underground journey, I have passed hundreds of stores carrying hundreds of objects, all of them little nested eggs of meaning, cogs in beastly narrative machines, strands from a whole head of different identities. Perhaps Baldwin could see down to the girl paying nine dollars at a cashier, a treat from her pocket money. Her fresh plastic bag carries a black power emblem from Forever 21, all the way up to 135th street Harlem, safe and warm.
Image sourced from here.