|Nightlife, 1943, by Archibald Motley (Art Institute of Chicago)|
You can't write a column in Chicago and not deal frequently with race. At least I can't. I understand that I'm straying into fraught territory, perhaps better left to others. But I find myself curious about things, and want to follow that curiosity, such as in this column from 20 years ago. My view is, if you are sincere and respectful, you can ask questions, such as why African-American men wear bolder fashions.
The key is to find the right people to share their knowledge. I have no idea how I ended up talking to Geoffrey Holder, who played Baron Samedi in the 1973 Bond movie "Live and Let Die" before becoming the laughing spokesman for 7-Up. Nor can I explain the column ending, which falls flat—a lost opportunity. I definitely remember, in researching the piece, getting the sense that part of the bright and meticulous fashion, particularly for steppers, was a way to manifest yourself in a society that dismisses your existence, your value. I'm not sure why I didn't emphasize that—maybe I lacked the confidence or nobody said it directly—instead of focusing on the "undercurrent of unease" that the topic drew. Perhaps this intro is my attempt at a do-over.
My wife and I were strolling the boys down Armitage Avenue one bright Sunday morning when we passed Greater Little Rock The Lord Church, an African-American Baptist church, just as services were letting out.
The men of the congregation were dressed vividly, in suits of purple or mustard yellow or maroon, and I appraised them with the usual blend of curiosity and envy which I regard better-dressed men, which, given my normal state of shabby rumpledom, is just about everybody.
"Why don't white men have a sense of style?" my wife asked.
Somewhat taken aback, I said, "I could buy an electric blue suit, too, if you like." But I knew what she meant. A range of fashion seems available to African-American men that is entirely off-limits for whites. The fact is I could never wear an electric blue suit. I would be a laughingstock.
Frankly, the question seemed among those delicate matters that is not supposed to be addressed at all. One of the lesser ills of racism—though still a real one—is that the idiotic notion claiming certain races are superior is generally met with the palpable untruth that all races are the same. When, of course, we are not the same.
Hispanics, for instance, often speak Spanish. Not always. Not exclusively. A Finn may speak Spanish, and a person born in Mexico may not. But, generally, groups tracing their origins to Spanish-speaking countries speak more Spanish than people, say, from France.
I don't think this is the language of hate. In fact, I think we miss a chance to become more familiar with one another by shutting our eyes to our differences. For years, I was puzzled by what struck me as the oddness of certain names some African Americans gave their children: Jolinda, and such. After stewing on it for years, I finally gathered my courage and asked an African-American colleague, who explained that parents will often take their own names and combine them. Thus John and Linda yield Jolinda. It made sense to me, and I learned something by asking.
The question remains: Is the popularity of colorful suits among African Americans and their absence among whites a real phenomenon?
"I would have to say it is a phenomenon," said Willie Scott, a designer for R. Kelly, Isiah Thomas and other celebrities. "African Americans are bold, and boldness means bright colors. African Americans are really into fashion. I don't want to say other races aren't. But we are a little more apt to step out of the norm."
Distinguished actor Geoffrey Holder finds nothing bold about wearing bright suits "if you can pull it off."
"If a woman can wear red and a woman can wear emerald green and a woman can wear turquoise blue, why can't a man?" Holder said. "My wife does not dress me—so many men's wives dress them. They want to fit into society so they have to wear the uniform like the rest of society. Brooks Brothers is the uniform for a banker. But I am not a banker. I dress to suit my height and the color of my skin, I dress for the room I'm going to, the space I'm taking over. I dress for my moods, and I wear the colors that I'm lucky in."
Scott said that dark skin is enhanced by bright color.
"Certain colors look very nice on African-American men," he said.
But even on them, he said, it's important to save flashiness for the proper occasion—a night out, or a concert.
"You need to pick the right time and place," he said. "You don't want to walk into IBM to get a job with your red pinstripe suit."
I detected an undercurrent of unease and realized, belatedly, that the colorful suits are looked down on by more conservative folks.
"Absolutely," said Eunice Johnson, the matriarch of African-American fashion, who has been running the Ebony fashion show for 41 years. "A lot of young men just like to be seen rather than heard. Some people are more ostentatious than others. I certainly don't know any men who wear light blue suits and orange suits. Nobody in our fashion shows wears anything like that."
An older gentleman I approached on Wabash Avenue was wearing pinstriped royal blue slacks, jacket and a matching homburg hat. He wouldn't give his name, but he spoke with a quiet dignity.
"I'm a stepper," he said. "Stepping is a dance, and I'm part of that subculture. This is just the way steppers dress. . . . I just love colors."
I ended my investigation genuinely uncertain. Are such matters better examined or left ignored? There's a phrase in Yiddish: shanda fer de goyim which basically means "An embarrassment in front of strangers." It's used to describe anything Jews do that reflects poorly on the religion. If a writer from Ebony called me with questions on Jewish religious art, as reflected by merchandise sold at temple gift shops, I could speak on the subject but would feel a creeping sense that this isn't going to end up a big splashy advertisement for the religion.
Such discomfort is valuable. Hiding behind false politeness is too easy. I certainly learned something. This is what I learned, sitting in Willie Scott's office, realizing how fabulous he looks and how threadbare and ridiculous I look, dressed in my reporter's rags: I've got to get a better wardrobe.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 17, 1999