Image: Hassan Hajjaj Afrikan Boy, 2012 © Hassan Hajjaj Courtesy of the artist
One afternoon some years ago my dad and I were sitting parked outside the Express Dairy not far from our house chatting in the front seats of our car. We’d been there for about ten minutes when there was a knock on the window. It was a policeman. Someone in the dairy had called his station to report the presence of two suspicious men in a vehicle. The policeman was very polite. He just wanted to know who we were and what we were up to. As we drove off, my dad chuckled at the idea that anyone could think of us, a middle aged man and his son in a Volvo estate, as any kind of threat.
I laughed too although I wouldn’t have, if I’d realised such incidents were soon to become commonplace. I had just turned 16 and with no prompting on my part, the idea of me as a threat seemed abruptly widespread. When I sat beside them on the tube, women clutched their handbags a little closer. Shopkeepers trailed me through their stores. If I happened to be walking down the street behind someone at night, they crossed the street before I got too close.
Each of these events was minor enough to shrug off, but taken together they formed a pattern. And looking back now, I see that what they marked was an unbidden coming of age. Here was an end to boyhood and the start of my journey into adulthood; into becoming a black man.
What this meant in practice was that my body was no longer my own. Being a black man means being subject to the white gaze, which is to say the accreted history of fear and fantasy that frames how white society regards black people. It means becoming an object of prejudice and fascination and psychological projection. The tropes are familiar ones: black men as preternaturally gifted at sports and entertainment; as creatures of overdeveloped musculature and ungovernable sexuality, liable to lapse into violence and lawlessness.
Well worn as these caricatures are, they still carry the power to sting. In a pivotal passage in Black Skin, White Masks, his masterful exploration of race and identity from 1952, Frantz Fanon describes a white boy’s startled reaction to him on the streets of France. Pointing at Fanon’s approaching figure, the boy cries, “Look, a Negro!… Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened.”
For Fanon the moment is one of psychic assault. He is forced to see himself through the eyes of the child, as brute and threatening, and then dumped back into his own skin, objectified and humiliated. “My body,” he writes, “was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recoloured, clad in mourning in that white winter day.”
A similar sense of trauma runs through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As the novel’s hero recounts, blackness has rendered him beneath sight to most white people, even as it lends him a heightened visibility across society as a stereotypical object of fear and loathing and fascination. “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Fanon’s response, and that of Ellison’s hero, are a vivid example of what W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African-American philosopher of race, termed ‘double consciousness’ a century ago. Du Bois spoke of the “peculiar sensation” experienced by black people of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
His words still ring true, yet a hundred years later, they no longer articulate the full range of black responses to the white gaze.
The Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur often captures black men poised between private contemplation and public display. Her subjects seem acutely aware of their uncomfortable position as Ellison-like figures, simultaneously hypervisible and invisible to wider society.
Yet where double consciousness, in DuBois’s original conception, was only ever a burden, Johnson Artur’s subjects carry racialised awareness with defiant confidence. None more so than the young man that she shoots seated on an upturned crate, wearing glorious red trousers and an expression of fierce insouciance, carrying himself like a king despite the humbleness of his surroundings.
Johnson Artur’s photographs, along with the other works in Made You Look, explore how black men shape their self-image in front of the camera and how they sit between the twin poles of visibility and vulnerability.
On one hand, this is a period of unprecedented prominence for black people, from Obama in the White House to the striking success of artists and performers like Beyoncé, Steve McQueen, Marlon James, Kanye West, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kendrick Lamar. On the other, blacks remain victim to the consequences of entrenched racism. Over five hundred black and minority ethnic people in Britain have died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention over the past 25 years, without a single official being successfully prosecuted. In America, one in three black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. And the list of African American men killed in recent years solely because of their skin colour only continues to grow.
Against this fragile backdrop, Made You Look focuses on the figure of the black dandy. Dandyism – and with it issues of style and deportment – might seem like trivial concerns in the era of Black Lives Matter. But as the killing of Trayvon Martin, shot by George Zimmerman for looking “suspicious” in a hoodie attests, how you dress can sometimes be the difference between life and death.
The dictionary definition of a dandy is a man “unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable.” But dandyism, as practised by the likes of Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire, is also about using dress to deliberately flout conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality.
Kristin-Lee Moolman, Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015 © Kristin-Lee Moolman. Courtesy of the artist
This is certainly the case with the majestically louche Soweto youths decked out in flared sleeveless suits and pearls, shot by Kristin-Lee Moolman. And the strikingly beautiful young man photographed in New York by Jeffrey Henson Scales. Titled Young Man in Plaid, NYC, Scales’ portrait epitomises the scholar Monica Miller’s definition of a black dandy as a figure who is “masculine and feminine, aggressively heterosexual yet not quite a real man, a vision of an upstanding citizen and an outsider broadcasting his alien status by clothing his dark body in a good suit.”
Such images point to the subversive power of dandyism to reveal maleness itself as a performance, as something provisional and open to reinterpretation, rather than a set of inherited characteristics fixed in the skin.
And they also highlight how, for black people, the donning of stylish clothes acts as a form of radical personal politics; a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render blacks unseen, invisible, beneath regard. This tactic of style as rebellion has deep historical roots, as can be witnessed by looking back to America’s antebellum South.
When enslaved Africans disembarked in America in the 18th century, they were fitted with drab, crudely stitched clothes made from the coarsest cottons. Along with the chains round their ankles, the stripping away of their names and banning of their native languages, this was another attempt to deny them choice over their own destiny.
South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1735 even went so far as to stipulate the kinds of materials allowable for ‘Negro dress’, typically only the cheapest “course callicoes, checked cottons or scotch plaids.”
Yet in resistance to such rulings, slaves repeatedly fashioned their own distinctive clothes. They scrounged and pilfered scraps of material to make jackets and dresses in vivid patchworks of clashing colours, decorated with ribbons and gold and silver buttons.
One way to appreciate the subversive value of style for black people in bondage is to examine newspaper adverts for runaway slaves posted during the 18th century. A striking number of these placed an emphasis on the variety and distinctiveness with which slaves styled themselves, describing them as “addicted to dress”, “remarkably fond of dress”, “generally dressy” and “very fond of showy dress”.
A particular notice, posted in Augusta, Virginia in 1774, attracts the eye. A plantation owner seeks the return of a runaway named Bacchus, described as “cunning, artful, sensible” and “very capable of forging a Tale to impose on the Unwary.” As well as noting his intelligence and resourcefulness, the advert also identifies Bacchus as a protean dandy, one who has made his escape with a considerable wardrobe, including “two white Russia Drill Coats… blue Plush Breeches, a fine Cloth Pompadour waistcoat, two or three thin or Summer jackets… five or six white Shirts… neat Shoes, a fine Hat cut and cocked in the Macaroni Figure, a double-milled Drab Great Coat and sundry other Wearing Apparel.”
For a runaway like Bacchus, adopting fine dress was a means to metaphorically and literally upend the order of things. Dressed in his finery, he would have been performing a parody of the white men who’d put him in chains. And, in doing so, he was also remaking himself, in very real terms, into a free man, by attempting to walk out of the South with all the confidence and panache of a man apparently born into liberty.
Even after the end of slavery the assertion of an individual style by African Americans remained a charged issue. There are legion accounts of black men being beaten, sometimes to death, for dressing or acting above their station. Edward Clay’s Life in Philadelphia, a popular series of prints produced in 1828, pictured the city’s emergent black middle class with cruelly exaggerated facial features and preposterously flamboyant clothes.
In 1841, a notorious gang of black men stood trial in Mississippi for bank robbery and murder. The charges against them ran long; the gang was also accused of burglary, smuggling and the passing of counterfeit bills. But they attended their trial dressed with conspicuous extravagance. In the dock, the gang’s leader, who donned a range of expensive hats throughout the proceedings, described their actions as “fashionable rascality”. As Thomas Buchanan has noted, they employed flamboyant style to “transform subservient identities” into a defiant sense of “resilience and independence”. Despite – or more likely because of – that attitude, the gang was found guilty of murder and all its members were hanged and beheaded.
In men like Bacchus and the Mississippi gang, we glimpse the origins of style as a mode of resistance. The lineage that stretches from them is a long one, populated by men who’ve dressed with knowing flamboyance and a very clear delight at the consternation that their appearance triggers in white society. It’s a line that includes the poet Langston Hughes and the boxer Jack Johnson, idiosyncratic performers such as Sun Ra and George Clinton and stars like Prince and Andre 3000.
In each case, what comes to mind are Fanon’s words on the transgressive potential of style: “I grasp my narcissism with both hands and I turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.”
As a teenager having to grapple for the first time with the force of the white gaze, I’d ask myself this question: how do you live without fear or debilitating anger in a world where you’re reminded always that your body doesn’t belong to you?
The answer, as proposed by the works in Made You Look, is to demand to be seen on your own terms, via the style and attitude that announces your ambitions and desires, your sense of pride and inner belief.
For the most part the men featured in the show aren’t wearing the finest of clothes. They seem less concerned with what they wear than with how they wear it. Their style is by turns flamboyant, provocative, arresting, camp, playful and gloriously assertive. And they share a fierce self-possession that makes it clear that black dandyism is about more than dress alone. It is about confounding expectations about how black men should look or carry themselves in order to establish a place of personal freedom; a place beyond the white gaze, where the black body is a site of liberation not oppression.
Ekow Eshun is a writer and broadcaster and curator of Made You Look: Dandysim and Black Masculinity, which runs at The Photographers’ Gallery through 25 September. @EkowEshun
This essay features in volume 2, issue 3 of Loose Associations, a new quarterly publication on photography and image culture, available from our online bookstore for £5.