On the Front Porch: Dressing While Black

Black folks and sharp dress attire go together like peanut butter and jelly, Bert and Ernie, T.I. and Tiny, Jimmy and Shanita, Dill pickles and just about anything.

Since the beginning of time, Black folks have always dressed “cleaner than the board of health.” My maternal great-grandmother, Lucille Jones aka Great Grand, put it this way:

One day, God was up in heaven handling his heavenly business when he stopped abruptly. Something was amiss.

“Do you see this?” The Almighty asked his angelic crew.

Confused, the holy rollers shook their heads and flapped their wings. Their feathered fans looked like the broken windshield wipers on the front of a dilapidated Chevy truck.

The angels were tired. They were still recovering from the color distribution exercise they had helped God administer the day prior.

For that activity, God had handed out colors to distinguish the various people around the globe. Our Father had already created earth, now he wanted to bring diversity to his deed; he would paint his people. His colors of choice were red, yellow, tan, orange and white, which he dispersed freely. At the end of six days, God looked at his work. He was pleased.

Just when His Majesty thought he was done, a large group of people flagged him down. They wanted to know why they hadn’t received any color.

Our Father pondered their question.

“What should I do about this last group who needs color bestowed upon them?” he asked himself. The bulk of color options had been used.

Suddenly, the animated assemblage started to jump around. Their abundant energy distracted the Divine and he yelled to the crowd, “Get Back!”

But the gallant group misunderstood and thought he said, “Get Black.” So, they did.

Upon realizing what happened, God took a step back. Before him stood an abundance of Black beauty. He decided on the spot to complement this group’s coffee-colored covering. With assistance from his angel ambassadors, the Almighty created elaborate robes in variations of red, yellow, tan, orange and white — saved shades from his earlier color campaign.

Once their wardrobe fitting was complete, the Messiah blessed Black people with the ‘best dressed’ title.  Black people strutted themselves from one end of the earth to the other, determined to show their appreciation.  And the rest, as they say, is glitz-story.

 Great Grand loved telling me that story. I’m not sure where she heard it, but I’m certain that whoever told her that tale, read it in a book somewhere.

Regardless of the tale’s origin, Black folks tend to wear ornate outfits. Bozoma Saint John, Black businesswoman and chief marketing officer of Endeavor, expressed:

“I like bold, red lips and my hair naturally curly or in a weave down to my ankles. I like extravagance. When I’m dressed that way, my personality shines through.” She continues, “It’s a disservice when we talk about fashion or the way people look as superficial. It is much deeper that. It has much deeper implications, especially for Black women…For me, trying to tone things down meant that I was also hiding everything that I am — all that I bring” (Essence Magazine, March 2019).

Black people’s relationship with clothes runs a gamut from ritual practices to reputation management. A brother wearing a tailored suit is like chicken and waffles — sweet and salty goodness wrapped into one. A sister rocking a freaky frock “with brown cocoa skin and curly black hair” will most likely cause more than one person to turn and look at her with a gentle, loving stare.

Dressing while Black has historic roots as well. While Black people may have been prohibited from voting or sitting at certain lunch counters during the Jim Crow era, they could assure their children were clean and neatly styled. A Black man may have been forced to wear the dingy uniform of a bellman or bus driver daily, but his attire would be so tightly starched that he resembled a capital letter “I” when standing still. Black women may have been forced into domestic work, but they would be pressed and pleated at the same time. These uniform strategies helped Black people fare better in a racist world; an unspoken rule for survival. Blacks “hadto look better, be better and act better than white folks just to get a foot in the door,” Judy Belk noted in her article, “Black people are better dressers than white folks. There’s a reason” (LA Times, February 2019).

I, like many of my Black brothers and sisters, come from a long line of ‘sharp dressers.’ Dressing up is in our DNA. As Great Grand told me, “The right dress tells people who you are without you even opening your mouth.”

Amen.

Shanita Baraka Akintonde is an award-winning author, podcaster, professional speaker, professor, wife andmother propelled by love. Her second book, Leading from the Heart,was released in September 2018 and her third book, Hear Me ROARR, is setfor release in Spring 2019. Add yourself to her event calendar and book signing distribution list. Email her at sakintonde@colum.edu. You can also reach her on LinkedInat www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde.

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