African Women’s Fashion Design as Rhetoric and Inspiration

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The bangles, the earrings, the intricate patterns, the textile expertise, the brilliant pops of color as THE accessory, the bold color all over and all around, the depth of brown skin tones spanning all shades, the beads encased on long necks, the necklaces draped over the shoulder or all the way down to the stomach, and then, for a grand finale, an African female designer in a self-designed African print dress takes a bow… I love all of it. I am talking here about African women designers of contemporary African fashions.

It is NOT my intent here to showcase new clothes to buy. The slideshow that opens this post (featuring some of my favorite designers) is not a shopping list. Many of these designers do sell their fashions at their websites and can be commissioned to create something for you from one of their collections. Their prices are much more reasonable, respectful, and human— in terms of human labor, skill, and textile design— than what you will see during any visit to a NYC Bloomingdale’s or Saks, neither of which are places where I ever shop.  I am interested in much more than fashion for purchase, however, when I follow contemporary African women designers.  Their work and presence are much bigger than that.  As of now, they are not so fully commodified as to represent the kind of fashion cartel like what we get with Prada and the likes.  When DBU showcased her amazing jewelry at 2011 Africa Fashion Week, the impact was not represented by exotic gems stolen from Africa (since colonialism, the utterance conflict-free diamonds, for instance, is simply an oxymoron… there can be NO such thing as a CONFLICT-FREE natural resource if it is taken from Africa.)  For DBU, it was the color, craftmanship, originality, ingenuity, and stunning impact of her jewelry that carried the day.  I would wear each item, exactly as she has them layered and paired, wearing all black clothing just so you can see the jewelry better just as she has it here:

We live in a world of colors and patterns that communicate their own histories, desires, and visions and these women designers give me a world that I like to look at and be part of.  When I watch the bodies adorned in sequin patterns in the designs of someone like Eredappa (shown below), I am as drawn to what she is communicating as I am to the graphic techniques of Mickalene Thomas with her works’ rhinestones and intricate patterns. That Eredappa attempts to mesh beadwork alongside local, Nigerian fabrics to make multidimensional design seems well aligned with how Thomas also constructs her visual world.

I especially like to follow youtube-channelers who create their own movies of the African designers that move them.  In close second to that preference are the runway shows that the designers themselves plan and execute, brilliantly showcased in the United States with Africa Fashion Week.  In both of these visual contexts, what you see are multimedia-writers telling us a story… designing us a story.  At the 2011 Africa Fashion week, Korto Momolu (fondly remembered for her time on Project Runway) especially captured design-as-its-own-story with her 2011 collection that tells the story of women’s survival during war using her home country of Liberia as muse:

Each piece in Momolu’s runway exhibit tells its own story and each piece works in specific relation to the previous and following outfits: it is the most visually rich kind of chapter-building that I can imagine.

I like to follow these designers and look at what they are up to.  They inspire me to create anew, to be bold and imaginative, to not tone myself down in a suffocating world of beige, and to rely on my own local languages and cultural expressions for contemporary structures.  This is how I plan to inspire and charge my summer.

Phyllis Hyman: Backtight Again!

Phyllis Hyman - Living All Alone86I started listening to Phyllis Hyman back in high school, the time when her album, Living All Alone, dropped.  She was a mainstay in my college years and was the first artist where I took my collection of cassette tapes and converted them all to CD (my cassette ribbons were all chewed up with how much I rewound and played those cassettes).  I’m not sure what drew me to her: maybe it was just that bold spirit, her flare for style that was out of this world, that big voice, them cusswords she laced so lovely, her ability to drink her a glass of some strong stuff when she needed it, the trash-talking and the overwhelming hospitality at the same time.  I admired all of it but somehow I knew she was unhappy, which drew me to her more, a sentiment I could understand. I just thought she would maintain. I was hoping.

At 45 years old, on June 30, 1995, Phyllis Hyman committed suicide.  Her suicide note read this: “I’m tired. I’m tired…” I have not been able to listen to a single song by her since then.  I just couldn’t.  It’s been a long 18 years with NOT A SINGLE PHYLLIS HYMAN SONG.

But, on this day, I am listening to Phyllis Hyman again, not any album, only live performances.  I need her live today.

Phyllis_HymanI woke up at 4am to prepare for the day’s work, a day that will have me on campus until at least 9-10pm (and I am just not someone who can handle this 3 hours of sleep per night thing!).   Since arriving to work at 8:30, the only moments of real joy that I imagine that I will have are when my undergraduate students stop by to say hello and pick up their anthologies.  At 4am, that’s how I knew this day would be and for some reason, I just wanted to hear Phyllis Hyman’s voice, as if I thought she could get me through and would understand.  I suppose I am reaching the end of this set of growing pains as a post-tenure professor pushing myself to put myself in situations where I am only doing the kind of work I truly believe in.  Before tenure, it was all about that get-that-tenure-grind, now it’s more about me …and what and who can intellectually, politically, and socially sustain me.  That said, I still needed to get through this day, a day that won’t actually approximate that previous sentence.

So today, I am backtight with Phyllis (for the Ebonically-challenged: that means a longlast reunion with a old, deep soulfriend).  I still miss her deeply but today, she has felt a little closer again and has gotten me through the day.

Impact of Aja Monet: “Is That All You Got”

Last week in class, we finished unit six.  In that unit, I asked students to hear, see, and draw a line of connection between black women in 1970s Black Power Struggles, Black Arts Movement, and contemporary spoken word artists.  I received an email one night from one of my beloved students, Karina, who asked that I include what she saw as one of Aja Monet’s most impactful poem, “Is That All You Got?,” in the list of Monet poems that I offered.  Here is that poem:

I was actually introduced to Aja Monet, the youngest national poetry slam winner, through my students, not through New York City’s poetry events.  I can honestly say that I have never had a class of young people where someone did not know Monet’s work and this spans quite a few years of my teaching now.  I am only now realizing that Aja Monet ‘s words and visions visit my classroom in each semester that I teach undergraduates.  It speaks to me about what Monet is speaking to these young black men and women.  In fact, Karina’s one request as a high school graduation gift was Monet’s book of poetry, a book I have now added to my own shelves. There are certainly a set of go-to essays and other texts that re-circulate back into my classroom and I know now to add Monet’s poetry to this set.

I have listened to this poem over and over this weekend, hoping to hear my students better.  Mainly what I hear now is that they have been through some things, are looking back on it, and are seeing just how and why they are going to make it through because as Monet puts it: “Is that all you got? What the f**k is you broken for?” It’s a reminder that I am also thankful for.

Desperate Need for a Black Working Class Consciousness: The Fate of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC)

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

Anyone who knows me knows that I come from a large, working-class black family.  I am opening with that to say this: there IS such a thing as a black working class consciousness.  If you are western/ bourgeois/ academic and you need to call that statement “strategic essentialism” in order to make you feel better about your politics, then go right on ‘head, but, make no mistake about it: a black working class consciousness exists.  It is not some naturally-occurring thing; it is a socially constructed belief system, discourse, and political perspective shaped in conversation and proximity with other black people against the kind of super-exploitative, white-ruled working environments that black people must daily enter to feed and clothe their families, but also fully exit in order to maintain some humanity when they get back home.  I also open with this because it seems to me that a black working class consciousness is more important today than ever.

African American Women Welders during WWII

African American Women Welders (WWII)

I am picking up here from a previous post about the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC, as discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich. Their point is that the PMC’s work today looks a lot like the work that the working class always did— toiling in large structures as nameless cogs in automated systems.  I want to juxtapose this change in the work that the PMC does today alongside the fact that more black college graduate students are joining this PMC than ever before.   Instead of joining the PMC as the autonomous professionals that the decades before witnessed, first-generation black college graduates today will largely work in places where their everyday work life looks a lot like what their working class parents did (whether it be the service industry or a more factory-based industry).  This is the secret that we don’t share with our college students in a college system that is promising more and more students that a college degree will get them the keys to professional status— an economic system that no longer even operates that way.

I am not suggesting that we tell students to stop becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and the host of other professional careers they come to college for.  What I am saying is that students will need the black working class consciousness of their elders even more in this new system that tells them they are NOT exploited workers but treats them as EXACTLY THAT!   This realization is in direct contrast to the ways that we often teach college curricula, especially college writing.  We bamboozle our students with fantastic stories about learning and entering discourse communities, academic professions, and middle class/bourgeois life and work. These are lies.  This is the way faculty, as part of the PMC, as the Ehrenreichs describe it, “rationalize” a dying system and extend current modes of capitalism.

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

Black working class people have always known that they were exploited; that the work that they are allowed to do is not soul-sustaining; that black men do not benefit from patriarchy’s role-making of the male breadwinner; that black women do not get to trade in homemaking/non-job life for female work subordination and privilege; that white men will not come to black women’s rescue as benevolent or non-benevolent patriarchs at work or home (even the oral traditions tell you that!  See Flossie and the Fox!); that the labor one does will not equate to monetary gain; that the labor one does will not be written into the master script as the story of what has sustained and made the nation; that white co-workers, in the same financial straits as you, will more often than not cash in on the “wages of whiteness” to falsely identify with a white elite that hates them just as much; that prisons, projects, and criminally underfunded schools are just where they put you to keep you where you are or place you somewhere when the menial jobs you once did are no longer available.  These are counter-ideological systems that I don’t think we fully situate.  I have in mind here the ways that we talk about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and their focus on poor black folk as knowledgeable, usually in direct defiance of the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; we tend to think these women were making egalitarian, moralistic, feminist choices that re-defined leadership, and, yes, they were, but they were also forwarding and centering a counter-ideological system that the bourgeoisie just can’t give you.  We who do the work of teaching and theorizing college writing are also stuck in this discourse of depoliticized, moralistic choices.  We want to debate what it means, ethically, to ask students to give up “home cultures” and “mother tongues” when they are in the academy.  We want to rest on paternalism and talk about “preparation” of subordinated groups to move ahead in the world (we do not rigorously interrogate that social world, we just embrace ourselves as having the answers to moving forward in it without an admission of our white power as the key.)  Sometimes, we will call it racist to ask students of color to give up the communities in which they have made sense of themselves.  But we seldom explicitly address our current complicity in one of the most egregious systems of racialized capitalism when we tell students they will enter new types of work worlds with their college degrees.  We are, in essence, formulating and formalizing the process where students withdraw from and deny the kind of counter-ideological systems that they already have and can use to take on, see, and critique the system we are in.  We would rather throw our students out into an exploitative world and pretend it will not devour them up in the same way it has always done with workers. In my mind, this is the worst kind of teaching we could provide.