the GENDER issue / NONFICTION
by El Lewis
Photo Credit: Myles Loftin
We are not kissed as sons...
We are barely shown the merest affection because then we will become too fragile. When we cry we’re told to keep it in unknowingly sabotaging ourselves of emotional intelligence. The only emotion that we’re able to wear without scrutiny is anger. Athleticism is supported and the arts are uncharted territories for boys colored onyx. As children, when we play with our sisters we have limits. “Stop acting like a girl!”, says our mothers. Roles are projected onto us. When we play house we are automatically the head of the household because, inherently, we are men. As men we are the providing patriarchs. To be a Black man you realize there is a weight upon you, as if we were Atlas condemned to carry the entire Black lineage on our shoulders, cornerstones of our families and protectors of femininity. Yet, we are not allowed to harness our feminine energy because, then, we would be human and not an idea. Unable to be mortal because we cannot address our falseness of masculinity and embrace the beauty of vulnerability.
Every “I love you” out our father’s mouths is delayed. In that delayed response our hearts stop and then beat again. Face to face with Hades, dying and resurrecting in a matter of seconds. It feels like such vulnerability and admittance kills them. When we hug our brothers it’s never for long, scared of male intimacy. A forbidden territory. To be without this love and affection we might as well be vapid Black bodies in River Styx.
Don’t show signs of weakness and you must “Man Up” because your family is counting on you to be successful. In some cases, you are the first of your family to graduate from college with, dare I say, a degree in Fashion Studies or Art History. Why did you cringe when you told your father you chose Fashion over Biology? Maybe because he said the color purple was for girls way back when or that tying a jacket around your waist like the preppy southern Californians of Saved By The Bell wasn’t for boys. But, you were simply hot and wanted to be stylish. Your father’s words “You’re a man and that’s for girls,” lingers in your subconscious. The sunken despair you feel is a part of your path but you see yourself pushing to challenge the fates. Freedom seems to come at a cost and there is no generational wealth to give you a proper rite of passage. You will feel every cent you do not have. In fact, your neighborhoods are being gentrified and you are being exterminated. Less and less Black boys make it out of their circumstance. Your desires and your hometown won’t be compatible. You’re not the scouted athlete or the hood-groomed rapper. You’re a dream driven artist who moves to New York by selling your car to get enough cash to fuel this crazy idea of yours. You’re courageous just for wanting freedom.
Your break comes when your blonde-haired, blue eyed female colleague backs out of an internship at a fashion brand. You’ll take her spot. Fashion is a white space and you’ll wonder how your Black skin will go unnoticed. You spend most of your nights deciding what you’d wear and/or how to refine your hair for work. Most of the time you’re the only one, and by only one, I mean you are the only Black-Black guy in the room—not mixed-yellow or fair skinned but, Black. This is the reality Black men face in the creative and fashion industry. Being Black means you’re aware of how you look and how you make people feel. Hypersensitive to the environments in which you are the minority, due to the fact that your lives must not intimidate whiteness.
Fashion will say white girls rocking braids is a new trend yet, your sisters never made headlines, poor muses. Life will be ironic. The realization that internships don’t quite pay the bills will force you to bite the bullet and take the next best thing, retail. Retail depresses you because it doesn’t seem to lead to the financial freedom you dreamt of. You’ve seen many case studies. To you, why sell clothing when you can sell ideas? You will find that fashion labels communicate a language amongst those who wear them and you want in on the multi-billion-dollar conversation. You will go on to assist stylists and editors who you adore. Their words ring hollow in your ears, “don’t chase the money, it will come”, but you hardly have enough money for a rail card. What do they say about that? You’ll tell yourself over and over again that you have to pay your dues before success but wonder when exactly that will be. But you’re here, “making” it. In many cities, Black joblessness exceeds any other ethnicity in the US. In these years you will struggle and rely heavily on the goodwill and support of your friends and mentors.
Black men are creative and love fashion. Yet, so many of us don’t stray down that path because the stigmas of it being too feminine of a discipline for a man to study. ‘It’s gay,” says the Black community. Constructs created to make us think that clothing is equated to your weight as a man. Clothing, style, and expression is somehow considered an emasculation because if we fall in love with ourselves like Narcissus, we are doomed. This is a false projection from our very own community. To care “too much" about your appearance is a female characteristic, we say. And to think that the vast majority of the world’s most renowned fashion designers are men but not Black men. Black men do not dwell in these spaces, yet. There are exceptions such as Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Andre Leon Talley, Patrick Robinson, Diddy and now, Kanye West. Still quite a small percentage. Our absence in the fashion industry has come from our families’ ignorance for such a career path, along with the prejudices we face in predominantly white industries. The Black truancy in white spaces has birthed an intimidating mystique of the Black male. We are not easily read and it seems white people are wondering how we got here.
Fashion has a pretentious aura that doesn’t welcome the unknown. In terms of Blackness, it has only been celebrated in order to market and generate sales. The phrase, “We Gucci!” means “We are fine and okay” or that “all things are going well at the current moment”. Fashion has been adopted by Black culture however, fashion doesn’t seem to care about this custody battle. Gucci never mentioned its Black inspired designs until Black twitter resurrected Dapper Dan. Fashion seems to be intimidated by the Black male due to their inability to understand their narrative in the creative space. There is a void of Black men of influence. Boxed in until we reach a certain class level, a space made up of mainly celebrities.
Right now, a Black boy is not being hired for an internship because a white girl fits the mold. Right now, you will not see many Black male models with longevity. Right now, Edward Enninful is the first Black male Editor-in-Chief of any Conde Nast publication. Right now, Andre Leon Talley just wrote in his memoir that Anna Wintour “is incapable of human kindness.” Right now, a Black male is being scrutinized and his only chance of success is having the ability to code switch seamlessly outside of him being extraordinary. Black men are not in the front rows because they are not celebrated.
Eureka! A free app on your phone becomes your biggest ally. Allowing you to celebrate yourself in a digital universe. What was once used to place sepia toned filters on your vacation pictures will now become one of the biggest tools to your success, Instagram. A place where artist prone lifestyles intertwine. Even here it seems like you have to compromise your freedom of expression in order to fit into this small 5x5 square image. More people projecting their thoughts onto you, something that never really goes away. You want to be your truest self and you’ll want everyone to stop policing your masculinity and imprisoning you in this fragile image of the Black male. The person who was once called a sissy is now faced with the Sisyphean task of uplifting your brothers into self-acceptance. Men must learn to love their entire selves, the sensitive and the mighty. Finally, you can show people how human it feels to embrace your masculine and feminine sides. You’ll have concern with the very fashion items that make you feel good. You are no less a man for your well-groomed wispy afro. Many will perceive that Black masculinity and vulnerability cannot co-exist but, you will simultaneously be the anomaly and advocate on why it can and must. The display of self is a lifelong course of self-understanding for others to subscribe to. It’s okay Black men, you are beautiful, vast and it will be loved, worshipped.
El Lewis is the Co-Founder/Owner of O. Studio Design and an African-American creative director and fashion editor. His work is vastly informed by minimalism, mythology, color theory while highlighting Black people. El has worked for the likes of Alexander Wang to Ryan Leslie. He has created a distinctive social media presence through his style and taste, which makes him a sought after creative