Black History Month

For black men, clothing comes with a label

By Pamela Hornsby-Irvin

I was dining out in the Delmar Loop with my bestie, and I conjured up a conversation with an African-American lady who had two beautiful daughters and a most handsome 10-year-old son.

I try to never pass up the opportunity to tell folks about my short film documentary “Hoodie,” which takes aim at African-American males’ being racially profiled and stereotyped by other cultures as well as law enforcement because they are wearing a hoodie.

This mother, whom I will refer to as Queen per her request, made the most heart-aching and gut-wrenching statement following  my spiel.

Queen stared me directly in my eyes with pain in her voice and said, “I never  knew the stress that black mothers went through until I had a  son of my own.  I cry all the time.  I talk to my son about how society hates him because he is who he is.”

I asked, “What do you mean? Why does society hate him?”

“Because he is a man with melanin. It’s only people with melanin. It’s only men with melanin. The darker he is … the worse it is. It’s nobody else.”

Queen’s words drowned me like a tsunami. I couldn’t breathe. Time stood still. Is it 1920 or 2020? I  too am a grandmother of a boy with melanin, of a darker hue. I felt her pain. What can I do?

To solidify her statement, Queen said, “Check out Tupac’s song ‘[Changes] That’s Just the Way It Is.'” She was specifically referring to these lines:

          Cops give a damn about a Negro. Pull the trigga, he’s a nigga, he’s a hero. … We gotta start making changes.

This is America. This is Black America.

Sometimes I just park, sit in my car, and observe how white people move about in society … how they navigate their way through life.  No laugh is too loud, no group of friends is too big, no appearance of having too much fun is an issue. They don’t have to be hypersensitive to just simply be living.

A white male can wear a hoodie and be given the benefit of  the doubt. He’s probably cold, he’s just jogging, he’s protecting his head from the rain and the snow.

You take the same hoodie and put it on a black male, this is what is whispered: What is he running from? He must have robbed someone and is trying to get away. Why is he wearing a hoodie in the summer? Surely, he is  up to something. He is going to break into a house or carjack an old lady. Any irrational thought to accompany the irrational fear. Suspect. Always suspect. Never given the benefit of the doubt.

This is the mentality that made me delve deeper into my children’s book “Hoodie” – what makes the hoodie coupled with a boy or male with melanin so menacing to other  cultures as well as law enforcement.

The book just wasn’t enough. My book “Hoodie” was inspired by my grandson who was 8 years old at the time. He loved to wear hoodies. If he was at his bus stop and realized that his hoodie wasn’t in close proximity, he would run back to the house to get it.

What was it about the hoodie that was so encompassing, so necessary, apart from it’s being a fashion statement?  It was his security blanket.

During the process of filming “Hoodie,” I heard so many stories from a potpourri of African-American boys and men painfully recounting their experience. And you could tell in their delivery and body language that the experience was numbing almost to the point of embarrassment for some.

I often ask myself the question, “If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a cardigan in lieu of a hoodie, would he still be here on this earth, drinking his Arizona, eating Skittles and chillin’ with friends?”

Everything an African-American male does is suspect: walking down the street in an urban area, walking down the street in a predominantly white neighborhood, depositing a large sum of money into his bank account, driving a Benz, driving a really late-model car with a dent in it, just driving, purchasing gas, ordering food, using the restroom, breathing.

The list goes on and on. Add a hoodie to the equation and it’s really going to be some trouble.

This way of thinking has to change. How do we change it, I’m not sure. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it go away.

One thing that I do know for sure is that the subconscious prejudice and illogical fear concerning males with melanin and the hoodie has to stop. But for now …

This is America. This is Black America.

– Pamela Hornsby-Irvin is an area writer and documentarian.

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One Comment

  1. This piece took me back to a night that changed my heart forever. I was a high school teacher in Texas for many years. I was very close with my students because due to the subject I taught, I had most of them for all four years of their HS careers. Many of them were first or second generation from the DRC, Haiti and Cameroon. They were also a micro-minority in the community, representing about 4% of the student population The boys of that group were exceedingly good boys. Great students, funny, sweet, so respectful, everything a teacher could want in a student, but they were generally very blessed with melanin. A big group of them came to the homecoming game both current students and recent graduates. I was so happy to see them and noted that most of them were wearing weather appropriate hoodies on the fall night. As they were leaving the game that night laughing and having a good time as boys should, with their hoods up, I wanted to chase after them. To warn them, to take their hoods off before they headed out, to be sure they weren’t to rambunctious as they headed into town to whatever was still open. I wanted desperately to remind them to police their behavior to avoid trouble. I became so acutely aware of what every black mother must go through every time her precious child heads out into a world that is intent on seeing malice and aggression instead of the smile and open heart. I thought of my own father, of mixed Latino-Indigenous-Afro-Caucasian origin, and the story he always told about being pulled from his car and beaten in rural Alabama for daring to stop at a stoplight in a town while “black” while driving from St. Louis to Georgia for an engineering internship. I didn’t say anything to them, I didn’t want to spoil their fun and pull them back down to earth, but I got in my car and cried. Cried that I knew their moms probably worried like this all the time, cried for the failure we can be as a people. I worried all night. Worried if they all made it home unharassed and as upbeat as they left it. I see those sweet boys in every melanin-blessed boy and man I see in a hoodie. I say a little prayer that everyone sees their smile and humanity first and I wouldn’t wish the fear I felt that night on any mother.

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