Is the Black Dandy the “Civilized” Black Man?

by Guest Contributor Alex Jung, originally published at Fashion Mole

Nivea Ad
Late last week Nivea set the Internets atwitter with an ad showing a black man, with a shaved head holding a mask with an afro and facial hair à la Cornel West. The image was emblazoned with the tagline: Re-civilize yourself. A study in contrast, the white version of the ad had the message: Sin City Isn’t an Excuse to Look Like Hell. Other Nivea ads also show other white men – some with facial hair with clean edges, some without – with the simple slogan: Look Like You Give a Damn. Why does Nivea think that the slow crawl towards civilization for a black man requires shedding an afro and facial hair?

The problem, as many bloggers have pointed out, is that the ad relies on the trope of the savage black man, an idea as old as the nation that has only changed rather than disappeared over time. Today, there are “good” and “bad” black men – the former are what then Senator Joe Biden thinks are “articulate and bright and clean” and the latter are probably what he sees on the Music Television. It must have been quite a shock for Biden to see that then Senator Obama did not end his campaign speeches with Yo yo! 

The recent Times piece on black dandyism, “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style,” which ran just a day before the Nivea controversy, has received a favorable reception. And yet for me, raises feelings of unease not unlike the Nivea ad. While the article is a celebration of the style and savvy of the bloggers of Street Etiquette, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, the article takes on a slight tone of wonderment I imagine Biden experienced when he saw this young, black man whip him during the Iowa caucuses.

I should be clear: Street Etiquette is one of the best personal style blogs out there. It has everything that any reader interested in fashion would want: history, know-how, cool, and lots of shiny photos of beautiful people. And yet, I found the language they used to champion black dandyism to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the Nivea ad. Speaking about his blog, Kissi says, “It shows people of African descent in a good light…Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense.”

Street Ettiquette

An image from “The Black Ivy” (via Street Etiquette)

Throughout the piece, “dandyism” is posited as classy, refined, and aspirational, while “hip hop style” is imprecated as unrefined, coarse, and well, uncivilized. The black dandies are constantly trying to get away from the paradigm of hip-hop, but in doing so, embrace another, arguably more dominant, paradigm. As if there were any further indication needed, their largest photo shoot, “The Black Ivy” is a not-so-subtle embrace of “our kind of people.”

Furthermore, this “self-refinement” is expressed not simply as an evolution of style, but also one of growth. “I used to wear size 42 jeans. Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way,” says Kissi. He isn’t wrong. Those baggy pants have been quite a site of contention; in 2007, cities across the South passed anti-sagging pants ordinances. Legislators weren’t just trying to police fashion, but specifically, what they saw as an expression of a dangerous black masculinity. Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin said such laws are a “remedy” for “a prison mentality.” Other lawmakers believed the style invoked fear in others. Ooga booga, indeed.

Is it possible for multiple expressions and styles to coexist? Mos Def, also quoted in the article, probably has it closest: “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.” Multiple style paradigms – and relatedly multiple masculinities – are vital, especially in communities of color. But does the ascension of one necessitate the denigration of another? Can’t I have my high-tops and wear them too?

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  • John Cale

    I’m sorry, but I missed the part of the article where they associated black men with criminality.  I think folks are reading into that article a  binary structure that isn’t there. And as far as I could see, many of those dandies were wearing jeans .

    I don’t think the point was about dividing black people into groups based on style and fashion. It was simply pointing out how these brothas are helping to legitimize a particular look and attitude  among black men. And it’s not like they implied that if all black men started taking cues from Street Etiquette we’d all magically ascend to  the upper echelons of the rarefied classes.  Heck, given how much hip hop gear cost nowadays, by going Dandy, I might actually save a buck or two. I also don’t think there is anything classist about valorizing higher education, just saying.

    • Kimmy

      Never said there was anything wrong with higher Ed. I feel the NYT article is based off if that dichotomy where you’re a baggy fool or a well dressed moneymaker. I am saying that isn’t true, you can rock jeans and sneakers and be intelligent, just as Ive many dudes who dress in dandy style and don’t have a clue… It’s great that things like street ettiquette are being put out there, as long as they dont accompany the idea of hip hop clothing being a step down in the process.

  • John Cale

    Maybe I read a different NYT article but I didn’t get the feeling that they were dichotomizing black behavior or styles. I think they CORRECTLY pointed out that the hip hop style has become ubiquitous among black men of all classes and these guys, the dandies are helping to make it acceptable to step outside of the hip hop paradigm. And the fact that many hip hop artists are adopting this style of fashion really doesn’t counter this notion. Go to ANY clothing that is in a black neighborhood and the dominant styles available with be either the Hip Hop look(Baggy jeans with big ole’ designer labels on them, oversized tee’s and button ups, fitted caps, varsity jackets with a million designer labels on them, gym shoes that come in  more flavors then Baskin Robbins, etc.) or the ultra-shiny, formal type wear.(you know what i mean) As a black man who has sort “grown” out of the hip hop look, it gets kind of frustrating. I didn’t anything in that article that suggested the Hip Hop style was uncivilized or even thuggish or that the adopting the dapper dandy look makes you a better a person. Only that for the last 15-20 years, one particular look as essentially dominated the black man’s fashion repertoire. And I agree.
    And the referenced to the “our kind of people” grates me to no end! So know if we’re standing in the University courtyard we necessarily think we’re better than everyone else! This sort of attitude is what keeps black me locked in one particular mode of thinking.And just to be clear, the dominant Hip Hop aesthetic is about being “street” and to a degree unrefined, hard and “rough edged”.

  • Ain’t I an African

    Hmmm… It seems to me that there have always been significant numbers of dapper black men. 

  • Val

    The problem, as I see it, is not the conversation so much as where the conversation is being held, in a mainstream publication, The NYT. Which means the conversation rather than being about Black style is really about ‘what are those crazy Negroes up to now’. That’s why it feels icky. 

    • John Cale

      Well, clearly New York Times counts blacks among it’s readers, and the subjects were definitely not treated like some anthropology project, so I don’t agree with that assessment.  The subjects  were hardly portrayed in a negative  light nor were they really “othered” as the author engaged with the subject matter in a such a fashion that suggested they were, in some way, intimately involved with this issue. 

      Why shouldn’t black men’s changing fashion habits get mainstream press? It counts as important fashion and lifestyle news to me. Just saying.

  • Gator_bell

    My beef with the statements in the NYT article was that the bloggers made it seem as though there has always been one way to look at Black people fashion-wise.  Have they ever read Ebony or Jet magazines? it seemed as though they took on the same limited view as those that they are trying to change.

  • GhettoManga

    This country is always trying to turn black people against each other, and like idiots, we fall for it. Good lookin’ out with this.

  • Anonymous

    I liked this. Can’t you consider De La Soul black dandys? (is that correct?) 

    I would like to think that this is hip-hop, too. A lot of cats from the 80s and up weren’t into the whole “traditional” (stereotypical???) hip-hop (thug/gangsta?) look..

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure how old you were, but the style in the 80’s wasn’t particularly thuggish at all.  It was warm-up suits and some unfortunate jheri curls(Whodinin, Kurtis Blow).  While young LL Cool J and Run DMC may not have been wearing bow ties or suits, they did not look like hoodlums or “gangsters” to my suburban eyes.  For some reason, a lot of either young or non-black people take one particular era in rap music (which to me began in the early 90’s with NWA, Dr. Dre, etc), and use it as the go-to image for ALL of rap music.  As is the case with so many things, I find that white people in particular act as though things didn’t exist until they “discover” them, so when Dr. Dre was nominated for a “Best New Artist” Grammy in the early 90’s, it didn’t make any sense to me until I learned actual rules ( complaints were lodged about Esperanza Spalding winning).  So 

      This reminds me of Ashley Judd’s ridiculous comments about the misogyny in hip-hop music.  And I think, yeah, “My Adidas” was all about the lady-hate.   I felt as though no one really pointed out that in addition to the misogyny and abuse that is part of her own musical genre, her synedochial reference of rap music was problematic and painted an inaccurate picture of what I feel is a very diverse musical genre.  

      I wish people would be more responsible in their references to rap music b/c what is popular now and what you might be aware of is not all that ever was, nor all that ever will be.  

      • Anonymous

        Uh, firstly, I’m black and I’m male. Secondly, I’m from Detroit and I cut my teeth on NWA. They are an 80s rap group. Late 80s to be exact: I’d bet 86. 

        As far as dress, though early rap was not looking like today’s thugs, a lot of the B-Boy attire was considered HOODLUM. Because of that whole graffiti and street  corner thing. yadda, yadda, yadda. I don’t know about you, but the 80s were filled with thugs/gangstas. They evolved into thugs in the 90s (Thug Life was pretty much started by Tupac), but a Thug is a type of gangsta. Gangsta started with Ice-T (among others) in the early 80s. Think “Colors”. Gangsta was popularized by NWA (Straight Outta Compton was a hit in the Mid West). Why do you think it was so hard to wear certain colored track suits in certain neighborhoods in certain parts of the country? LOL! Sure Run-DMC looked cool and non-threatening to most from a commercial and cross over standpoint, but believe me, knuckleheads wore track suits. They weren’t gangtsa/hoodlum/thug, but they were not punks either. There has always been a weird association of rap with hooliganism, gangsterism, thugism just by way of socio-economic conditions. It took, groups like De La and Fresh Prince to break that mold for your average everyday folk who weren’t on some extreme.My statement wasn’t drawn out because I wanted to relate De La to the Dandy’s. And for that matter what do you think De La Soul was about with the WAY they dressed? They dressed that way, for one reason, because they WEREN’T gangsta rappers. Plug One rapped and talked about that a few times. They were the alternative to rap militants like Public Enemy and rap gangstas like NWA. LOL!

  • Anonymous

    The Street Etiquette blog is awesome, but I too was bothered by the NYT article. For one thing, aren’t there a ton of hip-hop artists who have adopted some fairly dandy-like styling? Trying to create a dichotomy there seems suspect to me, in all the ways you described.

  • Kristin

    What it is is  a slightly more palatable way of separating out “white acting” and “black acting” black men.  “Black acting” is equated with criminality and “white acting” is civilized and middle class.   It’s a tired old trope dressed up in some snazzy new packaging.   Just like some in the gay community value “straight acting” gay men. The real problem here is the assigning of all that is feared by white/straight society to acting black or gay.  Assimilation is rewarded, anything else is derided and often punished.  It’s a harmful false dichotomy.

    • Ken

      But isn’t the point that being a black dandy is no longer, at least for the Street Etiquette bloggers,  a ‘white-acting’ phenomenon? 

      • John Cale

        Exactly Ken. Matter of fact it never was, but many in the black community would have you believe otherwise. There is nothing these men are doing that says “white acting” to me. Are they borrowing styles from the European tradition? Of course, as does Hip Hop. Black people didn’t invent Kangols, velour sweat suits and Timberlands. We just flipped them in new ways.

  • Maxine N.

    Great Post. I think Mos Def’s quote sums up the issue well…  for so long there has just been one way to be one type of “black” and that style as been aggressively marketed to a particular group. I think we can embrace other styles without denigrating hip-hop style or seeing it as inferior… It’s just nice to see black culture defined in popular culture as something outer than hip-hop for a change.  There is that tension from seeing that ” slight tone of wonderment” as you put it, though. It’s not as simple as celebrating something “different” and I’m glad you brought that to light.