By Joseph Lamour
Did everyone have a nice weekend? If you’re in the States, perhaps you enjoyed the invigorating spring weather we’ve been having on the East Coast. Or, maybe you were on the other side of the country in Indio, CA, taking in sets by Action Bronson, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or Jessie Ware (my favorite). If that was the case, then you were at Coachella, the three-day music bonanza, and I’m jealous. Jealous… of most of you. Nick Jonas? Not so much.
Justin Bieber, either, but, we’ll get to that in a moment.
Nick Jonas (pictured above with his brother Joe) was photographed wearing a shirt silk-screened with the message “I AM A MAN.” A little refresher for those who are unfamiliar: The term “I AM A MAN,” as seen on Nick’s shirt, is from The Civil Rights Movement–essentially, it’s a statement that refutes calling a black male “boy,” a well-known pejorative for African American men. The statement was made famous by images of men marching during the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968. The term actually has an even longer history: in 1787, Josiah Wedgewood, a British abolitionist and artisan by trade, created a cameo design with a drawing of a slave, and above him was the question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This became one of the lasting symbols of the abolitionist movement. Almost 200 years later, it was revised as a rallying cry from black men working under policies that were racist and unsafe.
A loyal reader and fan of the site sent us this Nick Jonas tip (which we love, by the way), and she was quite angry about it…and initially I was angry, too, but when I showed the picture to my family and explained what the term meant, they didn’t understand why it was offensive. My father asked whether it was, in fact, a show of solidarity and support, since the anniversary of the end of the Memphis strike is on Tuesday.
Good question, Dad.
The reason why I was initially angry is because it seems like a Jonas brother is co-opting a phrase that isn’t and wasn’t directly his struggle. But, why not support civil rights? You don’t have to be black to do so, of course. An interest in racial justice by white men and women is a big step in the right direction, right? But, then again, is it a show of racial solidarity to wear a shirt to a three-day outdoor hotbox? Or does it just mean like he liked the way it looked with those confetti-colored shoes he’s wearing? What would you say if Britney Spears was papped wearing a shirt with Martin Luther King’s face on it to go get a caramel frappucchino and a bag of Cheetos? How would you react if, while shopping on Rodeo Drive, Zoe Saldana wore a Balenciaga shift under an Anne Frank tee? Is there a t-shirt for everything? Is there a difference between those things and what an occasional guest star of Married to Jonas did? What if he wore it on that show?
An interesting thing to think about as well is the fact that supporters of abolition wore the original “Am I not a man and a brother” design–and it became something of a fashion trend. Wedgewood’s friend and abolitionist campaigner, Thomas Clarkson, recounts:
“Ladies wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honorable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.”
Yeesh, Thomas Clarkson, way to put fashion plate down.
So is what Nick Jonas did any different than what has already happened centuries ago? The only difference I see is that black people couldn’t really participate in the fashion trend back then, because we were mostly… you know… enslaved.
So, let’s switch gears to Nick Jonas’ brother-in-arms, Justin Bieber. Take a deep breath and look at this image:
“Yesterday night Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House, together with his friends and guards. Fans were waiting outside to see a glimpse of him. He stayed more than an hour in the museum. In our guestbook he wrote: ‘Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.’ Tonight Bieber will give a concert in Arnhem in the Netherlands.”
As you may imagine, this alleged guestbook entry by The Beebs did not sit well with, basically, anyone. I mean, there were gossip bloggers working on a Sunday. All with the right amount of snark. Here are some of the best responses in the comments of Anne Frank House’s post on Facebook:
She would’ve been a WHAT? That little idiot is way too full of himself. She’s an important historical figure so show some respect.
“People hate on him because of his fame.” No, people hate on him because he does stupid crap like this.
He obviously has no idea who this remarkable young girl was or what she achieved and gave us in her short life. I would love to know how she would describe him in her diary… she did have a vivid way of describing people.
There are a few defending him–but most do not–and those three comments each have 600-1700 likes at the time of this article’s writing. I put in the last comment because it’s the reason I’m not inclined to give him the Jonas pass I gave earlier. To raise your musical career to the honor of (arguably) the most lasting symbol of The Holocaust? Reducing her to one girl in his legion of fans? It’s reprehensible. This all may have been interpreted differently if he was still the sweet-faced kid that Usher scouted from YouTube. Actually, the sweet face he still has, but he’s no longer a child. He should know better. I suspect he does: the last seven words of an otherwise innocent statement is delivered a little bit like an arrogant pie to the face. And isn’t that that why this stings so badly? That what he said (at least until his Victorian doll looks fade) is pretty likely? This completely and totally humble moment in history involves someone who had the power to move a country’s midterms for his concert. And he didn’t even ask.
What these two weekend warriors share is the fact that they’re both singing white boys with enormous bank accounts. What they also have in common is that they are followed by so many impressionable minds. Nearly all of their fans’ brains are still gestating. One may not realize the scope of his reach, and one knows all too well. Was it right for Bieber to align himself in the same thought as Anne Frank? (Just to be clear–that’s a capital N-O from me.) I’m sure he knows by this point everything he does is shared with the media. And even if this wasn’t public knowledge, what kind of person writes something like what he did after an hour of thinking about The Holocaust? Well… a person who thinks his ability to get tween hearts beating could survive genocide.
So what say you about this week in teen heartthrob race relations? If Nick, knows his status as a role model, and he wore his “I AM A MAN” shirt for a good reason, good for him, I say. What I think however: if he was showing support, he would say something to a reporter at some point, wouldn’t he? There’s still time…maybe he will. And maybe Justin will apologize. Is it too cynical to say he probably won’t? I mean, even if he does, it will be an emotionless statement released by a publicist while Bieber is off hanging with Lil’ Twist. Whether these famous boys like it or not, they’re role models. All famous people are, in a way. It’s up to them whether they want to use that pull for good or to inflate their ego.