The above is one of my favorite photos of Michael. I love the pics where he looks a little bit tough; a little bit “gangsta”; a little bit “hood.” Why? Well, need I explain? Bad boys are sexy. Okay, forget the cigarette, we all know that was just for show. But the real key to this pic’s appeal is thanks to a fashion statement that has become an icon of our culture-and for young black men, especially, an important symbolic element of identity. I’m talking about the hoodie.
I had planned to pick up with Part Two of my rebuttal to Wyman’s article “The Education of Michael Jackson” today but I decided to postpone that just a bit (look for it about midweek) after going on Facebook and seeing a rash of articles posted about hoodies. This is all in reference to the planned Million Hoodie March on Washington and in response to a comment made by Geraldo Rivera that “hoodies are a problem.” Geraldo’s remark, of course, is in return a response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Most of you know the details by now. Martin was a 17-year-old African-American kid who was armed only with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea, walking home from a convenient store, when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.
Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Just for wearing a hoodie, did this young man lose his life? Some are saying yes. The situation cuts straight to the heart of racial profiling. Many people will see a young, black man wearing a hoodie and automatically think “gangsta,” or translation: “Trouble.”
But in this day when the hoodie has become as much of a fashion statement as drooping pants, are such knee jerk reactions justified? As a college instructor, I see them worn every day, by both black AND white kids. These kids are not gangstas. They are good kids, enrolled in college–a little mischevous sometimes, but trying to make a better life for themselves. Trying to make a future. My brother wears them-my brother who is a hard working, 23-year-old white kid who simply likes to identify with his rapper heroes like Eminem.
Since when have we taken to shooting unarmed kids for following fashion trends? Well, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 60’s, people were terrified of any kid who had long hair and a beard. I still remember how mortified my grandparents were when a group of “hippies” moved into the neighborhood. I didn’t really understand their fears. We had walked by “the hippie house” on numerous occasions, and the long-haired boys who were always in the front yard when we passed seemed like nice and pleasant enough young men. They always smiled, always waved; were always very polite. In my child’s mind, I couldn’t see what was so wrong with them, other than that they were “different.” But now, as an adult, I understand that my grandparents’ fears were based on profiling. Young people with long hair were considered hippies, and hippies were associated with all the bad things they heard in the news like drugs and riots and the Manson murders. In their estimation, the neighborhood was going to hell because soon there would be drug houses, crime, prostitution and who knows what matter of evil, ugly, nasty things happening…all because some boys with long hair and beards, who liked their music a little too loud, had moved in.
Over the decades, as hip hop culture has replaced rock culture as the predominant trend setter of youth fashion, we’ve seen the focus shift. But regardless of the outer wear, it is the same old biases and prejudices underneath.
I’m not so much outraged by Geraldo’s remarks as simply disappointed. Disappointed because Geraldo, as one of the few journalists who treated Michael fairly during the whole Arvizo debacle, had almost redeemed himself in my eyes from those embarrasing days of Al Capone’s vault.
This 2004 interview that Geraldo did with Michael is a good example:
But now he has gone and stuck his foot in it again. I will just say that the reason I’m not totally outraged is because I understand the context of his remarks. I “get” what he’s saying, which is basically, if we allow our kids to adopt the outer emblems of gang wear, we should not be shocked if there are some who will perceive them as a menace-and act accordingly.
“People look at you, and what’s the instant identification? What’s the instant association? It’s those crime-scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-Eleven, the kid’s wearing a hoodie,” Rivera continued. “Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a ‘gangsta’ … You’re gonna be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace. That’s what happens. It is an instant reflexive action.”-Geraldo Rivera
But I am disappointed because Geraldo, as a journalist, should know that shifting the blame to the hoodie is not addressing the real problem. It is only addressing the band aid. It is only addressing the outer emblems of what we all know is a much deeper problem. Kids of color can stop wearing hoodies, they can abandon the drooping pants, they can tuck their polo shirts neatly into a pair of crisply pressed khaki slacks, but they can’t change the color of their skin. And they can’t change those deeply embedded issues of racism, profiling, and prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin’s death in the first place.
“The hoodie can’t be redeemed,” Geraldo says. Well, it’s not the hoodie that is need of redeeming. The key is in those very “knee jerk responses” he mentions. Those knee jerk responses-and the deep rooted reasons for them-is what has to be addressed.
These are the very issues that Michael spent most of his life trying to address, but so few were listening. Just yesterday, I found myself debating someone who said that “Black or White” was just a cliched’ message. Well, my point was, if one only pays attention to the chorus, then it might seem that way. But give a listen to the verses. Take a fresh look at the Panther Dance coda. Michael was saying that true racial harmony and equality is only an empty ideal. Perhaps it can be achieved, but before that can even start to happen, a lot of ugly stuff is going to have to be purged from us first.
Michael also dedicated much of his life to advocating our childrens’ right to live in a world free from violence, hatred, abuse, and bigotry. In his speech at Oxford, he said in essence that the message we are sending our children is that violence should replace love. Our answer to school shootings, he said, should not be metal detectors and more guns, but to simply give our children the one thing they are missing most: Love. Something so simple; so easy to do. Instead, we simply perpetuate the cycle by instilling paranoia and fear.
Trayvon Martin died as a result of this. He didn’t die because he was wearing a hoodie. He died because of George Zimmerman’s paranoia and fear.
Michael loved wearing hoodies. They weren’t part of his “image” or his stage wear (after all, he was Michael Jackson, not a rapper!). But in private, they were a great way to disguise himself and a great way to make it through crowded places vitually unrecognized. There are many humorous stories about Michael from the people who knew him best about him using hoodies to sneak into movie theatres and stores.
But on a deeper level, Michael understood the symbolic brotherhood of the hoodie. Much has already been written, here and elsewhere, about Michael Jackson as an outspoken defender of civil rights. There is not much more to the subject I can add here, except to say that Michael-in the words of almost everyone who knew him-had more than “a bit of hood in him.” He didn’t come from the ghetto, as early Motown PR had erroneoulsy claimed, but he did come from a very tough, working class neighborhood. He grew up in a time when “colored” kids still had to adhere to a 6pm curfew and were not supposed to be past the downtown railroad tracks after dark (I can only imagine this was quite a challenge for Michael and his brothers, since many of their early gigs required them to be in clubs on that side of town!).
I know there are many who tend to think that Michael had a relatively soft upbringing. They look at his Jackson 5 fame, the time spent at Berry Gordy’s and Diana Ross’s mansions, and think, this kid never knew what a hard time was-or what it was really like to be a poor black kid growing up!
But they are wrong. Not only was Gary a tough environment (and let’s not forget, Michael was there for the first ten years of his life) but Michael was also conditioned at an early age to playing in some of the toughest and sleaziest night clubs and strip joints in the area.
As an adult, he still knew the sting of racism. I’ve mentioned before the story that Latoya told in her book, about the racial beating he took in a store in Alabama. “I hate n*****s,” the store owner reportedly said, over and over, as he pummeled Michael on the floor (according to Bill Bray). I know many have questioned if this incident has ever been verified. I still don’t know; other than Latoya’s word that it did.
But allegedly, Michael’s only “crime” was that he went in the store to look for candy. The incident erupted over the store owner beleieving-so he claimed-that Michael tried to pocket a five cent candy bar.
IF the story is true, there are some other questions that can be raised as well. The store owner did not recognize the young man he was beating to a pulp as Michael Jackson. Most likely, since this occurred during one of Michael’s frequnt road trips to Alabama with Bill Bray, Michael may well have been in disguise before going into the store. We know that his “disguises” often involved dark glasses, fake moustaches, masks-and yes, sometimes, hoodies.
So imagine this racist store owner has no idea that the young black man who has wandered into his store is the world famous Michael Jackson, but rather, just any young black man from off the street? He gets suspicious, follows him around the store, and “invents” a reason to jump him.
Michael didn’t lose his life that day, but according to the story, he did end up badly beaten and in an Alabama hospital.
And this wasn’t the only time that Michael’s disguises would land him in similar trouble!
So perhaps Michael Jackson on that day-a young man who was simply bored with sitting in the car at a gas station, and decided he wanted a candy bar-could certainly identify with Trayvon Martin, a young man who just wanted some Skittles and a jar of iced tea.
We can blame the hoodie all we want. But as Michael reminded us over and over, racial prejudice isn’t a simple problem with a simplistic solution. Among the many responses to this incident I have seen posted on Facebook, perhaps one of the best is one I saw earlier this morning, a pic of a white child-obviously the child of a Klansman-wearing a KKK hood. The caption on the photo summed it up best: “Geraldo, Let’s Be More Concerned About White Children Who Wear Hoods Than Black Children Who Wear Hoodies.”
ETA (03/28/12): Saw this video today! Am adding it here because it’s too lovely not to share!