‘Ebonics / Snake Oil / The Black Box / Mirror, Mirror‘
“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again” writes James Baldwin in his 1955 essay “Stranger in the Village”, which shows the symmetry between European and American racism while setting a perspective on Black Americans’ incredibly unique position in society. Written 66 years ago, in which 92 years before that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, most of Baldwin’s lived experiences and written ideas can be summarized as follows: Black people living in America “is a form of insanity which overtakes white men”.
As referenced in Virgil Abloh’s shownotes for his Fall-Winter 2021 collection, this essay marks an empirical observation about racism from Baldwin’s generation to now. What can catalyze Black people’s existence in this world? Why do we have subconscious biases? The show interprets these questions into a prelude and three acts–further delving questions themselves, answered through a series of performance art and stylistic techniques that embark on a journey of Black self-reflection and realization.
Abloh tackles our perceptions of each other through pre-imposed archetypes: that we are always looking to identify and categorize ourselves, and that wardrobe is what helps us determine that–it’s our uniform. What you wear is what people see first (as is, one’s skin color and gender per Baldwin), and deconstructing that helps to rid the world of assumptions we have of one another to blur the line of what we see as normalcy. What is a ‘new normal’ and why is it important? Can we answer these questions that Abloh poses, or are these just idealized versions of the world that can’t be imposed without completely dismantling the ways of living we have today?
The show features American musician, poet & actor Saul Williams and Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def), both of whom’s performances help to conglomerate the complex emotions and experiences of the Black individuals’ position in the world.
“Who wants to look normal?”
As is with anything, our instinctual need to categorize and deduct our own individual existences is not an exercise of individuality, it’s othering. It is soft to assume that because we judge one another, it’s only “natural”. It was human deduction that resulted in the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. The history behind this tradition of deduction in the American context needs to be discussed–American deduction as an excuse for normality is far more dangerous than when applied anywhere else in the world. In reference to Baldwin, his experience in Switzerland was, in the eye of the Swiss man, deduced to exoticism. In America his experience is deduced to one of many things that all stem from the propagated white fear that Black people are demonically inhuman.
Our perception of ‘normal’ is a white perception of normal. When was the last time you read an essay written in Ebonics? The very words you are reading have been chosen, revised, and implemented into modern American education that dictates the way we speak and write to denote credibility–the White Western Habitus. Abloh covers this on a macro level, arguing that fashion can redefine conformity, as being a “choice open to all”, then liberating ourselves to have the ability to rebel. The clothing from the collection itself ties into concepts of illusion, and “replicating the familiar through the deceptive lenses of trompe l’oeil [trick of the eye] and filtrage [filtration]”.
When applied to the newly codified term “the new normal” which, as Abloh defines, grew out of the global events of 2020 to describe an unknown concept of what the future looks like, we can conclude that people of color no longer want white people to dictate this future. You can see this in the stylistic choices made by Abloh–the Paris skyline puffer jacket, kente cloth wrap, and double-faced wool peignoir tackle these ideas as well as the concept of ownership. Bags with everyday items such as pens and rulers and Louis Vuitton cups, all of which aren’t “owned” by anyone as having invented it, are used as a nod to the common critique of “stolen” intellectual property. All of these tackling ideas of normalcy as transitioning into rebellion.
“I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence.”– James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”, 1955.
In your everyday suburban town, there is a person who believes that oversized jeans and gold chains make you look like a “gangster”–do we forget that fashion has always dictated intra-social segregation? An analysis of racism through the lens of fashion is not unique nor will it ever leave a topic of conversation so long as white supremacy dictates it. It’s for this same reason that throughout history there have been and still exist certain dress codes for certain occasions. In today’s society, clothes are just an enhanced medium for judgement beyond skin-color. Unfortunately so, skin color dictates our perceptions of one another just as much as rain grows the food we eat. As Abloh states, “Provenance is reality, while ownership is myth”.