Revolutionary Style

By Jonathan Adams Oct 15, 2007

When I was in college, I took a class with Kathleen Cleaver called “Women in the Movement.” In this class, my romantic responses to revolution were met by Professor Cleaver’s profound stoicism as she taught about leaders like Diane Nash, Ella Baker, and Assata Shakur. Ready to discuss Black women’s role in these political movements, I was never more excited as when Professor Cleaver would leave the text to recount of the countless memories during her days with the Black Panther Party. One of these memories led to a discussion about how she and Angela Davis had become fashion icons of their period. Maybe not recognizable by name to some, these women have become perpetual links between the style of the day and the politics of the period. Their revolution could be reduced in contemporary frames to leather jackets, turtlenecks, and Afros—totally removed from the terror that motivated these young people’s actions. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both focused on the commodification of politics to reflect on the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. Seen on t-shirts, key chains, postcards, and even bikinis, reporters ask if Che’s anti-capitalist stance has been compromised. But I wonder if this is a problem? It was an accident that Angela’s aesthetic became so closely tied to her politics. On the other hand, Che didn’t live to see his image most closely associated with a mass produced t-shirt that has some political meaning and a lot of commercial meaning. In the way that Angela was a part of a movement and her fashion became associated with that movement, the constituency standing behind the Jena Six have not gravitated toward a uniform. Maybe one could link sagging pants to politics; Black youth who wear pants that sag below their waists have been seen as subversive. Profiled by police and admonished by adults, this is clearly a fad that many have mimicked, but it’s important to remember that fashion will always be an indirect political statement and in these times, we need to be more explicit. I just don’t want ‘Jena Six’ to be another fad. Like the fashion cycles, the urge for revolution seems to be here today and gone tomorrow. I hope the Black youth that grouped on Facebook, rallied on college campuses, and bussed to Louisiana—all in the name of justice—remember (what Angela and Che knew all along) that what it takes to win has nothing to do with clothes.