Do the shoes make the (black) man?

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

We all know someone who has been very protective of their Jordan’s. The offense of scratching someone else’s J’s has even been culturally documented in a scene in ”Do the Right Thing.” Shoes have cemented their place within the world of hip hop and have spun into their own “sneakerhead” culture. Rappers have spit about their favorite three striped shoes and skate brands. References to tip-toeing in Jordans and the number 23 have even peaked in pop culture.

One morning as I rode the bus to work, I was taken out of my morning daze when a man asked me “Are those throwbacks?” He motioned toward my shoes, a pair of black and red Air Force 1’s that I’ve owned since high school. It didn’t register to me that they were throwbacks (or even shoes of note) because I had them for so long. But, in talking to the man, I thought about how shoes like Air Force 1’s, Jordans, Adidas, and other well-known runs of shoes have become iconic pieces of black fashion.

Photo by  Shravan Shetty  on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Photo by Shravan Shetty on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Growing up, I would hear criticism of the black dollar being spent on fashion and chains, instead of investing that money into home ownership. It is true that African-Americans spend more annually than other ethnicities in the United States (especially within the beauty industry). The argument — that the black community as a whole is not putting our money into building intra-community wealth — is a fair point. Yet that line of thinking ignores how sneaker brands have turned into a status symbol due to their accessibility.

Shoes are able to communicate personal style while also helping frame an outfit. And through my spontaneous chat with this man, I was reminded of how sneakers communicate status in black culture. The ramifications of African-Americans being systematically denied home ownership, quality public education, and access to healthcare still have an effect on present day standard of living. All of these factors help determine socio-economic status. while keeping black people from advancing. Shaming the spending habits of black Americans on beauty, fashion, and Jordans doubles-down on these embedded racial blocks.

Black-owned brands have made a big impact on the beauty and fashion industries while facing a lack of support from major brands and having to create their own representation. Rihanna’s launch of Fenty Beauty (and later Savage x Fenty) was initially seen as just another entrepreneurial endeavor for the Bajan singer. Yet Fenty’s wide array of cosmetics for darker-skinned women and the upfront representation of black women and bodies of all sizes prompted other brands to become more inclusive to combat dropping sales.

The legend of FUBU’s rise and fall as a streetwear brand came to prominence after rappers such as LL Cool J and Ol’ Dirty Bastard wore them in commercials and music videos. That power is still felt at the very mention of the acronym (even within a Solange album).

Photo by  KXITH VISUALS  on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Photo by KXITH VISUALS on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

And so it follows that modern streetwear trends stem from the sensibilities of black Americans, seen in our everyday fashion as we communicate style. The contributions of these black brands and styles are under-appreciated and written off, while their influence reaches mainstream culture.

As I think about the Air Force’s I was wearing to work that day, I realize I was never too invested in the reactions I would get from the school-mates or strangers I would pass while wearing them. The shoes weren’t anything more than a gift, just for me. Yet they put me into a larger culture, where community is built around sneakers as expression. Sneakers can be an understated element of a full fit or be the main feature in showcasing personal style. If there was anything I did learn on that morning commute, it is that style speaks and black fashion has its place in the conversation. 🍒