Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.
But don’t tell that to Foot Locker. These sneakers are from the 2011 Collection of Black History Month Sneakers from Nike and Converse. No seriously, this is an actual genre of athletic shoes. There’s also the Negro League sneaker collection from Nike.
I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run” metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.
Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.
And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes. The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.
Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy — literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either. However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?