David Hammons, “Fresh Hell” (1993)
The following is the slightly expanded transcript of the comments I delivered on June 25, 2013, at Refashioning Race, Gender, and the Economy, an event hosted by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute of New York University and the Museum of Chinese in America. It is an excerpt from a longer work-in-progress about the hoodie and racial profiling in the politics of preemption, in which I argue:
[T]he presence of the hoodie in the profile renders what is systemic violence against black life an accident understandable as a rational calculation of danger deferring, but not displacing, the fact of blackness in such a calculation. The deferral of certainty (of meaning, identification) via the hoodie provides recognition and misrecognition simultaneously, and provides also the occasion for the deferral of ethical responsibility for targeting black life.
Also presenting were Minh-Ha Pham, Ashley Mears, and Heijin Lee; you can watch an edited fifteen-minute clip of the hour and a half event here. There are so many brilliant comments and essays circulating right now about the resonance of Trayvon Martin’s murder, more than I can link here. I want to also note that black girls are endangered too, and in the aftermath of Rachel Jeantel’s brave testimony on the stand during George Zimmerman’s trial, Ruth Nicole Brown coined the hashtag, “#hoodiesandhoops,” as central to her pressing arguments that we remember this fact. And yeah, I disallowed comments because I refuse to deal with racist trolls right now. Racist trolls, you can fuck right off.
In the aftermath of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, the hoodie became a scene for forensic investigation. It was a central player in the competing stories told about the night that 28-year-old George Zimmerman followed Martin, a black teenager whose presence the self-appointed neighborhood crime-watch enthusiast found suspicious on the grounds, Zimmerman claimed to the 911 dispatcher, that his “dark hoodie” was pulled up over his head. Having purchased from a nearby 7-11 convenience store Skittles (for a younger brother) and an Arizona Iced Tea (for himself), Martin was returning to his soon-to-be stepmother’s house in a gated community while Zimmerman followed him first in his truck, and then on foot. Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who spoke to him on the phone minutes before he was murdered, insisted that he pull up his hoodie not just because it was raining (which it was), but also because a strange man was creeping after him in the lowering light. A hundred heart beats later, Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.
The hoodie as a sign, a screen, an expectation, and a force, soon populated the landscape of protest and punditry: Million Hoodie Marches in New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities nationwide; social media (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and more) proliferating claims, “I Could Be Trayvon,” and questions, “Am I Suspicious?”; the viral spread of the hoodie photograph across mediascapes as a gesture of solidarity and critique (among those whose photographs mushroomed on social media were law students at Howard University, “moms in hoodies,” Miami’s NBA team The Heat, kindergarteners, actor LeVar Burton, and United States House Representative Bobby Rush); FOX news commentator Geraldo Rivera’s “cautions” issued to parents of black and Latino youth to de-hood (and thereby de-thug) their children (subsequently generating yet more tweets and blogs, including one featuring multiple photographs of Rivera himself in a hoodie); shooting targets in Martin’s likeness and nonblack youth recreating the spectacle of his death for their amusement, substituting their own prone bodies in hoodies in mockery; the creation of multiple artworks in Martin’s memory; and the proliferating news features querying, “The hoodie: danger or fashion?” or “What is the history of the hoodie?” Collecting and sifting through this unrolling archive, I am struck by how discourses about race and racism are both dodged and magnified by the presence of the hoodie as a sign, a screen, an expectation, and a force – how do we treat with its saturation with black life, and black death?
Though Foucault observed that objects are given form through the incitement to discourse, it may well seem that to grasp the hoodie as an object alongside the fact of blackness is to lose hold of something material, fleshly. But perhaps, as Saidiya Hartman notes, within a “racist optics in which black flesh is itself identified as the source of opacity, the denial of black humanity, and the effacement of sentience,” close attention to the hoodie might yield disturbing insight about this weft and warp. In considering the hoodie, what might it disclose about modes of perception and recognition, about epistemic violence and ontological thinghood? How do we grasp the capacities assigned to the thing, the hoodie (and there are other items of clothing which might be said to do the same to some bodies, at some times), to facilitate or to impede recognition, movement, or the will and design of human beings (through opacity, denial, or effacement, as it were), and to transform and render a person, or thing, into being-as or being-like some other person, or thing? What might the hoodie tell us about what can and cannot be exchanged, transferred, declined, valued? In this jam of deployments, the hoodie maps some sense of racism’s endurance because of its difficulties, incoherences, correspondences and movements in and through things, things that are freighted with an excess of those histories that commit some beings to (as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it) premature death. For these reasons, the hoodie might be said then to be a sign, a screen, an expectation, and a force that unfolds for us the tangled arrangements of violence, power, and knowledge that imbue black life in this moment.
KALEO, “Neighbor(Hoodie) Watch” (2012/2013)
Constellating for us historical-racial schema, troubling and tangling representations and references to race, as a detail the hoodie may appear to some to be a distraction, but it is as a detail that it might nonetheless capture time and movement, or the span and breadth of a life. Whether the hoodie is a distraction, a detail, or something else is a necessary debate about what the hoodie does in our discourse. The central question is thus: how and to what (in what direction) does the hoodie draw our attention, away or toward the fact of blackness? To begin to answer around this question (because the answer is both away and toward, and even away tells us something about the toward), I argue that it is because it appears as both a devastating detail and distraction, we might conceive of the hoodie as the excess assigned to the black body, the black body that is excessively material (one that pulls other objects close), criminal and deviant, after Denise da Silva. Da Silva writes, “I am interested in racial violence as a figuring of excess – which is what justifies otherwise unacceptable occurrences, such as police [or vigilantes, in this instance] shooting unarmed persons.” It is because the hoodie is both overfull, because it is the excessive detail, and also empty, because it is the detail that is only filled in specific, contingent, and changing situations, that the hoodie does not hide a history of racial violence, but might instead focus our attention upon those lethal structures that fold some human being into thinghood.
I want to end these brief comments with some thoughts on the posed hoodie photograph, which proliferated in the aftermath of Martin’s murder. In mourning, militancy, and mimicry, posed hoodie photographs –most often consisting of a simple, frontal snapshot of a person in a hooded sweatshirt, hood up— proliferated in the aftermath of Martin’s murder. Tweeting the widely propagated photograph of the NBA’s Miami Heat –hoods raised, heads bowed, and hands clasped— LeBron James tagged it: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin… #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.” In addition to photographs of celebrities in hoodies –(Common, Jamie Foxx, Sean Combs, Wyclef Jean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Arsenio Hall, CNN contributor and journalist Roland Martin, LeVar Burton, the list goes on) others too sought solidarity through the same, seemingly simple act, including Harvard and Howard law students in front of ivy-covered buildings; elementary schoolchildren lined up along a wall holding bags of Skittles; New York state senators Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins, Eric Adams, and Christina Quinn; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm; attendants at vigils and marches; black and white drawings of a range of humanity published in a special issue of The New Yorker; even professional portraiture as protest art. Thousands more appear on FaceBook pages like A Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin and on Tumblrs (often tagged with #MillionHoodies) including I Am Trayvon Martin, featuring photograph after photograph –often snapped with web cams or mobile phones— of persons with their hoodies up. One well-trafficked photograph depicts a pregnant black woman in a hoodie gazing upon her bared stomach, marked with the words, “Am I next?”
There is so much to say about these photographs, but I will make a few observations with which to begin conversation. The first observation I want to note is their proliferation and circulation on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et cetera), and what this might tell us about new communicative strategies of movements for justice. The second observation is a question about how these photographs mediate, articulate, and otherwise index the lived relations of black life –and black death— in an increasingly militarized culture of profiling and preemption. Police powers are increasingly continuous with wartime powers, and vice versa, from the post-Vietnam War Ramparts scandal among the Los Angeles police in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the so-called War on Drugs that oversaw the rapid expansion of the prison-industrial complex, to the militarization of the United States-Mexico border and the millions of dollars spent by local law enforcement on battlefield-ready tanks and drones, and surveillance operations of Muslim communities in the last ten or more years of the War on Terror. These photographs then are not produced solely in relation to the person who poses, but rather to the processes that rendered the absent presence of the murdered Martin not only possible, but also structural – that is to say, these photographs gesture toward a serial murder, the continuing threat that is realizable at any coming moment.
The third observation is that the hoodie is not inert, passive, or otherwise lifeless, in these photographs. Instead, it bears the tensions, forces, and powers of its history in this moment. In the hoodie photographs we might then discern a dynamic mode of commonality that exceeds the stated logic of correspondence in I=Another (the statement “I Am Trayvon Martin” obscures much*) to point us instead to an ethics that refuses legibility –because the hoodie obscures the face, the subject— through given metrics or theories of value that presently limit our recognition of another’s respectable dignity. In their anarchic multiplicity, a million hoodies might echo a call to move toward a collective confrontation with state violence and its agents, with those forces that would curtail and cut short black life.
* I didn’t discuss this in my brief comments, but did speak to a number of audience participants afterward about nonblack persons claiming “I Am Trayvon” in their hoodie photographs. Here, for brevity, I will direct you to the new Tumblr We Are Not Trayvon Martin and cite Kara Keeling. Exploring the formula “I = Another” in her essay for Strange Affinities, Keeling observes, “I = Another provides an opportunity and a rationale for a mode of appropriation wherein the needs and interests of an other are assumed to be served by articulating them into the systems and structures of the I who stands in for the dominant group vis-à-vis that for which the other is representative.”