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We were a dashiki family in a Dickies town. And in a small Rust Belt city like Fort Wayne, Indiana, where conformity is essential for survival, this mattered. My parents were an oddball couple—one part black militant, one part bohemian dreamer—who lived full tilt in the 1970s, and forgot to hang up their dashikis at the end of the decade. Well, to be completely honest, I’ve never actually seen either of them don a dashiki. But I have lived with their dashiki stories—huge, mythical stories—my entire life. And I’ve concluded: clothes are never just garments.
Each time we stand before our closet to pick out our clothes, we make a series of choices about how we want to appear before the world. This is just as true for people who claim not to care about clothes as it is for self-proclaimed fashionistas. It’s because we recognize that the way we adorn ourselves communicates something about who we are and where we come from. And everyone has experienced the discomfort of showing up somewhere dressed like they didn’t get the memo. We can think of our clothes, then, as a powerful social skin.
We assume that we know what signals or markers clothes tell us about who wears them: their race, gender, sexuality, political leanings, socioeconomic status, religion, and so forth. We’re not always right, but the mere fact that we think we know means that we believe that clothes reflect an established cultural value system.
So when we pick out our power suit because we need to feel confident in a new environment or our “Assata Taught Me” t-shirt because we want folks to know whose we are as soon as we walk into the room, we’re aware of the social politics of dress and are finding ways to survive and thrive within social norms, or perhaps even to transgress them.
But even though the political “stakes is high” where clothes are concerned, there is room for play. Fashion allows us to turn the street into one big drag show. Through our clothes we can do our own form of world-making, imagining possibilities beyond what our current status says is our reality. And nobody does this better than people from oppressed groups, because we know what it’s like to be denied access or told something isn’t for us simply because of the color of our skin or who we choose to love or because we pay with food stamps.
I’ve devoted my entire career to unraveling the mysteries of why we make the choices we make around what we wear on our bodies and how we style our hair. It began as a way to think through how black women incorporated fashion into their activist strategies in the civil rights and Black Power movement years. Along the way, I noticed that whenever I gave talks about that moment in history, there were people of all ages who wanted to share their dressed body stories. Folks were finding joy in telling their stories and freedom in sharing their traumas in a safe space. So that got me to thinking that there was a piece of this thing that I was missing. I realized: there’s power in getting dressed that goes beyond “big P” politics. There’s “little p” politics—the everyday pleasures and delights of styling out, the strategies we use to navigate microaggressions, how we create communities around hair and dress, the ways we call out appropriation. Our garments are archives of memories—individual and collective, material and emotional—that tell these rich, textured stories of our lives. To make it plain: our clothes make us feel things. All the things.
I wanted to write a book that acknowledges those everyday struggles and celebrates black innovation in fashion. We are the most creative folks, knowing how to do the most with the very least, in all the best ways. I wanted to pay homage to every Big Mama and Ma’dear who made sure that even if their kids had nothing but hand-me-downs, they would be clean. I wanted to shout out the kids who had to go to school in said ill-fitting hand-me-down jeans and turned that look into the vibrant baggy jeans trend of the 1990s. I wanted to embrace the girls who survived on a steady diet of Vibe and Honey magazines and got called “ghetto” for rocking two pairs of huge doorknocker earrings, turquoise Wet n Wild lipstick, and dookie braids, only to see white girls be praised as fashion-forward when they did it. I wanted to big-up everyone who rocked a knockoff when they couldn’t afford the real designer version. I wanted to give queer and trans folk in the ballroom scene their props for innovating much of what we call hip hop fashion and beauty culture, without ever getting the credit they deserved. There’s a whole black fashion ecosystem that exists because of and in spite of the mainstream fashion industry, which steals as many dreams as it inspires.
I found that while I was telling everyone else’s story, I had my own story to tell about coming of age in a quirky political family in a Midwestern city that most people have never even heard of. Coming face-to-face with my own stories of getting dressed has not only turned me from researcher to subject, it’s made me see that black girls in the Midwest have a fashion story to tell too.
And all of my style choices and life trials and (mis)adventures can be traced back to the dashikis that I can imagine hanging in my parents’ closet. My parents. The ones who taught me how to dress and dream—and how to navigate the politics therein. I am a descendant of their fly style and also of the generational traumas that have fractured our family. I have taken my parents’ style, flipped it, remixed it, innovating with my own looks, traditions, and dress practices as a way to keep a grasp on my humanity. It definitely hasn’t been easy being a dashiki daughter. As the heir apparent to my parents’ weirdness, I have learned firsthand about the emotional and social torment that came with daring to express myself differently. But my parents’ dashiki dreams would also lead me on a wondrous odyssey, far from Fort Wayne’s rusty sartorial trappings to some of the most glamorous, fashion-forward cities in the world. By telling my fashion story, I’m telling the story of a community and a strategy for living, vital to our survival, shared across generations.
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My dad, Herman Ford, was born into a family of Alabama sharecroppers who had fled the fields of the Jim Crow South for more lucrative livelihoods in the industrial Midwest. They were a part of the Second Great Migration, which brought a massive wave of more than 5 million African Americans from rural and urban areas of the South to settle in northern and western cities across the country after World War II. My grandmother, Ora Dee, followed her brother Ollis up to Fort Wayne in 1953. Fort Wayne—an old Revolutionary War military fort turned manufacturing epicenter that sits at the nexus of three rivers—was the second largest city in the state. No one has ever called it a black cultural mecca, but it did have a lot of jobs to offer with the Pennsylvania Railroad, General Electric, Rea Magnet Wire, Phelps Dodge, and International Harvester. My father, who made his way into the world in summer 1953, was the first of the Ford children to be born in Fort Wayne, something that made him special among his siblings. Herman was the freedom baby. He had soaked up his mother’s hopes of a better life up North in the womb and come out built of potential, destined to change the family’s future.
But this freedom dream would be swiftly and violently interrupted one bloody night in December 1957, when my grandfather murdered my grandmother with a fatal blast from a twelve-gauge shotgun before turning the weapon on himself. Instantly orphaned, the Ford children, now eight in number, were placed in the custody of an uncle and an older cousin who had also migrated up from Alabama.
There was always a shortage of food and clothes in their large, extended clan; any food that entered the house was quickly devoured by the children dressed in dingy hand-me-downs, who had grown accustomed to living on the edge of starvation. By the time my dad was old enough to fully understand the dire poverty and emotional minefield he and his siblings were living in in the wake of his parents’ murder-suicide, he already had an extensive criminal jacket. He had started breaking into neighborhood houses to steal food, destroying property, racking up truancies. Crime after crime, Dad found himself trading in his hand-me-down clothes for the county-issued garb at the notorious Sol A. Wood Youth Center. “Sollywood,” as they nicknamed it, was known for taking budding delinquents and turning them into hardened criminals by the time they were eighteen. The toughest teens in Fort Wayne—gang members, drug dealers, masterminds of the organized robbery syndicates—were the rebellious stars of Sollywood. Wood became my dad’s second home. In his early teens, Dad would commit crimes intentionally—busting windows out of a neighbor’s garage, relieving a schoolmate of his personal belongings—just so he could take up residence and enjoy three square meals a day and sleep in peace. He gladly gave up his civilian clothes for the drab Sollywood uniform.
After one time too many, a judge, tired of seeing Herman in his court, decided it was time to give the thirteen-year-old a real sentence: fifteen months at White’s Institute. White’s was a Quaker-run co-ed manual labor center for youth fifty miles from Fort Wayne, named after Quaker leader Josiah White. Far from a summer retreat, the work camp used Quaker religious teachings and principles of hard labor to “rehabilitate” young folks and give them skills applicable to life in the various factory towns from which they came. White’s residents alternated between a week of school and a week of work. They were responsible for running everything on the multi-acre farm, from leading the lawn and construction crews to barbering all the inmates’ hair. Dad was assigned to manage the dairy crew that milked the farm’s forty cows. The institute offered my father the stability that he craved.
And it gave him his consciousness back. From the Quaker teachings, he took away a strong sense of responsibility and personal boundaries, things that had been numbed out of him in his uncle’s house. And White’s religious teachings also taught my father that black folks were equal to whites. This was not just a belief. This was knowledge—knowledge that was dangerous for a poor black boy. In a city like Fort Wayne, black folks were taught to know their place at the bottom of the social order. Whites, regardless of class, got the pick of the best housing, they got the most opportunities for advancement in the factories—even if they had fewer skills—and they lived in a city that catered every social activity to their interests. The Fort Wayne that black folks walked through was a different place. But at White’s, there was nothing that made the white boys my dad worked alongside any better than him. He left White’s knowing that he was just as capable of achieving as white folks were.
He returned to the house on Lewis Street, grown into muscled, sun-kissed, newly thoughtful young manhood, to find a striking girl holding court in front of the old house. Amye Glover was a mahogany-complexioned, rough-and-tumble type of girl; she sported an Afro and often donned dashikis and caftans in audacious faux African prints. The wilder the colors, the better. She was best friends with Herman’s little sister Marlene. For months Amye had been hanging out at Marlene’s crib, proselytizing to her friends (who weren’t “conscious”) about black cultural nationalism and liberation and women’s rights, like she’d seen the Black Nationalist preachers do in her hometown of Cleveland. She also used her platform to tell tales of her own criminal escapades.
AMYE: Then that sucka turned around talking all that jive mess …
MARLENE: What’d you do, G??!!
AMYE: Sis, I told that sucka he bet not eva put his hands on my shirt again, if he knows what’s good for him!!
All this loud talk wasn’t a turn-on for Herman. He’d grown attached to structure, order, and work that didn’t require boasting. He wasn’t down with all that brash, militant rhetoric, and he walked past without acknowledging her. And that set the pattern for the remainder of high school. Amye would come around, talkin’ politics and poetry and art with Marlene, and Marlene’s square brother, as Amye thought of him, would pass back and forth in the background ignoring the girls.
Though she had a streetwise, hood exterior, Amye was a daughter of the black elite, and she had been groomed to join its ranks. She was bound for college—in fact, it was nonnegotiable in her family. Her father, Seaburn Glover, came from a working-class family of Pullman porters, respectable work for a black man, despite the meager wages. He’d studied history and mathematics at Florida A&M University (FAMU), where he’d also pledged Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, after serving in the Army during World War II. Seaburn wanted to become a teacher, like his older sister, Jeannette, a FAMU alumna who became a renowned teacher in Seminole County, Florida (and happened to be close friends and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sisters with writer Zora Neale Hurston). But the Cleveland Board of Education made it difficult for black folks to get licensure during the age of Jim Crow, so Seaburn became a manual laborer, running the stockroom for a Jewish-owned company, making good money. His wife, Bennie Lou, came from an upwardly mobile, land-owning clan in Mississippi, boasting college degrees and Greek affiliations. Bennie Lou herself was a nurse, educated at Alcorn State University, where she also joined Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. The Glovers were the epitome of black socialites: homeowners who lived in Cleveland’s respectable if still not fully integrated Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They partied with other college-educated black folks who owned fancy cocktail dresses and belonged to the major black organizations of the day—the sororities, the fraternities, the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Jack and Jill. The point is, Amye had all the black elite bona fides that a burgeoning socialite needed.
After a too-short lifetime of caring for others at the local hospital, Bennie Lou died of cancer. Amye was six, and she rebelled in the most dangerous ways. She developed a reputation as a serious brawler who would fight any boy or girl who dared talk smack. “Oh, your mama used to fight! All the time! She stayed in trouble,” my aunt Marcia has told me on more than one occasion. By the time she was a teenager, Amye was skipping more days of school than she was attending and running with an older crowd of petty hustlers and thieves, kids who liked to steal beer and cigarettes and porterhouse steaks from the corner market.
Amye was always something of a stylish criminal, wearing hot pants and sleeveless sweater-vests, elaborate eye makeup, and false eyelashes. In her rebel gear, she was like a black Bonnie, of Bonnie and Clyde fame. The film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, was released in 1967, the heyday of Amye’s crime spree. She was drawn to rebel narratives, and that admiration drew her not only to Hollywood outlaws but to the real-life Black Panthers and Black Cultural Nationalist street preachers who were highly active in Cleveland. She too would be an outlaw. That life was far more compelling than the frilly world of the Jack and Jill cotillion.
Though their class origins were starkly opposite, Mom, like Dad, underwent a major course correction as a teen. When she was fifteen her stepmother had had enough, and her parents signed the papers to have her sent to a group home two hundred miles away from Cleveland—in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was crushed. The group home was run by a Chinese woman named Mrs. Lee and a staff of counselors and house parents. The house held twelve girls, most of whom were from other minor factory cities: Elkhart, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. Amye ended up staying there longer than was originally mandated. She was still getting into trouble in Fort Wayne, hanging out late, sneaking into Link’s Wonderland—a black-owned nightclub with a skating rink and pool tables—and smoking reefer with her new street buddies. Mrs. Lee worried she was risking a path to prison, so she recommended to the judge who handed down the first group home sentence that Amye stay in her care at the home for the remaining three years of high school.
While Amye might have preferred to be back with her own family, Mrs. Lee’s group home was far better than the alternative: girl’s school. The group home afforded Amye a cultural experience that was far richer than what most black Fort Wayne folks knew. The house parents, typically middle-class white folks with college degrees, had a type of social access that even the elite black parents Amye grew up with didn’t. They introduced Amye to horseback riding at their family stables, camping and hiking at Lake Geneva (in the heart of Indiana’s Amish country), French cuisine at Café Johnell, surf and turf at the seafood restaurant downtown. Through them, she gained exposure that would change her life. And mine.
One of Amye’s newfound creative outlets was designing and sewing her own clothing. She already knew how to sew, but in Fort Wayne the little-used skill erupted into a passion. Her stylings became her armor. And she was particularly drawn to clothes and accessories that looked and sounded African. And nothing was more African than the dashiki.
In the Hausa language, spoken across West and Central Africa, dan ciki simply means “undershirt.” There is a similar word in the Yoruba language: danshiki. To black Americans’ ears, this word sounded like dashiki. This new word rolled off the tongue like something straight from the motherland, something special, regal even. Of course, there were many West Africans who gave black Americans the side eye when they came around asking—in broken language—to buy a shirt, like there weren’t endless styles of shirts. What they were referring to was a tunic-like unisex shirt that hung to the mid-thigh or a longer women’s version, both with short, wide sleeves and a deep V-neck. Over time, the dashiki did become a specific thing, highly recognized, a product of the black American imaginary, dreams of the continent made manifest in wax-printed textiles.
The key to the dashiki was purchasing the right material. Dashikis made out of cheap fabric that was only dyed on one side made you look like a shallow impostor just trying to be trendy. But if you had a dashiki made from luxe cloth that you got straight from an African boutique or, even better, directly from somewhere on the continent, you were good. Amye would scour Cleveland’s fabric stores during her visits home and bring her best finds—which would have never passed as authentic to a Ghanaian or Nigerian but met the Midwestern standard just fine—back to her makeshift atelier in Fort Wayne. Dashikis were easy to make and endlessly variable. Traditionally, you use the most ornate fabric to frame the neckline, sleeves, and hem. Sometimes Amye would adhere to this style; other times her designs were more innovative. Soon she didn’t even need a pattern.
No one else in Fort Wayne was really rocking dashikis. Now in Cleveland, they were popular. But once you cross over Interstate 75, the cities have a different vibe. Cleveland has a touch of the East Coast. Indiana towns feel like the up South. Not strange when you think that most of the black families in Indiana migrated from Alabama. Have you heard someone from Gary, Indiana, speak? In Fort Wayne we still have a Southern drawl too, and folksy foodways that come straight from our Alabama roots, like eating spaghetti as a side dish with a plate of hard-fried catfish and a cup of super-sweet, “red flavor” Kool-Aid. In Cleveland the black Deep South communities mingle with West Africans and folks from the black Caribbean. The Cleveland air has a little palm oil and jerk seasoning mixed in with the rust smell from its factories. This difference between Fort Wayne’s and Cleveland’s black populations meant that the Jo-Ann Fabrics stores in the hood in Cleveland had slightly better offerings than Fort Wayne. So that’s where Amye had to go to get her dashiki fabric and keep a finger on the pulse of black liberation.
Dashikis gained popularity in the mid-60s in places like Harlem, Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, and Newark, New Jersey, where local newspapers reported on dashiki-wearing militants who were challenging the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation and the white supremacist ideologies that bolstered it. These journalists were the first to put the Anglicized version of dan ciki in print, calling the shirts worn by Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Amiri Baraka danshiki or dashiki, until dashiki stuck. Some of these revolutionary leaders got their dashikis during visits to the continent where they engaged with pan-African freedom fighters who saw the similarities between the fight against colonialism and the fight against Jim Crow. Early Peace Corps volunteers based in Africa also came home with dashikis. The shirts became a symbol of a real political commitment to freedom, one that was built upon a common ancestry, despite the fact that slavery had violently disconnected black Americans from their sisters and brothers on the continent.
Copyright © 2019 by Tanisha C. Ford