by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Too many memories in tattered T-shirts to throw them away
Spring-cleaning in the Holt house comes two or three times a year, and never without an argument or two. This time, I’m being asked to clean out my closets and drawers, with a specific challenge to get rid of outdated and ill-fitting T-shirts.
Problem is, I have six and a half drawers full of T-shirts, only a few of which are those plain, Hanes-style models. With all due respect to Michael Jordan, the Hanes can go, the others I’m fighting for.
Ninety nine percent of my T-shirts are embossed with specific cultural or political earmarks, and even if they are frayed or faded, the message continues to resonate.
Throw them out? That’s like asking me to close chapters of my history, or to deny who I am. Hell, they may be old, or have a hole or two, but so am I.
There’s my ‘Cousins By the Dozen’ T-shirt. It’s over 25 years old—and looks it—but it’s one of three or four that commemorate my family’s annual reunions.
The oldest one was given out when my mother’s family celebrated in Milwaukee. My mother is from a small town in Illinois, called Galesburg, which is next to the city that produced Richard Pryor (Peoria).
Carter is a family name, and there are plenty of them. One year it took me nearly an hour to set up a family photo at Lincoln Park. Eventually I framed nearly 200 of us in the picture.
Family is important, so is maintaining our roots and investigating our past. Today, it seems like too many of us have broken the chains. I remember listening and learning at my great aunt and grandmother’s feet.
They were not overly educated, but exceptionally wise and caring, and told me of the potholes to avoid in my life journey and to always use the family as our springboard.
We used their advice, as family supported young members through college, or accepted the challenge of raising other relative’s children if they faced hard times.
Today, family may be represented through the scene of a two-year-old crawling around a minefield of garbage and filth while avoiding the falling cigarette ashes her 35-year-old grandmother drops as she cusses out her third baby’s daddy on the telephone.
On the couch is grandmother’s newest boyfriend. He stares intently at a screaming infant as he lights up a blunt. “If that brat doesn’t stop crying, I’m going to shake the mess outta her,” he thinks.
There’ an interesting shirt I wear primarily in ‘integrated settings,’ just to see the looks on people’s faces. It’s actually from a movie entitled ‘Fled’, but what makes it unique is that the front shows two orange silhouetted men, chained together while in obvious flight.
Some movie buffs may think it’s a scene from the classic Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier movie ‘The Defiant Ones,” but to the naked eye (and based on people’s sensibilities) it could easily suggest two runaway slaves.
Sure, I admit, there’s a bit of mischief in my wearing it, particularly to the fitness club. I kindda get off watching the strange looks on people’s faces. And I can read their minds through the look their eyes: “Why is he wearing that? Is it to make us feel guilty? Why can’t they let the past be the past?”
Every once-in-a while, I’ll let a curious observer in on the joke. Once I tell them the T-shirt is a promo of the movie, there’s generally relief, and a tacit apology inherent in their prior assumption.
Many of my T-shirts have historical significance, in that they resurrect a time or event in local Black or national significance.
There are recent T-shirts I can easily justify keeping, like my Obama 2008, BAEO 10th anniversary and my Messmer ‘coach’ shirt from the team’s near perfect basketball season back in 1994.
Then there’s the Million Man March T-shirt, which brings back to mind one of the most eventful days of my life.
I have a photo of my son Malik, who took a day from his studies at Lake Forest College, embracing a brother he never met as hundreds of thousands hugged each other in solidarity and brotherhood. Man, it was a powerful scene!
I have a drawer full of cultural T-shirts that are important not just because of what they espouse, but more so because they identify me.
Just like I display something cultural every day (generally African jewelry), my cultural T-shirts tell the world who I am and what I’m about.
One of my favorites has an African image and the words, ‘Gye Nyame’ in bold letters.
Pronounced ‘jeh n-yah-mee’ to the ill informed, the words mean “God’s omnipotence,’ or ‘fear none except God.’
Like many culturally attuned brothers and sisters, I not only recognize that our ancestors were the first to bring monotheism to the world (the worship of ‘the one true God’) but also can take claim to being the ‘true’ chosen people.
Thus, I see Christianity through African prisms, and upon that foundation I stand on African cultural roots.
Sadly, it seems like a growing number of our people have strayed or been brainwashed into believing they can only be true Americans if they sever the umbilical cord linking them to the Motherland.
Far too many in the XYZ generation believe this. They have been duped into believing they are some new race.
But they’re noting more than gullible, groundless people. This ‘new race’ has replaced poetry with poverty, and pride with pimpology. The African drumbeat that mimicked our heartbeat has been replaced with booming bass tracks and the spiritual song that secretly provided directions on the route and time of the slave escape plan has been replaced by disingenuous and misogynistic gangsta rap.
Malik, Kwame, Kenya and Kwaku have moved aside for Bubblicious, Sweetbooty LaShai and LaDarious Big Dog Jones. Made up names for a made up people.
That’s why I wear Africentric T-shirts: to assert who and what I am, and to hopefully plant a seed of revitalization.
I will tell the curious, and many of those who continue to stand under the shadow of slavery that through our veins flows the lifeblood of mankind.
Our ancestors invented math and science, we created the first college known to mankind, and even the most bigoted anthropologist will acknowledge that the first human being was born on the continent of Africa.
Greeks studied at the feet of the Kemite (Egyptian) Amenhotep, the world’s first physician, and Romans and other Europeans copied Kemet’s culture.
Equally important, Africa holds the secret for our current survival and growth and our posterity. The communal system, and even the tenets of the African American-invented principles of Kwanza are rooted in the cultural foundation that could turn around our nation within a nation.
I have several T-shirts from and about Historically Black colleges and universities.
Of course I support them all, give when possible and always tout their unique value to high school students considering college.
HBCUs graduate more Black children than private non-Black institutions, and for good reason: they are extensions of family, and most provide a cultural balance and communal grounding much needed by Black children.
A couple of my HBCU T-shirts were the property of my late son, who attended a traditional school under a basketball scholarship, but whose stated desire was to attend ‘one of ours.’ He was working towards his masters at Cardinal Stritch when he died, and had hoped to earn a PhD from a HBCU.
Many of my “Tees” are of my personal Black heroes, from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X. I have a Martin Delaney T-shirt, Delany is one of the founders of 20th century Black Nationalism.
There’s my T-shirt of Marcus Garvey, who created the Black Nationalist “Red, Black and green” unity flag. I have one old rag on which I printed the name Franz Fanon, the great Black French revolutionary too many of us know nothing about, but who served as a mentor for many of our great leaders.
Of course I have one or two T-shirts of Muhammad Ali, who stood up against institutional racism and refused to bow down to the Negrocracy who told him to be quiet.
Ali is not without his faults and the recent death of boxing great Joe Frazier brought back to mind Ali’s unnecessary and disingenuous antics, which were an embarrassment. While he would later claim they were necessary to promote the pair’s three classic fights, it is obvious he went too, too far.
He called Frazier out of his name, (calling him a White man’s Nig..er and an ape) used the fight as a platform for religious condemnation, and undermined Black unity with his chants.
But that sad chapter aside, the totality of Ali’s life was one worth emulating and applauding.
One of my most recognizable T-shirts carries the banner, ‘Son of a Field Slave.’
It has attracted a lot of attention over the years, and was the subject of one of my columns a decade ago (which should give you an idea of how old it is).
During slavery, White slave-owners maintained a system in which the darker, stronger and less obedient ‘captives’ (slaves) were forced to work in the fields, while the ‘mixed’ (generally the by products of rape) slaves worked in the house.
The popular theory was that a caste system evolved, where the house slaves, who often were allowed to eat the scarps off the massas’ table, and otherwise live in far superior conditions, developed a kinship with the slave owner and would be willing to betray his or her brethren to maintain his quality of life.
The field Negro (they used a more derogatory term) was the subject of the most vile, inhumane treatment known to mankind.
When not forced into backbreaking toil, he was bred like cattle and then forced to suffer the indignation of being emasculated before his woman or wife.
His eye was always on the Northern Star, and he would risk his life to escape, or even justifiably kill the evil slave owner.
Some use the generalization of Nate Turner being the field Negro and Uncle Tom being the house Negro. In truth, it wasn’t that simple, or defined.
Many house slaves put glass and poison in the owner’s food. Being ‘invisible’ they eavesdropped, later providing their brethren with vital information.
Many also shared food, but influenced the ‘massa’ not to punish or implored them to be more Christ-like in their applications of justice.
I recite that history in some situations to explain that it is important to have allies inside the castle wall, in other cases to espouse on the evil remnants of our history. We survived, and grew stronger because of our sojourn through the valley of death.
On the back of the Field Negro T-shirt is the statement, ‘the struggle continues.’
It’s self-explanatory and fuels my interest in educating my brothers and sister not to accept the status quo. Our journey is not over. We are at a crossroads.
We must follow the examples of our heroes, the platform of our culture and spirituality that is God’s gift to us.
Give up my T-shirts? Naw, I rather buy another dresser, cause there are many more miles in those tattered symbols.
June 30, 2014 //
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