Q:i enjoyed reading your piece on the new inquiry, and it made me think: given the slightly broader context of malcolm x and his appraisal of the conk as a hairstyle of submission, does the enduring legacy of basquiat's hair not create a similar requisite of coiffed conformity to signal allegiance to worlds-apart values? and, do we really base trust on how one styles their hair?
First off, thank you. Your question is an interesting one, but I think the dynamics are a bit different in each case. Malcolm X is one of my personal heroes, but one could say that he was being a bit nitpicky and unnecessary (I can’t think of the actual word I’m looking for) when it came to the amount of rebuke he threw on the conk. You have to really have a sense of understanding about how different of a role the conk served in black culture at the time to get his dislike.
The conk was a move towards “white-ification”, if you will. It became popular as an attempt to straighten kinky hair to become more like that of whites. For Malcolm X, it symbolized the crippling of a strong black youth identity, since teenagers and young men were reduced to appropriating whatever they could from white society in order to be en vogue or hip. It represented an infiltration of the black society by “superior” white values. Basically, X didn’t want whites deciding (indirectly or not) the values of black aesthetic and culture.
The cultural lineage of the dreadlock (and similar hairstyles) is radically different. It appropriates a style popular in numerous black cultures past (as well as other global cultures). And unlike the conk, which was just as ubiquitous in the 50’s for blacks as the afro was in the 70’s, the legacy of Basquiat’s locks is one that has been picked up by a select few in contemporary society. It’s not the kind of mindless, mainstream attempt to fit in that Malcolm would have rebuked.
Basquiat’s art and persona was one steeped in the imagery of Africa and the West Indies, as well as urban black America. He styled his hair as he did very consciously. Those that appropriate those same values after him do the same for a reason.
And no, trust can’t be based solely on hair styles. But in these cases, we find the hair styles congruent with the other parts of their persona they’ve made public.
Not to mention that perming of hair is physically painful and much more debilitating long-term to black hair than dreading is. They call it natural hair for a reason.
Malcolm X’s 86th Birthday
Mmhmm, I know. Yesterday was his birthday, the 19th. Today’s the 20th. Sadly by the time I realized that yesterday was Malcolm’s birthday, it was too late to do a post. Instead I decided to postpone it to today, because regardless…Malcolm is worth it.
It’s amazing how controversial Malcolm X remains, even today, 46 years after he was gunned down by members of the Nation of Islam just three months before his 40th birthday. Case in point: there was no Google Doodle to commemorate his birthday yesterday, although Google makes sure to craft a doodle for Martin Luther King, Jr. day every single year. But it’s not my goal to get into the age old Malcolm v. Martin debate. (Although I have done that on this blog before). Both have their places in history.
malcolm during his pilgrammage
How controversial Malcolm is directly reflects how relevant he’s been to the lives of so many people for the past 60 years. Despite the fact that he’s been demonized by much of mainstream media, the effect he’s had on the individuals that helped shaped the face of this nation, and planet, is indelible. Alex Haley (who helped him write his autobiography), Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton (who would found the Black Panthers), and so many other historical figures owe Malcolm X some part of their legacy.
malcolm x with muhammad ali
Just as he inspired the generations before us, Malcolm continues to remain important to our peers. From Talib Kweli and Mos Def to MeLo-X and Phillip Annand. I suppose the entire point of this post is to pay tribute to one of the most important figures of the 20th century, and one of my personal heroes. I’ve already read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I put it on my summer reading list anyway because I plan to re-read it. It’s one of the most important texts I’ve ever read.
Happy 86th birthday Malcolm. Your legacy lives on.
Sidenote: I still need to watch Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X, especially since I’m trying to work my way through Lee’s entire catalog.
*The following is the first portion of a conversation I recently had with American photographer Rog Walker.
Itoro Udoko: When did you first gain interest in photography and fashion? Was it one before the other or sort of all at once?
Rog Walker: It’s approaching 2 years, as far as my photography is concerned. Most of all, communication is a part of my life, and fashion is the highest form of communication in my eyes. Fashion is an element of my photography. A lot of times people overlook the complete image. I believe in completing the entire shot – settings, pose, wardrobe. That’s the approach. Fashion is very important to the shot. It’s silent, but powerful.
IU: So what were you doing before you started photography? Were you in school?
RW: I did a semester of web design. Honestly, I really wasn’t feeling that. Hands on, that’s the key. I learned the basics of photography from a friend. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Trial and error. I actually don’t believe in going too deep in formal training. Once you go past the basics, your professors begin placing their personal opinions on your learning. There’s no experimentation. No personality. No style. You should never really push too far into that.
poet joe kenneth museau, rog walker, 2010
IU: Who or what has influenced your photography? Any significant figures?
RW: That’s an easy. There’s only one influence – Richard Avedon. I got his book by accident one time, The Sixties, my favorite book. In it he has all these amazing portraits. Vietnam, Malcolm X, iconic images. I’m looking at these portraits, reading these stories. It’s like being brought to that time. He literally shaped the face of fashion for five decades.
malcolm x, richard avedon, 1963
IU: Yeah. He definitely seems to be the quintessential fashion photographer by which all others are measured; setting the bar. Are there any contemporary photographers that you admire?
RW: Um. There’s a commercial photographer that’s a friend of mine, a colleague – Sarah Mccolgan.
RW: Mmhmm, she’s really brilliant at capturing things. The thing about Sarah that I like, she’s just an amazing person. Intelligent. And I dig her tomboy style. She’s just wonderful all around. Also, my colleague Mario Newball. He’s clever in the studio.
IU: So you seem to be quickly becoming one of the most talked about fashion photographers out there. What do you attribute your success to?
RW: I got to where I was by not focusing on getting anywhere. I didn’t focus on building a career. I focused on being a photographer first. Everything else fell into place.
That’s a big issue with our generation. British photographer Glen Luchford asked, “Where are the mozarts of our age?” The mozarts of our age, instead of focusing on their art, are focusing on their career. Seeing how they can get more followers and whatnot. There’s over-saturation in the game.
IU: I will admit, like many others, I first learned of you through Street Etiquette. And you’ve done a lot of work with both Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs on that end. How did you first meet up with them?
RW: Josh and Trav, we’re both from the same area; same high school. The story is so weird. My younger sister went to high school with them. They always hung out at my house all the time. It used to be, “Whatever, it’s just Josh and Trav.” This was years ago. Then my sister tells me they’re doing this site called Street Etiquette. Whatever. I’m not paying attention. Years go by. I start hearing about how they’re doing. I check it out. I’m like, “Wow. Josh and Trav haha?” I call them up like, “You guys are dope.” We meet up. We’re all like, “Let’s start shooting. Let’s do some stuff.” It just went from there.
joshua kissi of street etiquette, rog walker, 2010
IU: It’s funny you talk about knowing Josh and Trav from way back. Because some time ago I went and looked all the way through their website, as far back as it goes. June 2008 or something like that. I was wowed. Just seeing the sort of evolution these two have had. In the content, the originality. The intelligence of everything. It’s been like a 360 for them.
RW: Because they had that mindset; it’s always going to evolve into excellence. They had that core. That’s what copiers can’t do. People that aren’t creative, they just copy. They can never duplicate that core. They just try to mimic a successful formula. But it never works for them…
*My talk with Rog Walker was much too long to publish in one take, yet much too captivating to shorten any further. Check back tomorrow for a continuation of our conversation. Rog and I talk about his relationship with Phillip Annand and the rest of the Madbury Club, the likelihood of a collaboration with Levi Maestro, and he also reveals some pretty exclusive details on some future projects of his. Stay tuned.
The Political Stand of the Resurrected Black Man
The poetic aesthetic of the African American male
is a direct reflection of the society in which he has been installed.
A consequential reply to the oppressor that tries to oppress.
A noteworthy response to the agitator,
though not a cry of distress.
You see, this is a purposeful call to the white man
that looks on appalled, as the unified
front of the Afro people declares to the world
that we will not be stopped.
Uproot us from our roots. Try to stem
the youthful pursuits of our youth,
and in response we will don a suit that
suits the unified ideals of the unified African front.
But this is more than a front. These are symbols and props
of self-identity that we swapped
for the chains and whips that were once used to mock
our regal ancestors.
This is so much more than sartorial.
This is not merely rhetorical.
Let this serve as an oracle!
300 years of oppression is not enough
to make us forget our name.
Nor is it not enough to maim
the ambitions of our unified race.
So let the record show. Shout it from the rooftops,
let everyone know…
that the poetic aesthetic of the African American male
is the political stand of the resurrected black man.
*This is inspired by the Afro-sartorial movements that have preceded me: Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X, Gil Scott-Heron, The Rosewood Movement, Street Etiquette, JoeKenneth Museau, Rog Walker, and the rest of the Black Ivy.
The Black Ivy
The White Man’s Burden
Martin is the hero, that the white man gave us.
Malcolm is the hero we gave ourselves.
Why do you think grade school is Martin, Martin, Martin,
while are the books about Malcolm grow dust on the shelf?
Political suicide is what it would be,
if the white man dare advocate
“by any means necessary.”
So instead we’re fed,
black suburbia’s pacifism,
“Wait, wait, wait. Our time will come.”