Before anything went “viral,” the “It’s a Black Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand” T-shirt went viral. During my ’90s college years, everyone I knew had one or wanted one, or had an opinion about the message—whether the T-shirt was simply cotton printed with words, an emblem of black pride, or a divisive tool that should be banned in schools.
You could see it at historically black colleges and universities, and it was sold on street corners or in stores that peddled leather Africa medallions, black soap, essential oils, and mixtapes.
Decades later, I still have my “It’s a Black Thing” T-shirt as apparel–artifact. I bought one secretly at a black expo, despite my parents’ objections; they thought it would attract undue and unfriendly attention in my Southern hometown (and they were right), but I thought I was grown, and I liked it.
Since then, other shirts with something to say have made their way into my wardrobe: at least three #BlackGirlMagic selections; an “Unapologetically Black” shirt from Black Youth Project 100; a 10-year-old “Black Nerds Unite” shirt; and a vintage purple jawn that features an iron-on decal (remember them?) of a melaninated Barbie with a Farrah Fawcett–style winged hairdo.
And I’m not bragging or anything, but I do have a #BlackGenius one, too. Each one declares some facet of my identity: Black, female, bookish, quirky, unconcerned with dressing up, and more than happy to wear my support of Black institutions across my chest.
The statement T-shirt for, by, and about black folks seems to be having a renaissance. Last July, celebrities like Serena Williams, rapper Remy Ma, and actresses Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi donned Maya Angelou–inspired “Phenomenal Woman” T-shirts to promote Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. That same summer, Twitter erupted in memorable memes when a style writer discovered that online retailer Zazzle was using white models to sell T-shirts related to black culture.
Their hypervisibility is also a matter of sheer volume: search Etsy for “Black Girl Magic t-shirt” and you’ll get 1,900 results including sequined tops, “I Am Black History” shirts, and a Wakanda-themed “Classy Like Nakia, Fight Like Okoye, Invent Like Shuri” number; Amazon boasts even more options.
This form of material culture has always been a barometer of black civic culture and creativity—think Black Power T-shirts in the 1960s. Now, in 2018, there are shirts that list the names of black luminaries past and present, memorial shirts that mourn people killed by police and demand justice, contemporary riffs on “Black Is Beautiful,” and reprints of classic slogans like “Black by Popular Demand.”
So why has the humble T-shirt—an item that literally came out (from under men’s shirts) in the early twentieth century—emerged as such a fashionable force of nature among all manner of “skinfolk,” from millennials to 40-something professionals?
The answer lies in both the historical and the utterly contemporary, say experts in black popular history, culture, and aesthetics. The T-shirt renaissance is part social media, part outraged expression at anti-black violence, and the latest manifestation of a black public sphere in which apparel is political.
Read the rest on ELLE.com