Saggin and the Assault on Appearance
I clearly remember a cold and windy night in Washington, D.C. A friend reached out to me to see if I wanted to go with her to hear some spoken word poetry. I walked into a building on the legendary campus of Howard University that was filled with expressive poets, well-dressed audience members, and the essence of Black swagger. After announcements and a brief intermission, the first performer rose to the occasion. She began by screaming “I don’t wanna see yo’ ass! I don’t wanna see yo’ ass!” An older Black woman receiving full audience participation, support, and laughter completely captured my attention and I effortlessly understood the strong message of her poetry. I propped myself up in the corner and peeked from behind my sunglasses at a room full of Black folks, young and old, showing off so much Black frustration against a particular fashion statement made by many people everyday. The Black swagger here was a different sort of rebellion displayed in the subject matter the performer chose to critique. The audience was laughing at the eccentric, loud, and emotional ballad the sister had written about young Black boys sagging their pants.
I began to think about burgeoning Black men and the act we have come to know as saggin’ our pants. This act that is the bane of many Black folks’ existence (especially Bill Cosby’s). Churches, organizing groups, and many folks throughout the Black community have come to despise sagging pants almost as much as the prison industrial complex, the GOP, and Robert E. Lee (well, most folks except LL Cool J). This collective attack on pants-sagging is based on indecent exposure, unfamiliarity, and prison culture. Many trace saggin’ back to prisons where men would be forced to have falling pants because belts were not permitted. Others claim saggin’ was used as a sexual invitation between incarcerated gay men. Both origins have been proven to be rooted in truth, but the narrative of the gay male advance dominates the Anti-Saggin’ Movement. While many in our community suffer under the war waged against Black America, it would seem saggin’ pants have come to represent something more than what they actually are: a fashion statement. These attacks come from both sides of the fence - within the Black community itself and from municipal governments that pass ordinances banning the style. In my home state of Alabama, a piece of legislation dubbed the “Saggy Pants” bill passed the House and threatened a hundred dollar fine for violators. Alabama’s legislation died in the Senate, but as recently as this April, Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish passed an ordinance banning the style and proving the war on saggin’ pants is far from over. Even the President weighed in on legislation stating: “I think passing a law about people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time.” before continuing on to encourage ‘brothas’ to pull up their pants in the same breath. Although, things could have changed since then, this was back when he also opposed prosecuting whistleblowers.
I myself do not sag my pants because I honestly don’t have any attraction to the style at this age. I think the style is more youthful than I would like to look, and I feel I am too old at this point to let my pants sag. I have come to understand through my time organizing in the Black community that there is a terrible disconnect between Black youth and everyone else, including other Black youth. People do not seem to understand us and often fear us. Everything we do suddenly becomes a testament to our poor condition under the tyranny of years of institutional white supremacy. Sagging isn’t really an illustration of our poor positioning in a racially unjust society. A more credible reason to cite for our disenfranchisement might be something like years of institutional racism.
This year I moved to Brooklyn, NY. I have seen more people wearing the style here than anywhere else. I have also seen the ugly racist policies in the Black community here like stop-and-frisk. I’ve noticed that NYPD targets Black men who wear sagging pants more often than Black men who do not, such as myself. That is not to say that I have not seen Black men dressed “professionally” being stopped and frisked because I have seen both cases. I began to ask myself, why would anyone continue to dress a way that attracts negative attention?
I found the answer when I was standing among nearly 600 Black youth at the recent Flatbush rebellions over the murder of Kimani Gray. I saw how anger suddenly mobilized my fellow Black youth into a makeshift army. I looked at defenseless people ready to fight NYPD officers who were fully equipped with riot gear, helicopters, and armored vehicles. It later became clear to me that what a friend said afterwards was true: “That’s the pot that is going to boil over in this country: angry youth of color.”
I would challenge our community to really take the time to understand the roots of what’s happening to Black youth. I have started to see what many people claim as ignorance as a form of rebellion and decolonization. I did not write this to make excuses for anyone, but to share my newfound understanding. Many young Black people will reinforce this point if they’re given the opportunity to discuss it.
And if you do think you will never come around, please do not attack the style as something that looks “gay” or closeted. The prevalence of HIV in our community can be attributed largely to the stigma queer folks experience and the last thing we need is more shaming that belongs in a Tyler Perry storyline. Making fun of something you do not understand not only shames queer men of color, but it also neglects the roots of the style. Every generation of Black youth has created new forms of art, music, and style since the jazz and blues eras. And with that change always comes harsh critique. There are more changes to come, and it might serve us well to start reacting with a more open mind. I heard a man tell a younger gentleman “if you’re saggin, you’re faggin.” How distastefully creative, I thought; he managed to shame Black youth, queerness, and himself all in five words.
I am a child of the generation that perfected this clothing style, reinforced by rap and angst. It would be beneficial for community members to start asking how we can properly channel our youth’s anger, rather than aiming senseless vitriol at us. We might stand to find something beneficial in the underlying sense of rebellion there. Some of us do not want to look the way the descendants of white colonizers have told us to look. Some people do not want to look the way their parents have told them to look. Some people might just like saggin’ itself. This fashion comes to fruition in a variety of different ways, and in a variety of different communities. In my opinion, it’s a waste of time to make a fashion statement a scapegoat for an array of problems we face ahead of us. Every time we see a spark of rebellion, it has the potential to create a firestorm of debate, passion, and controversy. I think in the case of sagging pants, this is a spark of rebellion that should be pushed towards more gas—not put out.
Edited by Zach Bell and Hira Mahmood
Follow William on Twitter @WilliamCAnder.