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The Necktie and the Noose

Daniel McNeil
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, Thursday, August 28, 2008. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Will Barack Obama face the accusations that black professionals sometimes face of abandoning their heritage? Does it hinge on his choice of tie?

Barack Obama’s recent speech at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago focused on the pain inflicted by African American fathers who abandon their families. Unsurprisingly, it has been described as Obama’s Sister Souljah moment -- an opportunity for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate to pander to the fears of middle-class Americans about the failings of black communities. Obama’s speech certainly aggravated Jesse Jackson, who expressed a desire to castrate the junior senator from Illinois and allowed journalists to integrate the trash talk into the story arc about Obama’s relationship to the black church. Considering that the candidates taped messages for Monday Night Raw, a wrestling show, pundits seem to have accepted the need to frame political debate as a cartoonish melodrama, and the coverage of the Jackson-Obama spat betrays a wider desire to promote African American history as a "King of the Ring" event between black men vying to lead their people.

From Martin Delany questioning Frederick Douglass’s blackness at the end of the 19th century to W.E.B. Du Bois calling Marcus Garvey a “little, fat, black man; ugly but with intelligent eyes and a big head” during the jazz age, there is often a pantomime element to these confrontations about black leadership, since the audience is painfully aware of the white supremacy that lies behind them. Nonetheless, Jackson’s revealing statement about Obama’s private parts -- he said of Obama, "I want to cut his nuts off" -- also reminds us to address the status anxiety of black professionals who are all too aware that a middle-class status made blacks a target for lynching and castration during Jim Crow.

At the dawn of the 20th century, African American leaders were invested in the Victorian three-piece suit, and the term race man typically evokes male figures in suits and ties, like W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard. Du Bois’ personal style clearly shapes the fashion choices of Cornel West, a prominent black professor. He castigates his peers for “shabby clothing” that supposedly symbolizes “their sense of impotence in the wider world of American culture and politics.” Lest we forget, Obama was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. His campaign to capture mainstream America should not be divorced from the old-school ties of DuBois and West.

Nonetheless, fashion columnists at The New York Times, The Globe and Mail andThe Times of London, as well as magazines like GQ and Men’s Vogue, have little interest in placing Obama in the context of black intellectual history. For mainstream reporters, Obama is a style icon a la JFK, and his fashion sense is compared to high-profile black entertainers rather than politicians or religious leaders. Similarly, when Donatella Versace dedicated her collection to Obama at the start of Milan fashion week, she urged him to “drop the tie and jazz up the shirt.”

Versace’s comments not only evoke stereotypes of the laid-back, “natural” black style that fueled the romantic racism of the jazz age. They also ignore Obama’s own remarks on such attitudes in Dreams From My Father, where he described his pained response to his mother’s lustful observation of the “primitive” black bodies on display in Black Orpheus, as well as the importance many college-educated blacks attach to a suit and tie.

We become only so grateful to lose ourselves in the crowd, America's happy, faceless marketplace and we're never so outraged as when a cabbie drives past us or the woman in the elevator clutches her purse, not so much because we're bothered by the fact that such indignities are what less fortunate coloreds have to put up with every single day of their lives -- although that's what we tell ourselves -- but because we're wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and speak impeccable English and yet have somehow been mistaken for an ordinary nigger.

Yet Obama’s wish to avoid the stereotypes about blackness employed by whites can be used by radical opponents such as Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, who defeated Obama by a two-to-one margin in a 2000 Congressional race after labeling him an “elitist” out of touch with the indigenous African American community of Chicago’s South Side. Without recycling the creeds of Black Power, Daniel Harris, in a 2002 essay on neckties in The American Scholar, makes a similar point about a suit and tie signifying assimilation into middle-class America. The article repeats Freudian notions that the tie can act as a penis substitute, and that a tie received as a gift can encourage fond memories of the family romance, but refuses to place the tie outside of its modern associations with corporate conformity. For Harris, a decorative tie can only hope to offer “a private joke, never a public one … a secret act of cowardly rebellion, never a full-scale insurrection.” Pace Harris, an engagement with The Wire, one of Obama’s favorite television shows, reveals that the tie can symbolize a public joke and offer larger-than-life characters the opportunity to stage a full-scale insurrection against bourgeois values.

During its five seasons, The Wire paid careful attention to the respectable uniforms of African American “race men”, characters such as Mayor Clarence Royce and State Senator Clay Davis, who were tied to human rights movement in the 1960s. Much like Bobby Rush, both men were at home in tailored suits and ties but were still willing to employ dashikis and African colors in their campaign literature to position white opponents (such as Thomas Carcetti), or younger black opponents from more privileged backgrounds (such as District Attorney Bond), as threats to blacks in the inner cities. In the memorable words of Gus Haynes, The Baltimore Sun city editor in season five, these are men who not only use the race card but the whole damn deck.

In interviews,Wire creator David Simon employed similar rhetorical tactics to Royce and Davis to frame the show’s contempt for middle-class “soulless … white guys” -- corporate figures who destroyed his vision of honorable journalism in Baltimore. In fact, Simon’s work has repeatedly maintained that hacks brought in from outside have promoted “common sense” ideas about the power of racial politics, ignoring the fact that class politics dictate Baltimore’s pulse.

In Homicide, Simon's first book on the Baltimore police department, he argued that it is “class consciousness, more than racism, that propels a cop toward contempt for the huddled masses,” since he found white officers who used racial epithets against black criminals while accepting black police officers into their middle-class fraternity of “honorary Irishmen”. Indeed, Simon’s reportage casts the detectives as a multiracial tribe that defines itself against the more glamorous lifestyle of the (mostly white) downtown suits, invested in designer labels like Perry Ellis and Joseph Abboud, who fail to understand the day-to-day artistry of Baltimore’s streets, as well as the (predominantly black) underclass in hip-hop brands like Rocawear and Phat Farm.

Sartorial stereotypes also play a prominent role in Simon's The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-city Neighborhood. He and co-writer, Ed Burns, describe the “urban conformity” of “black ski puff parka left open to flap in the breeze, a thick blue and white flannel shirt worn outside oversize jeans that ride low on the hops, the requisite high-top Nikes that go for upward of $125 a pair.” When DeAndre in The Corner enters a public-speaking tournament, he is forced to wear, in DeAndre's words, a “geechy … white man’s suit” and a “Republican-lookin’ tie” that stifles life.

In The Wire, Simon continued to dramatize blacks defining themselves against middle-class values and fashions that were deemed unsuitable and inauthentic in an inner-city environment. In early seasons, Avon Barksdale, West Baltimore’s drug czar, ridicules his fellow drug dealers when they try to present themselves as tie-wearing businessmen. In a memorable scene during the east side-west side basketball match in “Game Day” (season one, episode nine), Avon implores Proposition Joe, his east side rival, to drop the veneer of respectability.

Avon: Wassup playboy? How come you’re wearing that suit b? Be for real, It’s 85 fuckin’ degrees out here and you trying to be like Pat Riley.

Proposition Joe: Man, look the part be the part, mother fucker.

Avon Barksdale: Nigger please. You walking around with a fake fuckin’ clipboard. You can’t even read a playbook. Be for real, f’n bitches.

Throughout season three, Avon also questions Stringer Bell, his number two, when he tries to assimilate into the suit-and-tie world of property development. Put bluntly, Avon has little need for ties when he assumes the unquestioned support of his troops and can reach for a Castro hat, gold chain and a hand grenade with a kill range of 50 meters, as in “Reformation” (season 3, episode 10).

Omar Little, The Wire’s iconic lone-wolf stickup artist, shares Avon’s flair for dramatic military tools. But without the support of a criminal fraternity, Omar also employs a devastating necktie to end a confrontation with a mercenary employed by the Barksdale organization outside a Baltimore courtroom in season two.

A cursory glance at the work of fashion scholars (or Law & Order) reveals that a tie adds to the authority of males in court. So when Omar agrees to testify as a state’s witness in “Undertow” (season 2, episode 5), the public defender tells her detectives to “dress him up.... Here’s a voucher for court clothes. Anything with a tie.” Well aware of the charade that allows lawyers defending drug traffickers to dress up in a uniform and talk about morality, Omar recalls his love of the ancient gods of war before draping an expensive silk tie over a red and black Hawaiian Warriors jacket and entering the courtroom.

This commitment to warlike figures and strong colors means that Omar offers a stark contrast to the accused, an assassin named Bird, who can barely contain his rage in an ill-fitting gray suit. After the accused unleashes homophobic slurs, his only means of attack against the openly gay witness, Omar needs only to dangle his tie at Bird when his testimony helps secure a guilty verdict.

Detective Bunk Moreland was willing to stand behind Omar in court, and connections between the two men had been established throughout the series. The “well-tailored” Moreland, who sported pink shirts and reveled in homoerotic banter during season one, also defied the conventions of a staid middle-class that shied away from flashy accessories and the homophobic yos who claim to defy authority yet shy away from colors that do not brazenly assert hypermasculinity. So when Bunk and Omar meet to reminisce about bygone schooldays in “Homecoming” (season 3, episode 5), it is not surprising that their shared liminality leads to a discussion of masculine codes and honor. After seeing young boys emulate Omar on the street -- decked out with imaginary shotguns and body armor -- Bunk admits his adolescent love of “tough boys”, but reminds Omar about the importance of hard-working black father figures with bodies that were shielded only by ties. Without a symbolic tie to signal his anger with Detective Moreland’s attempts to elicit shame, Omar literally spits in the wind and is left with phlegm dribbling down his chin like a mewling, puking child.

After Omar’s full-scale insurrections and his immature tantrums following Bunk’s tales of African American race men, the tie even manages to assume a mythic quality in The Wire. In the same episode that Bunk cuts the tie of Michael Crutchfield, to publicly remind his fellow black detective that he should never fall asleep on duty, Omar wraps his court tie around a stolen police gun and delivers it to Bunk. While Omar hopes to assuage his own conscience, Bunk is all too aware of the tie’s significance and hopes that his former schoolmate will need it again when he is put on trial for crimes against the community. However, Omar remains at large at the end of season three -- a phantom BNBG (“Big Negro with a Big Gun”) in a world that many would like to imagine is far, far away – and Crutchfield captures Bunk dozing off so that he can obtain vengeance for his slit tie. As a result, The Wire does not just repeat the media spectacle of black-on-black crime in the inner city. Nor does it limit itself to the stare-down “eyefucks” that greet Simon and other white-collar intruders who enter inner-city neighborhoods in Homicide and The Corner. The Wire instead also reminds its audience about the public joke of a black-on-black (or white-collar-on-white-collar) “tiefuck”.

The Wire is a complex, demanding piece of art, so any rash attempt to draw direct links between the likes of Senator Davis and Rev. Jesse Jackson or District Attorney Bond and Senator Obama would be an oversimplification. But the show does document the relentless pressure placed on black professionals thanks to the legacies of Jim Crow and Black Power. In the 21st century, there is no respite for politicians like Jackson if they are heard whispering snide comments against younger black men. Rather than grumble about wanting to cut Obama’s nuts off for talking down to the black community, Jackson is expected to conform to “respectable” protocol and limit his criticism of the Democratic nominee to well-established code words about his elitism.

As preachy as any race man, The Wire consistently documents the failings of courteous and complicit suits when they are unable to prosecute the ruthless professionals who take money from drug dealers in order to build new waterfront developments. Faced with the crushing lies of institutional life, many members of The Wire’s devoted audience may wonder why more moral men who don a suit and tie don’t indulge in veiled threats of grievous bodily harm or public jokes about tie-cutting.

Much like Bunk’s mourning for the straight-talk of dearly departed African American race men, Obama’s decision to target black fathers remains a pragmatic -- not a Utopian -- response to middle-class hegemony and romantic racism. Only romantic heroes like Omar, who drape and discard the tie in a cavalier fashion, can wage an all-out war against drug traders decked out in the uniform of the street and the professionals who hide behind a suit and tie. In stark contrast to the expectations of a Black Power movement, Omar’s revolution was televised -- for adults on HBO -- and it intrigued many of the black bourgeoisie. But without institutional ties, the existential rebel in black has still been made to feel like an unwanted child.

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