Trayvon Martin wanted a snack. So he threw on a gray hoodie and headed out for some Skittles and a sweet tea. Thirty minutes later, Martin was dead, shot down by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The story of race, violence and death immediately dominated headlines. But soon the story became that hoodie. The narrative shifted from the racism that led Zimmerman to follow Martin in the first place to a piece of apparel as justification for killing a black person.
Hoodies, quite frankly, are cool as hell. And there are so many iconic black figures who wore hoodies and made them look badass. Tupac Shakur as Bishop in 1992’s Juice, staring daggers at Omar Epps’ Q in the climactic elevator scene. Raekwon in the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 video for “C.R.E.A.M.” Even now, Odell Beckham Jr. flaunts his hoodie looks on Instagram, and there’s always Beyoncé’s viral hoodie GIF.
But the hoodie also functions beautifully as Grocery Store Run chic. A comfortable hoodie with sweatpants and sneakers is my uniform for late-night milk runs, or dropping the kids off at school. It’s about not letting anyone see me sweat — ironic, considering the warmth of the hoodie. But the hoodie is a way to still look polished and casual while on the run so I don’t shame my momma by going outside in a wrinkled T-shirt. Black men have to keep our respective cools in public no matter what, and the hoodie gives the impression that I’ve got it together even if I don’t. It’s a look that Kanye West has perfected: the calculated image of having just thrown something on while still looking like a billion bucks, all thanks to the hoodie.
“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies … I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” — Geraldo Rivera
On March 23, 2012, just three weeks after Martin was killed, Rivera went on the air and said Martin’s choice to wear a hoodie, and the politics of that choice, was his death sentence. The idea being, of course, that hoodies were associated with criminals. That people of color wearing hoodies were putting themselves in positions to be stereotyped because hoodies were associated with criminal activity because of their function of obscuring the faces of stick-up kids and graffiti artists. And being stereotyped as dangerous meant being followed by volunteer neighborhood watch guys and being killed for looking suspicious.
Of course, the notion of hoodies contributing to Martin’s death is nonsensical. Martin Luther King Jr. was wearing a shirt and tie when he was assassinated. Michael Brown was wearing a T-shirt when he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Emmitt Till. Alton Sterling. Medgar Evers. James Chaney. Laura Nelson. An unending list of black people killed for being black. No hoodies in sight. Hoodies never had anything to do with Trayvon Martin’s death. It was and has always been about the color of the skin the hoodie covered.
Want proof? Just look at how the hoodie is perceived by many white tech bros in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg proudly boasts that his closet is full of gray tees and hoodies. And when he ruffled old-school Wall Street investors for wearing his iconic hoodie to pitch sessions for the Facebook initial public offering in May 2012, just three months after Martin was killed, it was a sign that Zuckerberg was sticking to the edgy persona that made him and Facebook popular in the first place.
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30-for-30 Podcast: Hoodies Up
The story of a protest photo taken in 2012 by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat. Reported and hosted by Jody Avirgan.
The Washington Post, at the time, had a strong defense of Zuckerberg’s attire: “Just like its close cousins the gray T-shirt and the sneaker, the hoodie gives Zuckerberg a way to sartorially wink that he doesn’t like to answer to anybody and that he’s not losing his ‘hacker’ street cred.” The hoodie, for white tech billionaires, represents a cocky nonchalance, indicating they’re not willing to change for anyone. A far cry from the terror the hoodies can instill when worn by teenage black kids.
Rivera would later offer a halfhearted apology for his original hoodie comments, but the damage was done. Twitter was just 5 years old when Martin was killed, and black voices on Twitter weren’t yet as sophisticated with regard to shaping narratives. So when Rivera made his remarks, he was able to lead a discussion about exactly what hoodies had to do with how much danger black people were putting themselves in. The hoodie became a symbol of danger for black people who didn’t need any more reasons to put themselves in any danger around racists.
That’s when LeBron James and the Miami Heat stepped in. On March 23, 2012, the four-time NBA MVP gathered his team together for an Instagram photo. The entire roster donned hoodies, heads down, obscuring their faces. The caption read #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. The statement was monumental. James, by donning the hoodie, showed that he was unafraid to speak up.
Black America has been working to reclaim the hoodie as simply a piece of clothing representative of our culture while also making sure the teenager’s story isn’t lost. On this season of Insecure, Yvonne Orji’s Molly wore a hoodie emblazoned simply with the word “TRAYVON.” During the NBA offseason, Carmelo Anthony was tearing up pickup games in gyms across the country. In the clips, Anthony is making just about every shot, and terrorizing defenders. And he’s wearing a hoodie.
The viral clips gave birth to the moniker #HoodieMelo, the mythology being that his hoodie gives him superpowers — and that he’d be better off wearing it during games. Anthony’s hoodie isn’t an overt political statement, it’s just what he wants to wear on the court. And his lighthearted take shows just how far we’ve come in reclaiming the hoodie.
And of course, the hoodie isn’t just relegated to gyms or to work as a symbol of nonchalance. It’s high fashion. The Wall Street Journal has pieces about the Rise of the High-End Hoodie. GQ offers tutorials on how to dress down suits by wearing hoodies while counting down the 31 best hoodies of a given year. At New York’s Fashion Week, hoodies are on display via Kanye West’s Yeezy Season, Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma, DKNY and more.
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Russell Westbrook wore a Reclaim Vintage “World Tour” yellow hoodie against the Warriors in January. He wore the $98 piece with a white hat, tattered jeans and sneakers. And now Nike has fitted athletes with hoodies to wear while they’re on the bench during games. At any given moment during the course of an NBA game, any number of players can have their hoodies on their heads as they watch from the bench or celebrate with their teammates. To show how far we’ve come with hoodies, the style move was initially pretty innocuous. However, Stephen A. Smith did sound an alarm.
“I don’t know why the hell Nike made these damn uniforms that have hoods attached to it by the way,” he said on the Oct. 24 episode of his radio show. “You got a lot of those white folks in the audience that’s gonna think this is Trayvon Martin being revisited. And I’m not joking about it. The bench is no place for someone to be wearing hoodies.” J.R. Smith wasn’t having any of it.
The problem with Stephen A. Smith’s logic here is that he’s echoing the language of Rivera and the masterful narrative shift that made the Trayvon Martin story about hoodies when it’s really about race in America. And who’s to say it’s a bad thing to remind white America of the black boys and girls in this country killed because of the color of their skin?
It’s hard to fault any black person for wanting to take the hood down at night when he feels endangered. Because in an era where we see people who look like us gunned down almost daily, it makes sense to take every precaution. But the hoodie as justification for death is pure misinformation. Blackness is the issue, always has been. But the hoodie has moved beyond simply being about Trayvon Martin because Trayvon Martin was — and, in spirit, is — far more than the hoodie he wore that night.