FRESCO STEEZ BLACK HISTORY MONTH ESSAY
I was 13 years old, in a parking lot on the South Side of chicago selling roses when my mom bought me my first Levi’s® Trucker Jacket being resold out of a trunk. It was love at first sight. I did everything in that jacket, with the hope that it would collect the memories that I might have otherwise forgotten. I went on to wear this jacket to my first march for labor rights, on Mayday. What was most impactful to me that day was how many Trucker Jackets I saw around me, all designed with different political commitments and dreams for the world. I felt a deep sense of belonging. That by having my own Trucker, I had joined a league of extraordinary freedom fighters committed to changing the world. I was now a part of a culture committed to collective transformation. There, I began the journey of collecting patches and buttons that would visually tell the story of my political identity — what I was committed to fighting for, and my vision for the futures of oppressed people.
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This was followed by the heartbreak of losing that jacket at a protest. I would go on to lose many more, always when the time was right. When it was time to transform and start anew. I lost my favorite one at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I remember losing my Trucker in Ferguson, while organizing when Mike Brown was killed. I had another one confiscated in Baltimore during a curfew sweep when Freddie Gray was killed. For a century, movements have used denim as a uniform and a canvas of resistance. When you jump into your favorite pair of jeans, or throw on your favorite Trucker Jacket, you’re connecting yourself to the visual lineage of nearly every major political resistance in the history of this country and beyond.
Inherently, denim is interwoven within Black culture. Enslaved African peoples and their descendants created this beautiful fabric rooted in their experiences, and skill sets adapted from the continent, and culture, like the batik dyeing process of the Osogbo people. Denim originally functioned as “workwear” by Black enslaved people and was considered “unfit” for anyone else to wear. However, during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, denim became more than just a symbol of the working class, transforming into a tool of worker resistance.
Nearly 60 years ago, 250,000 people convened at the March on Washington. The crowd was filled with organizers, activists, laborers, and college students who were freedom fighting across the South, like SNCC organizer Joyce Ladner. The denim she wore stretched as far into the past as it did into the future. Like other organizers and activists, Joyce’s wardrobe choice was intentional. Wearing denim was more than an act of class solidarity. It was a homage to the hands who picked the cotton the jeans were woven with, as well as an act of defiance to respectability politics. And just like that, Black organizers turned denim into the uniform of revolution.
While SNCC organized throughout the South to build political power, and win voting rights for Black people, they realized that in order to bridge the class divide between college student organizers —in suits and dresses with penny loafers and lace socks — and the farmers who they were determined to activate, they needed to reflect workers’ experience.
They needed to demonstrate solidarity, and illustrate their commitment to risk their own class status for the benefit of all Black people. Blue jeans became one way to bridge that gap. This organizing work led to denim experiencing a dramatic shift in purpose. Jeans, overalls, and Trucker Jackets became a uniform for activists. The Levi’s® Trucker Jacket, introduced in the ‘60s and worn largely by counterculture and war protesters, was inspired by the bond jacket worn by workers, sharecroppers, and Black Tenant Farmers for decades prior.
As the Civil Rights Movement continued in response to state-sanctioned violence in the form of intense economic inequality, housing disparities, and white supremacy, Black organizers continued to popularize denim. Organizers were tired of patching up the rips from police attack dogs and high-pressure hoses, and denim was sturdy enough to withstand the abuse. Denim also visually helped to differentiate them from the suits of the ruling class. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy wore matching denim work pants and shirts while arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963. Denim was a visual representation of the conditions Black people were forced to endure. A symbol of disregard for “respectability,” the white gaze, and the middle-class worldview that was at odds with the visions for freedom they were organizing for. The next time you wear your denim, roll up the sleeves of your Trucker Jacket, or cuff the ends of your overalls, remember that interwoven into the fabric are stories of struggle and resistance.
This Black History Month, we not only honor the rich history of Black political organizing, but also the many ways we’ve contributed to this history throughout the past year. In 2020, Black folks helped carry this country forward. As mutual aid organizer, activists during the uprisings, medical professionals, essential workers and voters. This Black History Month specifically is a celebration of survival and an honoring of those who didn’t. Communities all across the country came to collective consciousness about the unjust conditions Black folks were living within and agreed that enough was enough. WE took action by every means to transform our realities into the vision and dreams we collectively hold for the future. This month not only calls for reflection, but a practice of dreaming and Afrofuturism, and a recommitment to fighting for the future of our communities and the communities of all oppressed peoples.
My intention behind this Black History Month concept is rooted in the value of Sankofa, and the idea that we must reach back to move forward. This month, we honor the lessons of the past and use them to inform our vision for a better future. This capsule is an arc of Black Radical History. It marks political struggles from the Pan-African movement and Black Power Movement all the way to the Movement for Black Lives. Each piece references a series of activists and freedom fighters whose dreams we manifest by building collective power in this current moment. My hope is that this collection inspires those who experience it to take action in service to greater good, and building power with marginalized communities. Each piece can be used as a tool to start conversations that inspire, transform, and shift culture.
I’m Fresco, my craft is at the intersection of community organizing, cultural engineering, and creative design. For almost a decade now, I’ve committed myself to curating spaces dedicated to building Black political power, and designing the fundamental tools necessary to organize young Black folks to take action. First, I analyze the energy of a political moment, while assessing the visual culture being consumed at mass by those who need to be inspired and activated. Then, I create instruments that are essential in raising the collective consciousness. This summer it was masks worn by activists across the country during uprisings for the Movement for Black Lives. And this past winter, I made jackets to keep election protectors safe, that pushed onlookers to get curious about what is truly at stake, and why it was essential for them to stay in the election line on a cold winter morning. For me, cultural engineering is about studying and designing with the intention to build an experience that pulls the viewer into a deeper sense of belonging and connection. By wearing this Black History Month collection, you demonstrate that you’re a part of something greater. You join a team of changemakers that not only exist in this lifetime: you’re shoulder to shoulder with the ancestors of our past and their freedom dreams. You hold the hand of those who will stand on the shoulders of tha Trucker Jacket in a future beyond our own, welcome.
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