Dying to Live a Lie: How Symbol Replaced Substance in the Black Community
Saturday, January 14, 2012

By Charles Jones
New America Media

Back when I was growing up, Michael Jordan’s shoes were extremely popular. Since their first release in 1989, the shoe series has only grown in notoriety, especially amongst young people. Unfortunately, so has the violence that haunts these shoes.

Within hours of last week’s re-release of the Concord, Jordan's most popular shoe, news sources reported a number of fights and shootouts, including a fatal stabbing in the UK (which may not even be related to Jordan’s shoes), as hordes of people crowded stores to get their hands on a pair of the famous sneakers. All of a sudden, people’s Facebook pages and twitter updates were filled with messages that said, basically, “F*ck Michael Jordan and his shoes.”

The reports and social media posts reminded me of seeing Michael Jordan’s face in tears, as he tried to answer a reporter’s questions about the killing of Michael Eugene Thomas, who was strangled by a basketball buddy in 1989 over a pair of $115 Air Jordans. I felt sorry for Jordan even then. At that moment and again last week, Michael Jordan had become the scapegoat.

Human beings have a long history of chasing status and the symbols that signify it. Whether it’s the tribal chief whose headdress was more colorful than those of the common tribesman, or the warrior whose animal skin was more impressive than another’s, human beings have always looked for ways to set themselves apart from the pack. The moment someone of fame, wealth or power wears, eats or owns something that the majority does not, that object becomes a status symbol to the rest. For aspiring basketball players and athletes everywhere, Michael Jordan became the model that everyone aspired to. As the standard bearer, his name and whatever it was attached to became the object of our collective desire. The phenomenon manifested itself in the famous Gatorade television commercials that exhorted kids and adults alike to “Be Like Mike!” We saw the characters on screen, simulating Michael’s on-the-court basketball moves, between sips of Gatorade.

The notoriety did not come easy for Michael. His fame was the end product of years of practice, training, dedication and heart. The fact that he had a shoe named after him was not what made him successful on and off the court. Rather, it was the success that made him the perfect model to name shoes after.

I owned a pair of the very first Air Jordans. They were black and red, all-leather high tops that featured a basketball logo with wings. They were the first new pair of shoes I received after my father abandoned us in Oakland with our mother. I was proud because they were Nikes, and they bore Michael Jordan’s name, which instantly made them more valuable than any shoe I had previously owned. The shoes were the best because he was the best. As a poor black child, those shoes were a tribute to success. Yet it wasn’t until years later that the Michael Jordan brand would become the status symbol it is today.

In fact, the progression of Michael Jordan’s shoes as a status symbol had less to do with his deeds on the basketball court than it did with the crack cocaine boom of the late 1980’s and mid 90’s. As more urban youth’s parents became addicted to the drug, less could afford or were willing to part with $100 or more for a pair of sneakers. That in turn created a social caste structure at one’s school.

By the time I was in middle school, my mother’s drug addiction had begun to eat away at her finances, so I wore Pro-Wings (the cheapest shoe possible) on my first day at King Estates Jr. High School. The shoes I wore placed me somewhere in the middle of the lower-end of the social spectrum. I had to develop an outgoing personality and a quick temper to win myself any type of notoriety. In fact, the teasing or “capping” got so bad by the end of my first semester, that I became somewhat of a bully, throwing punches at anyone who had something to say about my shoes or jeans (Levi 501s, Guess or acid-wash were the only acceptable pants during this period). By the time I was to start the 8th grade, I begged my mother for Nike Cortez’s, which were a tier below cross trainers, which were the shoes below Jordans. I sacrificed three months of bus passes to get those shoes and would walk the 1.7 miles necessary to get to school everyday. I would wear an old pair for the long walk, which I would switch out for a newer pair once I reached school. I wore that pair of electric blue nylon and leather Cortez’s with the white swoosh until they fell apart. Once they began to look worn, I would answer any joke or insult with a simple, “They ain’t Pro-Wings.”

After that point, all too familiar with the social hell of relying on drug addicted parents to keep me current with the latest fashion trends, I pretty much took responsibility for purchasing my own school clothes. I funded my wardrobe by selling marijuana, snatching purses and robbing -- a story that I think many young men of color can relate to.

I can’t tell you how many people I grew up with who I know for a fact started selling drugs or committing robberies simply to get clothes or shoes that wouldn’t get them laughed at or dismissed. In the 8th grade, I was standing at the bus stop on 82nd and Hillside with a neighbor, waiting for the 46A. We were running late for school, had just missed the bus and were the only two at the bus stop. Victor was wearing his brand new 49er Starter Jacket. After about 10 minutes of waiting, an older boy in his late teens approached us. He stared at Victor. “You got that Starter for Christmas?” he asked him. Before he could brandish the straight edge razor he had in his hand, Victor darted down Hillside back to his house. I stood there in my brand new Eagles Starter, knowing that I had nothing to fear because the jacket was from the previous season. There was no status to be gained from a year-old jacket.

For the young man with the razor, my neighbor’s jacket represented something new and fresh -- the current trend. I highly doubt he had any intention of going to school that day, unless he was rocking a new Starter jacket. There was a wave of Starter robberies that year; kids getting punked out of their jackets at gun point by teens, or even grown men, willing to get their own kids a Starter by any means necessary.

Where I grew up, it’s a desperate obsession to not ‘appear’ to be a victim of your circumstances. To most of us back then, those Starters, those new Nikes, those Guess jeans, were a symbol of our family’s success, proof that crack or the economy hadn’t destroyed you. It was a denial of the rapid decay happening in our community, an “I’m still upwardly mobile” statement. Which, I think, is one of the largest problems in the black community today: A dedication to the trappings of success as opposed to one’s actual, personal success; our willingness to kill and die, just to look the part.

I have a friend who is homeless and sleeps in his candy Cutlass on 24-inch rims, when he can’t get the money together for a motel room, which is often. His back seat and trunk are full of Ed Hardy shirts, Evisu and True Religion Jeans, and sneakers of all brands and colors. He and his girlfriend, who won a five-figure court settlement a year ago, are now broke with nothing but that car and those clothes to show for it.

Michael Jordan is a man who went out, worked hard, sacrificed, stayed dedicated and reaped the results of those actions. But what about us? Do we care about hard work? Do we respect dedication? Do we even understand what sacrifice is anymore? Look at today’s top NBA player, Lebron James. Not to knock “King” James, but he's achieved an almost Jordan-like status amongst today’s youth, without having put in half as much work (or having half the success), which I think mirrors today’s instant information/reality-TV generation’s preference for status symbols over achieving success through hard work. What we need as a community is to reinvest ourselves in the idea of “being” a success, versus attaching ourselves to successful things or people. We need to go back to wanting to “Be Like Mike.”

In the meantime, if all you’re interested in is a status symbol without substance, go to a flea market and buy a pair of bootleg Jordans. They’ll only cost about thirty bucks and chances are, you won’t be stabbed while standing in line.

Source: newamericamedia.org

This was printed in the January 15, 2012 - January 28, 2012 Edition


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