When Art Becomes Activism
Yesterday, I witnessed one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my 36 years of life. I saw a man (@mrchrisclassic) challenge negative imagery of a young black boy by making it into something positive. This one act became a catalyst in which artists all over the world decided to do the same. It became an online stand in solidarity and changed a negative narrative from something ugly to something beautiful and it was done using art. This was done in response to the clothing company H&M putting out an ad with a little black boy in a green hoodie that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Yes. You read that right and if you cringed a little then you understand the world we live in. If you didn't understand why that was offensive, then please pay special attention to this next part.
I actually overheard someone ask ‘why are they so mad? It's just an ad’. No, it is not. It's a reminder of hundreds of years of oppression, degradation, micro and macro aggressions, and constantly having to ‘prove’ our humanity. So to really understand how offensive this is to black people worldwide, you have to understand the history. At one point in this country black people (slaves) were legally considered to be 3/5ths of a person (see 13th Amendment). We were beaten, abused, bred, and overworked as if we were animals.
Our native tongues were not understood or allowed. Our ancestors captors mocked and mimicked them, using numerous mechanisms to reinforce negative stereotypes that questioned our humanity and supported the idiocy of this ‘monkey’ stigma. Worldwide, throughout the decades, propaganda circulated with this ‘monkey theme’ when it came to people of color. At one point it was even believed by many whites that black people actually were part monkey and had tails *deep eye roll*. We have been called monkeys so incessantly that there is an endless supply of caricatures and cartoons depicting the ugly reality of this history that can still be found online to this day.
Go ahead and google the Human zoo’s in 1950’s Belgium, where white people would pet and feed little black children held in captivity by zookeepers (who often referred to these children as ‘monkeys’). Or research the history of the racial slur “porch monkey”. There are countless more examples, but those are a few that explain why that black child should have NEVER been used to wear THAT particular shirt.
The fact that it was lets me know one of two things; either the fucker who did this shit was simply an asshole racist who thought he could get away with it (under some subliminal messaging type shit) or the idiot had no understanding of cultural context, which at that level within a company is unacceptable. Because if you can be sensitive and market to women in hijabs respectfully, then you should also make it your business to know what is and is not okay when it comes to black people as well.
Sources say that the Marketing Director responsible was fired on the spot and an apology was issued to all H&M employees immediately. I honestly believe this was the vision of a particular individual (and they were dealt with accordingly). However, the best apology is changed behavior and I hope this sends a strong example to other companies alike when using our images, likenesses, and culture to market their products.
The Best of the Best
Thankfully, Black people are the architects of taking lemons and making fucking lemonade. We are so amazing because we have always been given the absolute worst and created unimaginable greatness. Give us your worst and we'll always make it the best. That is what I witnessed yesterday as I saw countless images of that beautiful brown boy in the ad recreated and re-imagined in greatness by artists from all over. New words used, new backgrounds, crowns added, him being called a prince, a king, a leader, and a symbol of power and unity instead of him becoming a marketing casualty to be made mockery of.
What was so profound is that these countless artists not only changed the original narrative, but they re-framed it so that the child involved would grow up to feel empowered from this experience rather than attacked. They used their craft to protect him from how ugly this could have been as he matures. You see, this little boy who was used in the advertisement might be too young to understand the ramifications and historical context of why the ad he was featured in was racist and inappropriate. And the last thing we want him to feel or think is that he did anything wrong or is not beautiful, exceptional, and worthy of being seen in print. So on January 8th, 2018 black people came together in droves and made sure positive remakes of that ad went viral and flooded the internet. They made sure that this young boy will forever be inundated with empowering imagery of himself should he ever search this. They simultaneously checked the fuck out of H&M, while also ensuring that this child never feels less than that of a King.
And I couldn't be prouder of my people for that.