I went running in a hoodie recently and a car swerved too close for comfort.
I live in a typically jumbled Vegas suburban neighborhood—brand-new cars and shitty ones, shuttered rentals and meticulously manicured homes, elderly hoarders and young upstarts. Here, few people make use of the hoods attached to their hoodies, opting instead for hats or umbrellas. We have long, winding lanes where the silhouette of a person coming down the hill can be seen from far off. My neighbor’s young sons sometimes walk to the gas station; some days, they make it to the main street before they pull their hoods back down. This could be personal preference; I’ve never asked these boys about it, they could easily say they don’t think about it. Still, some community members get spooked easily; signs for neighborhood meetings about rising crime have been popping up with some regularity. The Catholic school down the road just hired contractors to make the spear-tipped gate around the playground taller, with the addition of opaque dark green privacy sheets. Rumblings about unhoused people sleeping in the park or graffiti in the pedestrian tunnels near the playground. The nights come earlier and sometimes in the middle of them, there are loud, not-too-distant sounds like glass breaking or doors slamming or voices yelling, followed by the low-flying vibration of a police helicopter, its spotlight flashing through the backyard, the siren of an ambulance or a firetruck, the vacuum of pregnant silence after all the noises stop and people—well-meaning and rational—become fearful.
There was a moment, or maybe a series of moments, not too long ago when the culture seemed hyper-fixated on the racial signifiers of clothing. High-riding underwear, low-riding jeans, athleisure, Sperry’s—each piece contains within it a set of overdetermined, even patently ridiculous, social markers that stand in for the character and history of a person. But perhaps no other garment is so charged, or so fraught, in this country as the hoodie.
Not long after that run, I stopped wearing hooded sweatshirts outside the house. The weather had changed, yes, but it was also, I am embarrassed to admit, because of the aforementioned vehicular swerving. It’s banal to talk about these things: you go about your life, you draw attention, you assess the possibilities, you conclude it’s not your problem. I know that a potential incident can be, and has been, easily chalked up to unintentional happenstance—they were distracted; they overcorrected the wheel; they didn’t see me. And yet such scenarios occur more often than I care to think about: a year or so before, I was out for a run near my house, in a hoodie, dodging a wayward vehicle. I rounded a corner, between the white lines of the bike lane. A formless shape on the road, my back turned, the drawstrings pulled tight, the hum of an engine approaching. A car driving in the opposite direction swerved within three feet of me. They didn’t honk, they didn’t brake, and there was no one around to see. It easily could have been a mistake, a dropped cell phone, a slip of the hand, but I watched the car drive away, at the same speed, steady and straight, as though nothing had happened.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen begins, more literally than most books, with its cover: a monochrome rendering of David Hammons’s 1993 sculpture, In the Hood. The sculpture is composed of a dark green hood torn from a sweater, nailed to a white wall. Rankine’s cover draws the color out of the sculpture, along with its artistic nuance. It is all contrast, black and white. Citizen came out in 2014, two years after the murder of Trayvon Martin, whose hoodie—immortalized in a photo Martin took of himself—the book’s cover so purposefully evokes. I remember eagerly buying a copy of Citizen in late 2014 with the explicit intention of making myself angry. I identified with Trayvon, first as a peer, then, as time went on, as a sort of lost younger brother even though, if he were still alive, Trayvon would be older than me. Trayvon, as he continues to be called: a community’s son, forever a child. I wanted something righteous to attach myself to and, as so many activists, organizations and protests had demonstrated in the months and years following the murder, the hood became an all-purpose symbol for rage.
Perhaps because Citizen is itself a collage work of poetic ruminations, on topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to Serena Williams to the first inauguration of Barack Obama, Rankine saw fit to imbue her work with images that might embolden or stand in contrast to her writing. Mixed in with still photographs taken from, say, a tennis match or a video clip will be works of art, like Hammons’s sculpture, that are either granted a full page as a kind of demarcation, even decoration, or are embedded within the text to serve as illustration. In one section about Martin, composed of scripts created in collaboration with John Lucas, Rankine writes, “The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place.” These sentences manage to resonate. And yet, now as then, Rankine’s words do little for me; instead, it is the image that ends Martin’s section that remains. You know it: a crowd of white people milling about under a tree, their faces caught in the camera’s flash, one man pointing up at the dangling feet of a lynched black man. Truthfully, I don’t know if this iconic photograph punctuates the previous piece or sets up the next. What it makes clear, at any rate, is the degree to which Rankine’s words fail against the power of the images she uses. This is especially true of Citizen’s cover.
Rankine knew the hoodie would forever be associated with the murder of Trayvon Martin, that that association redirects but doesn’t necessarily reframe the hoodie as a symbol of black masculinity. There can be no other political association attached to it after the numbing scrutiny thrust onto it—first after Martin’s murder, again during the protests of 2020, and once more after that, on the tenth anniversary of Martin’s death. The hood, politicized, commented upon, reclaimed, commodified, floats in space like it does on Citizen’s jacket, as powerful and defanged as an abstraction. Which is what it remained for me, for so long. A hood is a piece of clothing, an object of no importance. And yet, somehow, stubbornly, even though I wish it didn’t, it remains a haunted emblem.
We can start with a list of hoods: Robin, Red Riding, the Unabomber, the KKK, the Grim Reaper, Tom Cruise on the poster of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, Aragorn, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Lisbeth Salander, members of a confraternity of penitents, Emperor Palpatine, tech bros. At a glance, there is no coherent history of the hood as a symbol for anything. It is shared by villains and heroes alike, by the common man and the richest of the rich, an accessory or a ritual prop. In the American idiom, this isn’t true, of course. If there must be a cross-racial understanding of the hood that endeavors to liberate black men from the stereotype of criminal, the next best thing is to label the hood sus, which isn’t much better. On Fox and Friends in 2012, Geraldo Rivera pleaded with the parents of black and Latino children to forbid them from leaving the house wearing hooded sweatshirts, saying “The hoodie is as much responsible for Travyon Martin’s death as much as George Zimmerman was.”
In a characteristically pointless New York Times op-ed from 2006, Denis Wilson, a writer from Philadelphia, devoted precious column inches to a rumination on the hoodie as popularized by Rocky, expounding upon what would seem to be a working-class history of its production in the United States, while sneaking in a few insinuations about its racial dimensions: “Hip-hop trendsetters used the hoodie also to cloak and isolate themselves, and lent it a sinister appeal.” It works as a “cobra hood, put up to intimidate others.” Above all, it offers the protection of anonymity, which “came in handy for at least two types of people operating in hip-hop’s urban breeding ground: graffiti writers and so-called stick-up kids, or muggers. Wearing a hoodie meant you were keeping a low profile, and perhaps up to something illegal.”
A Quora post titled “Is a Black man wearing a hoodie the uniform of crime?” puts this idea a little more bluntly. The question itself is nonsensical. At any rate, the pinned answer to this post was written ten years ago by a self-identified truck driver named Chris Bast. “‘The uniform of crime’ is an overstatement,” Bast writes, “but all stereotypes have a basis in truth. Hoodies are often worn by street criminals (of all races, incidentally) because it more effectively conceals their appearance … And while the association between hoodies and crime is not exclusive to black people, anecdotally it seems to be a more common sight in low-income/high-crime neighborhoods, which also (unfortunately) are often populated by black people.”
Incidentally. Unfortunately. In this vein, one has to admit that criminals do wear clothes most of the time, and, if they do, sometimes it’s a hoodie. I admit feeling that this is all retrograde, all too familiar, rote. In other words, I hate thinking about it. I hate being interested by it.
Further down the Quora page, “Do you feel uncomfortable as a black guy, wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood?” Further down, “Why do schools especially public schools (no uniforms), make it seem like wearing a hood on a hoodie is like a crime?” Further down, “What do you think to yourself when you see a group of black teenage boys wearing hoodies walking towards you on an otherwise empty street?”
“Hood” was always an image before it registered as anything like an icon, the article of clothing and the neighborhood collapsing together, one gesturing toward the other. The word, when I was growing up, used to signal different things depending on who said it. “Hood” never denoted an affluent place among the suburban kids, nor did it reflect any semblance of experience with or proximity to people who could reasonably come from that place. When the word was used, the bad part of town was invoked. Lazy characterization, but stereotypes cut both ways. They are reproduced because of their efficiency even as they turn the people who use them into stereotypes.
In certain television shows and movies, where filmmakers cast non-black actors to play criminals in an effort not to appear racist, the criminals wear hoods, slinking around, twitchy, paranoid, up to no good. Rare is it, but powerful when it occurs, to see that touchstone of white social terrorism, the grand wizard’s hood, or that overwrought white feminist dystopian iconography of the coif and red hood in The Handmaid’s Tale. The hood is striking, of course. It draws attention to itself. It invites speculation about the person who wears it, even in its anonymity.
“Hoodies signal young talent,” says an unnamed engineer in Richard Thompson Ford’s 2021 book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. Mark Zuckerberg, famous for hoodies and monochromatic t-shirts, “was not content to simply enjoy his comfortable if uninspired wardrobe; he could not resist attributing moral significance to it.” Ford goes on to quote Zuckerberg: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community [Facebook].” The ghost of this era of Zuckerberg’s appearance haunts the current visage of crypto fraud Sam Bankman-Fried, though his self-perception was revealed to be more calculated: he dressed casually because it was the image of Silicon Valley precociousness people expected.
Interestingly, or maybe just unsurprisingly, the hoodie’s association with talent doesn’t translate across racial boundaries. Ford writes about Morehouse College, the 157-year-old HBCU, and its restrictive dress code, which at the time required more formal attire. “I have misgivings about some of the proscriptions contained in the Morehouse dress code,” Ford writes. “But I’m convinced that it is not simply bigoted and elitist. It seems an honest, if imperfect, effort to spare its students, who will suffer the unavoidable disadvantages of racism, the avoidable disadvantages that come with inappropriate attire and grooming.” Ford references “respectability politics,” a term that originated in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. “Think of the Civil Rights marchers,” she later said in an interview. “When they are walking in there you see them in their Sunday clothes, but they’re defying the laws, aren’t they? … When you see all these white thugs are coming and they’re throwing coffee on them and cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.” This is the new framing civil rights protestors endeavor to upend. The hoodie is associated with black criminality and so its symbolism can be weaponized. Higginbotham spits back “thugs” and joins it with “white.” The hood is already black and so is the crime.
Geraldo Rivera on Fox and Friends again: “Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-Eleven, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta … people are going to perceive you as a menace.” Martin was “an innocent kid,” he conceded. “But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”
Leah Mirakhor, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015, drew together vast legacies: the hood’s connection to both American racial terror and the war on terror, with “the hooded men of Abu Ghraib, the women in black hijabs in desperate need of saving” reinforcing the perception of hooded kids like Trayvon as “homegrown terrorists.” In the years since, Trayvon Martin’s image has been thoroughly commodified. There are black-owned companies selling hoodies and framing the act of buying them as a political gesture. In a 2022 essay in New York, Emil Wilbekin tries on something like market-friendly representation in this vein, identifying with the hoodie as a concretization of his blackness and his queerness: “The hoodie has become a fundamental piece of my wardrobe since the killing of Trayvon, even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most definitely since the murder of George Floyd. What the hoodie has come to represent for me is a sense of comfort, of safety, and a pointed message to the world that as a Black gay man living with HIV in this country, my life and the lives of my community matter no matter how uncomfortable it makes white America feel.” Wilbekin’s sentiment is genuine, but such attempts to reify the meaning of the hoodie as an image of black life are misguided. They remind me, in an inverse way, of Toni Morrison’s admonition of the “Black is Beautiful” campaigns of the Seventies: “The implication was that once we had convinced everybody, including ourselves, of our beauty, then, then… what? Things would change? We could assert ourselves? Make demands? White people presumably had no objection to killing beautiful people.” Images can only do so much to combat the realities they represent; they are not powerful enough on their own to stop a bullet or jam a trigger.
Rarely, the hood is coded as specifically white; when it is, it makes people uncomfortable. The controversial retrospective art exhibition Philip Guston Now, dedicated to an artist known, among other things, for his paintings of figures in white hoods, was delayed a year from its originally scheduled opening in the summer of 2020 “until a time at which … the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” The gallery wall included a quote from Guston: “I perceive myself as being behind a hood.” The hood serves to obscure, to hide, and what it conceals reveals not just perceptions of the person beneath, but also the structures that work for and against it. In the case of Trayvon Martin: criminality reinforced by potent, unwanted visibility. In Guston’s case, and that of the greater white American populace: brutality, terror and a status quo to be maintained.
The hoodie, like I said, has never meant much of anything to me. To try and twist the bad into good, to wrest some kind of personal meaning from it and claim it as liberatory, strikes me as both exhausting and pointless. The shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Missouri teenager who rang the wrong doorbell and was attacked because of it, highlights certain by-now tired, lethal facts of attempting to live a kind of black life. The most salient for me was that Yarl, as is usually the case, wasn’t wearing or doing anything particularly notable. Neither was Trayvon. What is seized in the wake of these attacks, whether an article of clothing or someone’s last words or the silhouette of a weapon, is in turn weaponized and canonized, whether in self-justification or protest. There will never not be a trace of Trayvon for the hooded man who walks around his neighborhood. His blackness may already be known, or blackness is foisted onto him through the figure of the hoodie. Meanwhile, the photonegative of the hoodie raises another question—whether the trace of the Klansman and the lynch mob will similarly stick as a symbol of whiteness, something beyond an uncomfortable association, less an original sin than an inescapable, shameful inheritance.
The fatigue of having to think through the implications of a symbol, or the lack of them, can’t render that symbol a mute object. The hoodie is redolent with meaning no matter what I do, no matter what anyone does. Its legacy is a divorced one, operatic and ugly. The hoodie means what it means, the trace of its connotations strong and heavy, and so this weight travels with us. Criminals abound. The car swerves close, tries to pick out the method, tries to stamp out the shape.
Image credit: Ricardo Camacho (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)