“Slavery never ended,” Jason Sole told a group of about 60 who attended the opening of the Humanize My Hoodie art exhibition at the Brookdale Library Friday evening. In a riveting and impassioned two-hour presentation, Sole traced a history of racism as chronicled by everything from Frederick Douglass’ must-read “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” [PDF] to Ava Duvernay’s must-see Netflix series “When They See Us,” and it’s no stretch to say that Sole’s small but growing Humanize My Hoodie movement/exhibit deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, and to be seen far and wide and outside the confines of a suburban library.
“I’m a father, I’m an author, I’m a community member, a lot of people know me as an activist, I teach at Hamline University, and I teach criminal justice, but I’m also somebody who’s formerly incarcerated, so for me, I know what it’s like when I’ve got on a hoodie, versus when I have on a suit,” said Sole, who co-founded the Humanize My Hoodie brand/movement/hoodie with his friend and fellow father/activist Andre Wright, the acclaimed Iowa-based fashion designer, brand label owner and photographer.
“We’re intentional about being dressed the way we are today,” said Sole, clad in basketball shoes, gray sweats, a Timberwolves cap and a grey Humanize My Hoodie sweatshirt, as Wright, clad in green and black military fatigues and a matching Humanize My Hoodie sweatshirt, looked on. “When we’re walking outside, or when we’re at the grocery store wearing a hoodie, people don’t know I love my children and all that. They don’t know I teach. They don’t know I protested at Ferguson. They don’t know I stand up for what’s right. They don’t know anything about me, and their instant reception is that I’m a threat and I’m harmful. So when we started the project, it was just to say, ‘Humanize us. Right now.’ Two years later, we’ve impacted an entire country.”
For the rest of June, library-goers in Brooklyn Center will be haunted by a mannequin wearing a red Humanize My Hoodie hoodie, posed with arms up, in obvious homage to the “hands up, don’t shoot” cry that was attributed to Michael Brown in 2014, and became a battle cry at protests and a shorthand elegy for all the young and old black men and women who have been killed by police, and profiled and demonized for their choice of clothing.
“I want to lift up Trayvon Martin. That boy should not have have died,” Sole told the audience of educators, librarians, activists and students. “So I want to get over that stigma of the hoodie and black men right now. I teach criminal justice at Hamline, but I’ve also been incarcerated, and it’s important that this exhibit is next to the courthouse here, because all of our exhibitions are criminal justice-oriented.”
Sole is a Hamline University professor, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, author of the 2014 book “From Prison to PhD: A Memoir of Hope, Resilience, and Second Chances,” and director of St. Paul’s Community-First Public Safety Initiatives.
Friday at the library, Sole told the story of how the hoodie project blew up after Wright wore a Humanize My Hoodie hoodie to New York fashion week, and the professional respect and personal affection between the two men was evident throughout the telling of how they came to be a duo.
The exhibit, organized and presented by the Brookdale Library’s Black Culture and History team, is a somber if inspiring collection of hoodie-themed photos by Wright, augmented by quotes from the likes of Douglass, James Baldwin, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Meek Mill, and Ayanna Pressley. MinnPost took in the opening, in interviews and photos:
Andre Wright: “We’ve gotten a number of celebrities to support Humanize My Hoodie. We’ve seen the hoodie with Meek Mill; we’ve had the hoodie seen with ancestor Nipsy Hussle; Rhymefest, who wrote “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West, has been an advocate for the movement. It’s a worldwide movement, because I’ve traveled to 27 countries, and they’ve all seen it and they’ve all asked questions, and I think that’s cool.”
Jason Sole: “[Minneapolis NAACP justice state chair] James Badue-El tells the story of how he was going into the gas station, and when he came out, a young white guy came up to him and apologized. James was startled and he said, ‘What are you apologizing for?’ The guy said, ‘When you went in there with your hoodie on, I thought you were going to rob the place. And when I saw those three words on your shirt, I just needed to apologize to you.’ And that led to a 20-minute conversation and they exchanged phone numbers, and just the fact that that story exists is everything, you know? Just to know that impacted that guy in that moment, to help with his threat perception, or his implicit bias, that is pretty powerful.
“The hoodie has always had trauma. Skeletor had a hoodie, the grim reaper had a hoodie. But when we started wearing it in the ‘80s with Run DMC, all they wanted to talk about was their deejay and their Adidas, but it took on a more criminal element. If you look at Trayvon being killed, the hoodie, in some ways, was probable cause. If you look at it, even Geraldo Rivera said, ‘The hoodie is just as much to blame as George Zimmerman.’ So we’re already considered more threatening because of the melanin in our skin, and when we add a hoodie to it, somehow people just think that takes it to another level of dangerousness, and that’s not true.
“People always tell me they feel more power when they have [a Humanize My Hoodie hoodie] on, like they have a hedge of protection on. I feel it when I’m wearing it. When I see people look at it in the grocery store or gas station, I feel like at least that’s a moment for them to check themselves about whatever they were thinking in that moment.”
Jason Sole led the opening-night crowd through the Humanize My Hoodie exhibit Friday at the Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center: “What’s the price for a black man’s life? Check the toe tag, not one zero in sight.” — J. Cole
Andre Wright: “I think about Central Park and the pain Ava [Duvernay] went through to create that movie and produce it. And I feel that same way, a lot of the people in these photos I know personally, and it was a very traumatic experience for me. I was just telling Jason that sometimes I would tear up, not because the work was so great, but just because here it is, 2019, and I’m still creating work like this?”
Natasha Givens and Pastor Danny Givens, Jr. “This was right outside of New Rules building over northeast; I was the photographer,” said Natasha. “I work with Danny often, I’m sort of his PR person, and this shot has so much meaning. It’s powerful.” “I’m wearing my collar and the hoodie in this because there’s a duality in this experience in that I’m a person of faith and a leader in a faith community that represents peace and love and equity and equality,” said Givens. “[But] I hesitate when I wear a hoodie. I’m definitely not walking around after 8 o’clock at night with a hoodie up, not even to take my trash out. This represents a facet of humanity that’s based on fear and fragility. It’s difficult. But I’m proud to wear my hoodie.”