Editor's note: Fort Wayne native Tanisha C. Ford is an associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware. The following is an excerpt from her latest book, “Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion” Ford will be in Fort Wayne for a book-signing event at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble at Jefferson Pointe.
She is the author of “Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul” (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), which won the 2016 Organization of American Historians' Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, and a cofounder of TEXTURES, a pop-up material culture lab. Ford's work centers on social movement history, feminist issues, material culture, the built environment, black life in the Rust Belt, girlhood studies, and fashion, beauty, and body politics.
By the early 80s, Mom and Dad had put their professional plans into action. They had navigated a rocky path on the way to achieving those employment dreams, often working multiple odd jobs ... to make ends meet. Finally, Mom joined the Fort Wayne Police Department, sworn into the most racially diverse class of officers the city had ever seen. A job on the force came with a handsome salary and health insurance, plus a certain degree of power and prestige. Dad had earned his associate's degree in business management and was working on another in marketing (he'd eventually go on to earn a bachelor's degree in business management). One of Mom's close friends on the force, who I grew up calling “Aunt Brenda,” helped my father secure a job in Mayor [Win] Moses's administration, which was looking to shake things up and address the problems of the south side of town. So Dad got to leave the factory. He traded his Dickies for a suit and tie. The new job didn't pay any more than his fairly cushy Phelps Dodge position had, but it came with a great deal of visibility and prestige, and a clunky title: Manager of Community Development and Planning.
My parents had ascended into what passed for the black middle class in our town. But here's the thing about being middle class in Fort Wayne: all it really is, is the factory managers. Most black folks who made more than $20,000 – what people considered to be the floor income for middle class in those days – didn't have more than a high school education. It was quite possible to make a decent living even if you never finished high school. ... The middle class, such as it was, could mostly be found at soirees at Aunt Brenda's house. That's where I got to know who was who in this little world – the school principals and hospital administrators and police deputies and factory managers who sank their ambition into their children by putting them in Jack and Jill. We settled into a white, tri-level house with burnt orange shutters on Devonshire Drive, right around the corner from Aunt Brenda, in the then integrated, “upscale” Village Woods neighborhood on the southeast side of town. By the time I was in elementary school, Village Woods had been transformed. Many of the white folks had moved farther east. The area was now predominantly black; the neighborhood where the black factory managers and educators relocated their families once their paychecks started getting a little fat. And now the schools in the area were more than 90 percent black.
Even though my parents had arrived, neither of them were fully comfortable in this middle-class world. Dad disliked Aunt Brenda's parties and preferred to stay home with his books and the record collection and tech toys he could now afford. Mom loved the social aspect of the parties, but having grown up “in the life,” it didn't impress her, and she could dish out some serious critiques of capitalism and the black bourgeoisie. See, for my parents, the dashiki wasn't simply about fashion. It was politics, a way of being, seeing, and experiencing the world. My parents' dashiki-draped take on gender, sexuality, race, and class made them weird – admired, envied – in our factory town, where most everyone else had been fitted for standard-issue Dickies work pants. “We were oddballs, I'm telling you! Ask any of my siblings. Having your mother helped a great deal. We were joined at the hip, heading in the right direction,” Dad recently told me. My parents' attitudes, their words, the way they moved in the world were just as provocative and eye-catching and unmistakable as the ornate shirts constructed from the liveliest of West African textiles.
We dashiki Fords straddled this new Village Woods world and the poor East Central neighborhood that had brought my parents together. Now again, this being a small midwestern town, there wasn't really much of a separation between these two worlds. ... And even if you were part of this black elite, you still lived on the same south side of town as all the other black folks. So, there was a real intimacy between the working poor, working, and middle classes of black folk, thanks to the city's long history of racial segregation, redlining, and restrictive covenants. There were a couple of parochial school exceptions, but for the most part, even if your parents were well-off, you went to public school with the same hoodlums your parents disdained, and you dated those same hoodlums, and you spoke the same slang, and you attended the same parties. Not to mention, most of the black folks who had made it had siblings who had not. So it was not at all uncommon to be making bank, by our standards, and have a fancy house and a fancy life, and have a close relative who was strung out on drugs or homeless living nearby.
Where middle class-ness began and ended was a difficult thing to pin down really. So it was the material things ... that gave people security in their identity as having moved up. And because of the close proximity of the classes and often-tenuous family bonds, everybody knew exactly what everybody else had. In fact, that's what sparked the phrase “Don't let them folks see what you got!,” which every black middle-class kid in Fort Wayne grew up hearing. For our parents, if folks know what “you got,” they were likely to steal it or, even worse, be jealous. But it was an empty admonishment. Conspicuous consumption was the name of the game.
So clothing was a huge part of performing your identity. The goal was to display quantity and access to whatever was right on trend. Being ahead of the trend was scary, being behind the trend meant you were lacking. Being right on trend was where the status was. The goal was to look just like everyone in the magazines and music videos. The media when I was growing up was chronicling the explosion of hip hop, and hip hop culture did transform what being on trend meant for a Dickies town. But still, innovation always happened outside, and then we cautiously copied.
Unless you were Amye and Herman Ford's daughter. To be the child of dashiki dreams meant that you'd have a different relationship to clothing than your peers. I would grow up with the financial access necessary to be on trend and parents who supported me being as stylish and proud as possible. And I grew up with a rarer kind of access, the kind that came from having parents who were creative and political. I relished every story I could ear hustle about their past lives as young rebels, before me, and every lyric to every soul album my dad played for me on his crackly record player. And that nonconformist mindset I picked up from them showed me that I should cast aside trends altogether and create my own brand of cool. My parents didn't try to force me to dress according to my gender or some notion of respectability. But I grew up in the suffocating confines of a factory town that always seemed to micromanage my dreams. This was the life that had been set for me: to be a weirdo in a conformist space. And I'd spend most of my young life trying to break away.
"Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion" by Tanisha C. Ford (St. Martin's Press) 256 pages, $27.99