Archive for the ‘Basketball Shoes & Black Culture’ Category

Shoes & The Black Basketball Culture

January 4, 2008

‘It’s Gotta be the Shoes, Money!’: Sneakers, Identity, and Consumption in the
Making of an Authentic (Black) Basketball Culture
Dylan A.T. Miner
Assistant Professor of Transcultural Studies
Residential College in Arts and Humanities
Michigan State University
Mailing Address
1036 Beech Street
East Lansing, MI 48823
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‘It’s Gotta be the Shoes, Money!’: Sneakers, Identity, and Consumption in the
Making of an Authentic (Black) Basketball Culture
Through this concise article, I hope to rectify my personal desire to purchase a new
pair of sneakers (usually made under horrific labour conditions, often by children) by
addressing the absence of academic scholarship that critically addresses the athletic
shoe and its social function. By turning to the sneaker, I hope to remedy the
ambivalence of historians and cultural critics toward the shoe, by looking at the shoe
in and as cultural production, but more importantly engaging with the shoe as a
marker of social identity. Even though representations of footwear began to signify
modernity within Western art and culture, at least beginning with Vincent Van
Gogh’s series of late-nineteenth century oil paintings, historians and cultural critics
have failed to properly look at the mode in which shoes have been re-contextualized
by youth subcultures to serve as objects that separate these cultural groups from
outside social control and domination. On one hand, shoes are equated with
hegemonic mass production and consumption, while inversely they can be reinscribed
by the individuals who wear them. As such, sneakers (known as trainers in
the UK) and the subcultural groups which inscribe them with signification become
the ideal space to discuss collective identity and economic transformation through
While I will include a brief historical overview of the history of sneaker
culture in the United States, the crux of this article will highlight the discursive
interplay between the athletic shoe, race, and masculinity. Since athletics, often read
as the racially-based biological abilities of individuals, cannot be disentangled from
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larger discussions of masculinity and race, I will focus my arguments on the manner
that sneakers mediate between their reception by racially plural subcultures and the
marketing of these same commodities as a fixed trait of Blackness. By way of these
discussions, I will begin to problematize U.S. constructions of Black masculinity, all
through the guise of athletics and athletic apparel.
Michael Jordan, Mars Blackmon, and Me: Shoes as Signifiers of Race
As basketball journalist and hip-hop theorist Scoop Jackson makes apparent, it is
impossible to disentangle basketball footwear from the cultural practices that
surround the sport.1 As such, through this historically-based cultural critique of
sneakers, I will demonstrate the interconnectedness between athletic footwear, sport,
the cultural domain the surrounds sport, race, masculinity and consumption.
Although, it may initially appear that these divergent discourses are seemingly
irrelevant, through the analysis of sneaker cultural history and advertisements, I hope
to demonstrate that these categories are in fact mutually constitutive.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that my initiation into
basketball culture developed in tandem with my fascination with athletic shoes. In
fact, I purchased my first pair of basketball sneakers in 1986 when I began playing
organized ball. For many, including myself, 1986 functioned as a watershed year in
sneaker history. It is no coincidence that in the same year that I received my first
basketball shoes, Run DMC released “My Adidas,” their award-winning homage to
1 Scoop Jackson, Sole Provider: Thirty Years of Nike Basketball (New York:
PowerHouse Books, 2004).
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the B-boy’s shoe of choice: the Adidas Shell-toe.2 On 1 January 1986, Run DMC
released the album Raising Hell, which included “My Adidas” as the third track.
Responding to the growing popularity of rap music, this record was a market success
and peaked at Number One on the Billboard Charts. The success was due, in part, to
“My Addidas,” which functioned as an un-endorsed advertisement for the (then)
German shoe company. While Run DMC would eventually get monetary
remuneration for their efforts, at this point it was unheard of for a corporation to see
hip hop culture as a viable source of influence in market economics. This would
quickly change.
Coeval with the release of “My Adidas” was the issuance of the first model of
the Nike Air Jordan athletic shoe, the most successful shoe in sneaker history (along
with the Converse All-Star). Although young urban hipsters had been interested in
footwear for some time, this notable event cemented the (market) power of athletic
shoes within mainstream consciousness. As Scoop Jackson notes in his history of
Nike basketball shoes, Michael Jordan “possessed a gift. More than the high-flyin’,
death-defyin’ 360 degree (Brooklyn) slam dunk, he had the ability to turn a shoe
company into a marketing company. He had a vision, not to be bigger than the shoe,
but create a linear coexistence.”3 However, all credit should not be given to Jordan.
In fact sneaker discourse is a complex field and Jordan cannot be accredited with
2 B-boy is a term used to signify an active participant in hip-hop culture. Of
particular interest to B-boys and b-girls are the five elements of hip-hop: break
dancing, MCing, DJing, graffiti, and knowledge or community building.
3 Robert “Scoop” Jackson. Sole Provider: Thirty Years of Nike Basketball (New
York: PowerHouse, 2002), 53.
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single-handedly altering the trajectory of sneaker culture. Then again, he is an
integral component of this movement.
Nonetheless, beginning in 1986, the sneaker world became inextricably
changed from one where shoes were a secondary accoutrement, to one where sport,
celebrity, and sneaker were reciprocal signifiers within basketball culture. In fact, as
I will later explicate, footwear became imbued with a certain amount of social and
athletic authority. On many levels, this relationship between athletic shoes and social
position relates to the manner of how corporations market their products. Part and
parcel to this is the nature in which sneaker companies have “marketed” their apparel
as markers of masculine identity. As indicated by Ben Carrington, “sport functioned
as a key male homosocial institution whereby ‘manly virtues and competencies’
could be both learned and displayed as a way of avoiding wider social, political, and
economic processes of ‘feminization.’4 It becomes important to acknowledge that
prior to 1987, the year after the initial Air Jordan was marketed, Nike did not actively
direct their marketing campaigns toward women. In many regards, sneakers, as an
integral component to athletics, represented masculinity. Eventhough Nike now
markets to women, its basketball-centric material is still entirely aimed at men. Susan
Burris notes that
Women’s basketball just does not receive the face time it needs to
redefine how the public might respond to female basketball players.
For proof, visit the Nike web site: Except for the
4 Ben Carrington. “Sport, Masculinity and Black Cultural Resistance.” In Sheila
Scraton and Anne Flintoff, eds. Gender and Sport: A Reader (New York: Routledge,
2002), 142.
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“Nike Goddess” link, no female personalities welcome the consumer.
The omission of women here implies that men only play basketball.
Nike’s web rhetoric implies that men are “cool”…Women, however,
are an afterthought.5
This corporate gender bias was recently recognized by Cheryl Cole and Amy Hribar.
They note that Nike avoided producing and marketing apparel for women as not to
tarnish their masculine corporate identity. Creating a woman’s apparel line, as they
demonstrate, would have “compromise[d] Nike’s authentic and serious sport image.”6
Desiring not to squander its authenticity, Nike assembled its image couched between
sport and Black masculinity. Sports is the site where Black men are allowed full
access to American masculinity. When discussing professional footballer turned
actor and social activist Jim Brown, Keith M. Harris writes that “Brown is visually
marked by his athletic body, which, in turn, in the homosocial becomes a sign of
The reciprocity between male consumption and masculinity is not a recent
development in capitalist historiography or one directly related to urban, youth
subcultures. Rather, as Brent Shannon asserts in “ReFashioning Men,” late-Victorian
British marketers needed to expand male consumption and therefore began to
5 Susan Burris. “She Got Game, but She Don’t Fame.” In Linda K. Fuller, ed. Sport,
Rhetoric, and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 91.
6 Cheryl Cole and Amy Hriber. “Celenrity Feminism: Nike Style: Post-Fordism,
Transcendence, and Consumer Power.” Sociology of Sport Journal 12:4 (1995), 359.
7 Keith M. Harris. Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and
Popular Media (New York: Routledge, 2006), 66.
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conceptualize shopping for certain products as an entirely masculine pursuit.
Shannon writes that
because such practices [conspicuous consumption and self display]
were traditionally regarded as effeminate by many middle-class
men, advertisers and merchants worked aggressively to recast
shopping and consumption as attractive activities for men, and the
first step was to distance their consumer habits from women’s.8
During the Victorian period, this was accomplished by essentializing masculinity and
the products associated with it. In other words, advertisers constructed an ideal of
who was a true man and what it was that he need? With its coalescence in the latenineteenth
century, urban masculinity began to be associated with the fashioning of
one’s self in opposition to feminine notions. Since sport has historically been related
to masculine social roles the consumption of these products reaffirms the consumer’s
role as male. John Horne states that “the consumption of sports helps men to develop
and reinforce their masculine self-identities.”9 Moreover, in The Rites of Men:
Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport, Varda Burstyn observes that “modern
sport [is] a masculinist culture rooted in a superseded ‘separate-spheres’ gender
division of labour.”10 When discussing “Sportswomanship” Marlene Watson, affirms
that “sport has universally held the connotation of being a masculine endeavor, its
participation requiring aggressiveness and competitiveness, both deemed male social-
8 Brent Shannon. “ReFashioning Men: Fashion, Masculinity, and the Cultivation of
the Male Consumer in Britain, 1860-1914.” Victorian Studies (Summer 2004): 600.
9 John Horne. Sport in Consumer Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006),
152. Horne is discussing the work of various sociologist when he stakes this claim.
10 Varda Burstyn. The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport
(Toronto: University of Toronto, 1999), 32.
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personality traits.11 So the fact that Nike ignored marketing commodities for girls and
women should come as no surprise, but highlights the replication of an existing
discourse about prescribed gender roles.
If sport is commonly read as an entirely masculinist sphere, since the 1970s
basketball has been viewed as both masculine and Black. Todd Boyd maintains that
basketball is “the embodiment of blackness in contemporary popular culture.”12
Likewise, Jason Jimerson and Matthew Oware view basketball as the ideal location to
investigate and analyze black masculinity.13 In an ethnographic and sociological
investigation of street vernacular, they articulate that the “cultural association linking
blackness to basketball made [basketball] courts great places to study black men.”14
While these studies in no way attempt to uncover the root of such culturally
constructed racial assumptions, they directly outline the manner in which Blackness
and basketball are intimately coupled. In many respects, modern and contemporary
sneaker advertisements build upon gendered and racial discourses that began
circulating during the Victorian era and are contemporarily perpetuated. Adverts
need not produce mew discourses on race and masculinity, instead they build upon
already circulating notions.
11 Marlene Watson. “Sportswomanship: The Cultural Acceptance of Sport for
Women versus Accomodation of Cultured Women in Sport.” In Linda K. Fuller, ed.
Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 20.
12 Todd Boyd. Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the “Hood” and
Beyond (Bloomington: University of Indiana, 1997).
13 Jason B. Jimerson and Matthew K. Oware. “Telling the Code of the Street: An
Ethnomethodological Ethnology.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35:1
(2006), 33.
14 Ibid.
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Nearly a century after the marketing of masculine consumption in
metropolitan London, US advertisers continue to maintain an exuberant male identity
in opposition to the Victorian cult of womanhood. If, as Joan N. Burstyn describes,
Victorian middle-class “[w]omen spent their time organising the household,
overseeing the care of their children, shopping for necessities and luxuries, practicing
philanthropy, and nurturing friendships, while their male relatives left home each day
to earn money for these activities15. This binary opposition between Western
masculinity and femininity is still very active today. During the early-1990s,
expanding corporate giant Nike, through the work of the advertising agency Wieden
and Kennedy, developed a serial promotion featuring Michael Jordan and the fictive
Mars Blackmon character, portrayed by filmmaker and New York Knicks fanatic
Spike Lee.16 In this series of television and print advertisements, Mars Blackmon, the
enigmatic character from Lee’s feature-length film Do the Right Thing!, questioned
white America’s obsession with the biological abilities of the Black athlete by
pondering “Yo, Money, is it the shoes?” By using Ebonics or Black vernacular
English, seen in white America as the authenticating language of ghetto, Blackmon
wondered if Jordan’s abilities were based on physical, cultural, or biological traits.
Was it Jordan’s training and time spent as a gym rat? His consumption and use of a
specific pair of Nike sneakers? Or was it his “god given” abilities as a Black athlete
that made him able to do some “death-defyin’” dunks? Michael Eric Dyson argues
15 Joan N. Burstyn. Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (London:
Croom Helm, 1980), 30. It must be pointed out that these same ideals did not apply
to working-class and colonized women, as they, like their male counterparts, were
expected to become wage earners.
16 Jackson, 102.
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that Black bodies are commonly presented as naturally successful.17 On the flipside,
whites achieve success through hard work and practice. In the previously discussed
commercial, through the mise en scene linguistic and physical interplay between
Blackmon and Jordan, Blackmon finally determines that one’s “racial” inabilities to
play basketball, posited as a reflection of Whiteness, could be surmounted by the
consumption of Jordan’s line of Nike sneakers. By buying Air Jordan sneakers, white
Americans are able to transgress their biological failures to play ball through the
consumption of sneakers. While pulling from multiple sources, John Horne states
that “Blacks ‘have been permitted to excel in entertainment only on the condition that
they conform to whites’ images of blacks.’…Kusz alternately suggests that Nike
exploits black culture in order to sell their products to white youth.”18
It was also during the early-1990s that the feature-length film White Men
Can’t Jump! starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes was released. The
premise of this box office success was that Sidney Deane (Snipes) could work in
cahoots with the white baller Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) to hustle unsuspecting
basketball players throughout Southern California. The only reason such a scenario
could be successful, if we follow the plot and rhetoric of the film, is if the basketball
community perceives Hoyle (Harrelson) to have categorically no game. Why cannot
Hoyle (Harrelson) play basketball well, because as the title suggests white men can’t
17 Michael Eric Dyson. “Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of
Desire.” In Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, ed. Between Borders: Pedagogy and
the Politics of Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 119-127.
18 Horne, 155.
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Returning to the commercial, Blackmon finally concludes that, “It’s gotta be
the shoes, money!” It is not Jordan’s Blackness that makes him a superstar, but
instead it is his trainers. After all, why else would Nike pay Jordan (or any other
athlete for that matter) to sport their shoes? Through Blackmon’s performative use of
language, what Nike would argue as an authentic Blackness, marketers were able to
assert the ghetto-fabulous quality of Nike sneakers, while also disavowing Jordan of a
racially Black identity. While white consumers could not attain the “biological”
ability of Black ballers like Jordan, they could at least perform them by wearing Air
Jordan shoes.
As Scoop Jackson writes in his uncritical celebration of Nike basketball shoes,
Lee used these starkly filmed black-and-white commercials to “introduce Nike to the
Mars Blackmon ghetto fan base.”19 Although Spike Lee was an upwardly mobile
filmmaker and New York University alumni, Jackson somehow connects him to the
voice of the ghetto. Here we see the conflation of Black social identities and those of
the ghetto, a prescribed class identity connected with geographic marginalized. The
collapsing of the authentically ghetto, an empty signifier, into the authentically Black,
also an empty signifier, becomes the hallmark of the marketing of basketball shoes.
In other words, if we follow the rhetoric of hip-hop marketing articulated through this
commercial: to be Black is to be ghetto, regardless of class identity. In return, to be
ghetto, one must speak a certain vernacular English and don a pair of ridiculously
priced athletic shoes as part of ones’ daily performance.
19 Ibid.
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The success of the Air Jordan product line is connected to larger socioeconomic
events transpiring in the United States and throughout the globe during the
late-1980s and early-1990s. If we turn to John Horne: “Jordan [or rather his sneaker
line] emerged as black American culture became increasingly commodified. He
became part of American ‘soft power,’ and part of the spread of global capitalism.”20
While certain sectors of Black America critiqued Michael Jordan for his
acquiescence, Jesse Jackson backed Jordan’s apolitical nature. Accordingly, Jackson
asked “Why is it expected of a ballplayer or a boxer to be an astute sociopolitical
analyst?”21 But Jordan was not needed as a community mouth piece or activist, he
was needed to sell sneakers and play basketball.
Needless to say, Air Jordan represented the commodification of Blackness to a
globalizing marketplace. Nevertheless, trainers exist, as do many culture products
and practices, as double signifiers. They mean one thing within the hegemonic
macro-culture (capitalism) and something entirely different within smaller microcultures,
in this case basketball culture. As such, opposing significations and
receptions exist within the athletic shoe, never entirely resolved.
After all, basketball, as do many sports, has historically functioned as a site
for the contestation of (Black) male identities. bell hooks maintains that the
“competition between black and white males has been highlighted in the sports
20 John Horne. Sport in Consumer Culture (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006),
21 Jesse Jackson as cited in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Net Worth.” New Yorker (June
1, 1998); 58.
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arena.”22 The discourse of basketball is constituted and permeated by discussions of
race. “In basketball,” writes Todd Boyd, “race, directly or indirectly, is the
conversation at all times.”23 What Boyd acknowledges is that analyses of basketball
culture must take into account discussions of race or rather race is the subtext of all
basketball discourses. I would expand Boyd’s observations to likewise include
masculinities as an additional connotation of basketball. The problematic
connections between essentialized Black masculine performativity and basketball are
summed up succinctly in the writing of conservative sports journalist Jason Whitlock.
When discussing the US Olympic basketball team, almost entirely Black, Whitlock
maintains that
You do not have to support a group of Black American millionaires in
any endeavor. Despite then hypocritical, rabid patriotism displayed
immediately after 9/11, it’s perfectly suitable for [white] Americans to
despise Team USA Basketball, Allen Iverson and all the other tattooed
NBA players representing our country. Yes, these athletes are no
more spoiled, whiny, and rich than the golfers who fearlessly represent
us in the Ryder Cup, but at least Tiger Woods has the Good sense not
to wear cornrows.24
22 bell hooks. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York: London, 1994),
23 Todd Boyd. “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” In Todd Boyd and Kenneth L.
Shropshire. Basketball Jones: American Above the Rim (New York: New York
University), 60.
24 Jason Whitlock as cited in Dave Zirin. What’s My Name Fool: Sports and
Resistance in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket, 2005), 166.
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Here Black basketball identities challenge Anglo-American norms. But this
contestation for the construction of identities is not isolated to ones that are produced
from within the Black community; rather this contestation is frequently between
members of a pluri-ethnic organic basketball community and the hegemonic forces
attempting to colonize and control this autonomous site. In the 1994 essay “The
Game,” Clyde Taylor asserts that within US society Black men function as “players”
in which the prize “is the soul, spirit, and creative energy of Black men
themselves.”25 In many respects, the basketball sneaker, functioning as the
intermediary between basketball, hip hop, and other forms of “authentically” Black
sites of labour, operates as the example par excellence of the “soul, spirit, and
energy” of Black masculinity. In response, the role of advertising becomes the
extrapolation of Black masculinity so that it may be consumed by white and global
patrons. The marketing of clothing perpetuates the capitalist myth that we are who
we are by the way in which we actively construct our identities through fashion.
Whites can “be Black,” if they walk the walk and talk and talk. That is to say through
their everyday performances. This is especially apparent in regards to basketball
From Use-value to Juice-value: Expansion of the Sneaker Marketplace
Beginning in 1917, with the introduction of the Converse All-Star, commonly known
as the Chuck Taylor after an early twentieth-century basketball player turned sneaker
25 Clyde Taylor. “The Game.” In Thelma Golden, ed. Black Male: Representations
of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1994),
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marketer, nearly all basketball players wore a similar model of footwear.26 According
to company documents, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company was founded in 1908 by
Marquis Mills Converse.27 The first All-Star sneaker was produced in 1917, while
Taylor joined Converse in 1921.28 In 1923, six years after the original All-Star
production run, Taylor’s signature was added to the exterior of the inside ankle of
each shoe. During this period until the late-1960s, it did not matter if one was playing
pick-up ball at the YMCA, for the junior varsity high school squad, collegiate, or
professional, the Converse All-Star held a monopoly on the basketball market.
Although other companies, such as P.F. Flyer and Spalding, made styles comparable
to the canvas Converse, ballplayers almost exclusively wore the All-Star. In point of
fact, at the inaugural NCAA basketball championship in 1939, both squads wore the
Converse All-Star. The Converse media relations department writes that between
1930 and 1950 “the nation’s interest in basketball surges. Converse and basketball
are synonymous as the Chuck Taylor All Star becomes standard issue on pro,
collegiate and high school courts nationwide.”29 Although this is the telling of history
through the perspective of the Converse corporation, it is now entirely misleading.
This claim is backed by Alison Gill who writes that “from the 1920s to the 1970s, the
All Star grew in popularity alongside the growing interest in basketball as a
26 Abraham Aamidor. Chuck Taylor, All Star: The Story Behind the Most Famous
Athletic Shoe in History (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2006).
27 Chris Doyle. “The History of Converse.” 21 April 2007.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
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professional and amateur sport, and was sold in sporting goods stores as such.”30 The
Converse All-Star were the basketball kicks.
Case in point, during the early 1960s, P.F. Flyer released a new high-top
sneaker model that was similar in style to the Chuck Taylor model. Although these
sneakers were highly popular within the general marketplace, inside the cultural
realm of street and organized basketball, these shoes were quite marginal. In Bobbito
García’s publication Where’d You Get Those?: New York City’s Sneaker Culture,
1960-1987 (2003), Greg Brown states in an oral history interview that “if you were a
serious ballplayer maybe you could pull off some skippies [inexpensive sneakers]
like the Deks by Keds, but no way could you wear P.F.s [P.F. Flyers] on the court.”31
According to Brown, during the1960s, and we could extrapolate this data to many
decades prior, there has been an established structure of allowable fashion that
“authentic” ballplayers must adhere to to be involved within its cultural domain. Yet,
as Brown demonstrates, once a player gained a certain level or prestige or credibility
by his or her peers, they were enable to transcend the established structure of
acceptable footwear. Serious ballplayers could wear Keds, but never P.F. Flyers.
Although the purchase of trainers operates in a capitalist marketplace, the
manner that sneaker culture engages shoe consumption initiates a re-articulation of an
over-determining of market value as the sole basis for sneaker fetishism. Although
30 Alison Gill. “Limousines for the Feet: The Rhetoric of Sneakers.” In Giorgio
Riello and Peter McNeil, eds. Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers (New
York: Berg, 2006), 377.
31 Greg Brown as cited in Bobbito García. Where’d You Get Those?: New York
City’s Sneaker Culture, 1960-1987. (New York: Testify, 2003), 29.
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fetishism is paramount to our understanding of sneaker culture, what is of greater
import is the correlation between footwear and racialized identities.
Central to my argument at this juncture is to address the manner that the
“classic” sneaker, the Converse All-Star, gets replaced by an ever-changing selection
of athletic shoes produced by a multiplicity of multi-national corporations. Why
could ballers not wear P.F. Flyers during the 1960s, but brands such as Nike, Puma,
and New Balance gained a level of acceptance and prominence during the mid-
1980s? Over the course of this section, I will discuss the transition from the existence
of a single sneaker worn effectively by all basketball players, regardless of racialized
or gendered identities, to the near saturation of the marketplace with countless
lifestyle shoes marketed as signifiers of Blackness.
Hoosiers (dir. David Anspaugh, 1986), the award-winning basketball film
starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper, for example, reifies
the relationship between race and location, in that rural squads (Hickory, Deer Lick,
etc.) are entirely white, while the urban school (South Bend) is exclusively Black.
While this, of course, demonstrates a Hollywood desire to posit race as the binary
opposition between white and Black, with absolutely no interstices or hybridities,
what is also apparent is that all basketball players within the film wear Converse All-
Stars (illustration 2). In fact, the film’s poster pars the sneakers with a rural Indiana
landscape photograph as representative of the film’s narrative storyline about high
school hoops in the state. Within this image, the Converse All-Stars, not an actual
basketball, serve as the quintessential signifier of sport and identity in the Hoosier
state. An analysis of pre-1970s professional, collegiate, and high school basketball
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history, demonstrates that regardless of racial or class identities, players almost
exclusively wore Converse (illustration 3).32 Chuck Taylor’s were the universal
marker of one’s involvement in basketball. However, sometime after this period,
sneakers and racial identity became cemented together as reciprocal. In Smithsonian,
the monthly journal of the distinguished Smithsonian Institute, Ed Leibowitz notes
that “Chuck Taylor’s death in 1969 had signalled the beginning of the decline of the
shoe that bore his name…Adidas and Puma would dominate the ‘70s; Reebok and
Nike the ‘80s.”33 Leibowitz’s assessment parallels those made by sneakers fiends and
hip-hop heads.
Bobbito García, the hip-hop journalist and former professional basketball
player, asserts that this coming together of shoes and identity occurred because of
changes in shoe production in the early 1970s. He writes that
Things would drastically change in the early ‘70s. On the design side Adidas
introduced leather basketball sneakers. And on the streets of New York, Keds
put a dead end to Converse’s sole dominance, forever. With the introduction
of the Pro-Keds basketball line, Converse suddenly had unprecedented
competition for the title of number one sneaker on the basketball
For García, the real alteration occurred in sneaker culture in response to the increased
market presence of young companies, such as Adidas and Keds, two competitors to
32 Miscellaneous documents and publications located in the collection of “amateur”
sport historian Robert Miner, Flint, MI (24 December 2004).
33 Ed Leibowitz. “Old Sneakers Never Die.” Smithsonian 32:8 (November 2001),
34 García, 10.
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Converse. Because of an increase in the availability of shoe styles, consumers were
able to “choose” from a wider variety of obtainable footwear. Throughout the 1970s
and 1980s, according to Leibowitz, the All-Star was “repositioned as a shoe for
nonathletes. It was no longer the choice of NBA or college forwards but of the
Rolling Stones on their 1969 ‘Steel Wheels’ concert tour and of high school hipsters
turned off by the slick marketing of Nike and Reebok.”35 Appropriately, the canvas
Chuck Taylor, once a signifiying B-ball stawart, was transformed into a marker of
resistance to hyper-slick advertising under late-capitalism.
Within a few years of these new additions to the basketball shoe market, other
corporations also began to market and distribute shoes specifically for basketball use.
In the early years of the 1970s, Puma, Pony, and Nike were all gaining popularity in
urban markets across the United States. It was this phenomenon, alongside the
development of hip-hop in New York City, that identity and footwear became
interconnected. Scoop Jackson provides backing for García’s comments when he
writes that
For thirty years a large part of the game’s [basketball’s] life has
vicariously lived thru not just the sport, but the culture of the sport.
Thru the shoes, the players, the commercials…Instilled in the minds of
millions: nothing can be accomplished, no success earned ‘without the
While alluding to the Jordan/Blackmon dialogue (“It’s Gotta be the Shoes, Money!”),
Jackson succinctly argues that the athletic parameters of basketball cannot be
35 Leibowitz, np.
36 Jackson, 7.
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removed from its cultural signifiers, specifically sneakers, and the commercials that
market them.
Unlike today, when consumers frequently purchase items based on brand
loyalty, during the early years of sneaker consumption (prior to 1986), purchasing
patterns were related to use value. Although Marx argues that “in simple
circulation…the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of
their use-values,” the use-value of sneakers was also connected to their “juice-value”:
the ability for these mass-produced commodities to be both transformative (for the
individual) and transformed (by the individual). 37 Even if sneaker connoisseurs
would strive to locate and procure rare shoes, the use-value of the shoes was still the
most important component of their consumption. Nonetheless, shoes had to have
fresh colours and smooth design if companies expected them to succeed in the
athletic shoe marketplace. Sneakers connoisseurs didn’t want shoes that looked like
“butt,” as many have contended. For instance, when professional basketball player
Stephon Marbury produced a sneaker line, Starbury, sold exclusively at Steve and
Barry’s, it has been unable to catch the favor of sneaker fanatics. All clothing items
at Steve and Barry’s are priced at under $20US, while the Starbury sneakers are
priced under $15US. Although, the goals of Marbury must be commended, the fact
that his sneakers are aesthetically unpleasing and constructed with sub-par materials
has meant that they remain unmarketable to discerning sneaker heads (the same could
be said for Shaquille O’Neal’s shoe sold at Payless Shoes, a discount shoe retailer).
37 Karl Marx, Das Kapital as taken from Ed. Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels
Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 335.
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So in many ways sneaker fiends, as sneaker connoisseurs identify, are not
purely responding to capitalist alienation and market fragmentation, but in fact were
transforming the nature of the entire system by placing new signification on the
consumption of footwear. Scholars such as Dick Hebdige, who wrote about
Working-class punk rock culture in 1960s Britain, asserts that style has absolutely no
meaning, rather signification is produced through patterns of consumption by the
consumer. In this way, consumers, traditionally contexualized as passive (and
therefore feminine) fully emerge as active agents in the construction of their
individual and communal social realities.38 Sneaker fiends and hip-hop heads placed
meaning on sneakers by re-inscribing their use-value with a certain amount of juicevalue.
Use-value, Consumption, and Absence
It should not come as a surprise, then, that athletics and the equipment needed to
partake in the activities (use-value), go hand in hand. Without the proper equipment,
athletes would be unable to properly engage in the activities of their sport. To
participate in baseball, for instance, it is assumed that its practitioners will have
access to the needed equipment: a ball, a bat, a glove, four bases, etc. In basketball,
participants only need three things: sneakers, a ball, and a goal. Since the goal must
be permanently fixed in its location, the ball and shoes become the signifiers that one
is actively involved in the activity. As can be seen in the Hoosiers film poster,
sneakers commonly serve as metonym for hoops and b-ball culture. So to insiders of
38 Dick Hebdige. Subcultures: The Meaning of Style (New York: Routledge, 2005).
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basketball culture, specialized simply sneakers denote ones social position within that
community. During the greater part of the twentieth century, these shoes were
Converse All-Stars. In the 1970s and 1980s the near monopoly shifted and new
models and companies took social control.
The consumption of sneakers, then, located within a particular cultural
context, basketball, is an act that posits a unique proposition to those able to
understand its meaning. The mode with which constituents of this community
consume footwear is not something entirely new. In verity, at least since the late
eighteenth-century, shoes have been the one clothing item associated with
masculinity. In his essay “Fashioning Masculinity: Men’s Footwear and Modernity,”
Christopher Breward focuses on men’s “classic” footwear as the locust of identity
during early efforts to modernize. He writes that
Contrary to popular knowledge (which erroneously suggests that
masculinity and clothes are irreconcilable states), the acquisition of a
pair of good shoes has long been held to be one of the most important
considerations undertaken by any self-respecting male follower of
Shoes, then, have the ability to imbue a sense of self-respect to those that don “a good
pair.” By choosing a specific shoe, respected within the basketball community, one is
able to position themselves as respectable. On the other hand, the nakedness of feet,
or rather the absence of shoes, has often represented the absence of one’s humanity.
39 Christopher Breward, “Fashioning Masculinity: Men’s Footwear and Masculinity”,
Eds. Ahari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, Footnotes: On Shoes (New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers, 2001), 116.
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When someone lacks the ability to wear shoes, either by force or lack of resources,
their ability to be fully human has also been negated.
In innumerable slave narratives, the authors recount the absence of footwear
as one of the multitude of atrocities accrued to enslaved Africans under the
slavocratic system operating in the Americas. Two of the most recognized canonical
slave narratives, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, touch on the dehumanizing effects of being
shoeless. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,
Douglass notes that “The [slave] children unable to work in the field had neither
shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them.”40 Seen through the eyes of
their white “masters” as non-productive property, children were seen as unworthy of
needing footwear (or other clothing for that matter), even in winter when
temperatures would frequently drop below freezing.
During the winter months, the absence of shoes among the dehumanized
slaves produced atrocious results, often times causing frostbite and the loss of digits.
Again, in his narrative, Douglass recounts his experience as an older child, when he
was forced to endure the winter months with “no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no
trousers, nothing on but a course linen shirt, reaching only to my knees.”41 As a
result, Douglass’ feet became so cracked and weathered that he was unable to walk.
40 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American
Slave, in Ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York: Modern
Library, 2000) , 24.
41 Douglass, 38.
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The inability to clothes himself can be seen as an oppressive device used to
dehumanize those individuals already seen as subhuman by hegemonic forces.
But the dehumanizing effects of being shoeless is not simply an issue of
Southern racial politics, even though it was most certainly tied to an economic system
reliant on chattel slavery. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs uses
the absence of footwear as a signifier of class. In an attempt to relate the lived
experiences of wage and indentured labourers with those of chattel slaves, Jacobs
uses two devices: the similarity of language usage between the groups and the shared
absence of clothing. In regards to language, Jacobs applies either “standard” or
“vernacular” English to position the speaker within a specified social role. In her
text, poor whites speak the same “vernacular” English, as do most slaves. So while
seen as racially inferior during this period, Jacobs reveals that they were actually no
better or worse (economically or culturally) than enslaved Blacks.
Likewise, Jacobs displays the de-humanness of poor whites, by showing their
inability to fully clothe themselves, even though they labour outside the bondage of
chattel slavery. When discussing the response that white America exhibited to Nat
Turner’s insurrection, the author contrasts the fashion of the gentry, with those of the
white working- and lower-classes. Jacobs wrote that “the citizens and the so-called
country gentlemen wore military uniforms. The poor whites took their places in the
ranks in everyday dress, some without shoes…Poor creatures!”42
42 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , in Ed. Kwame Anthony
Appiah, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 202.
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While the poor whites were able to align themselves with the elites because of
their White privilege, Jacobs articulates that they, like the impoverished slaves, have
been dehumanized through the system of (wage) slavery. By pointing out the
dishevelled appearance of poor whites, including their deficiency of footwear, the
reader is able to discern a class-system within the text that transcends the
Black/White binary structure of U.S. racial politics. Literary critic Martha J. Cutter
argues that Jacobs’s subversion of racialized norms is her most successful
transformation of late-nineteenth century slave economy discourse. Cutter notes that
Jacobs “asserts the arbitrariness of the construction of race.”43 She continues by
pulling directly from Jacobs: “After all, aren’t all men and women ‘made of one
blood’–the human blood?”44 So for Jacobs, the absence of footwear bridges the
failures of racial difference via class similarities and alliances. But racial oppression
was not the only oppression placed on Black men and women, they were also
dehumanized as a disempowered and enslaved people.
It therefore becomes an intriguing fact that many (although a small percentage
of the population) African Americans become successful and productive labourers by
partaking in a leisure activity such as basketball. Especially since they are then
transformed into models of masculinity. In “Shopping for Pleasure: Malls, Power,
and Resistance,” John Fiske describes six characteristics that represent masculinity
and femininity under late-capitalism. The following diagram outlines the function
43 Martha J. Cutter, “Dismantling ‘The Master’s House’: Critical Literacy in Harriet
Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Callaloo 19.1 (1996), 209-225. 221.
44 Ibid.
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and reception of femininity and masculinity in contemporary Anglo-American
Masculine Feminine
Public Private (Domestic and Subjective)
Work Leisure
Earning Spending
Production Consumption
Empowered Disempowered
Freedom Slavery45
Since, the consumption of sporting apparel is positioned as feminine on multiple
fronts, the marketing of sneakers must fixate on constructing themselves as
authentically masculine.46 Hyper-masculine Black athletes, only recently interpreted
as masculine in Anglo-America, become spokespersons for the consumption of
leisure products, such as trainers.
Bondage as Blackness
As Harriet Jacobs points out her in her autobiographical text, the inability to possess
footwear need not be read simply as a signifier of race, but rather of a specific
economic condition, albeit one connected to racialism. Likewise, slavery in and of
itself, is void of any meaning, but rather is imbued with signification in relationship to
an economic system. Moreover, the gendered roles outlined by Fiske relate to role of
men and women under capitalist economics. As such, contemporary gender practices
are very much an economic construct and therefore cannot be removed from class.
45 John Fiske, “Shopping for Pleasure: Malls, Power, and Resistance.” In Juliet B.
Schor and Douglas B. Holt, eds. The Consumer Society Reader (New York: The
New Press, 2000), 313.
46 For instance, money is spent on basketball shoes that are meant for a leisure
activity by a disempowered and formerly enslaved community.
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Contrary to essentialist notions of “ethnic nationalisms” as being incapable to
transcend class or gender identities, during the early 1970s Black nationalist George
Jackson located African (American) slavery not within the stagnant category of
Blackness, but instead within the fluid order of capitalist economics. For Jackson,
Slavery is an economic condition. Today’s neo-slavery must be
defined in terms of economics…Chattel slavery is an economic
condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of selfdetermination…
The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery
updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory…working for a
To move from chattel slave, lacking proper resources and clothes to engage in selfdetermination,
toward a modern wage-labourer, void of any true transformative
power, becomes a workable transition. Part and parcel to being a wage labourer is
contained in the need and desire to consume commodities. While slaves were entirely
unable to purchase most material possessions, both by structural restraints, as well as
economic incapacities, the hyper consumption of products, often made under
deplorable conditions, is one of the “freedoms” of contemporary working-class
Americans. The fact that I cite from the prison writings of George Jackson is not
inconsequential to the larger arguments of this article. Jackson, as an imprisoned
Black revolutionary, was seen as a threat to the status quo. In many ways this
included both gender and racial stratification, both embodied in sneakers.
47 George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Chicago:
Lawrence Hill Books, 1990 [1970]), 251.
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In addition to the contemporary slavery of wage labourers, the nonproportionate
rate of incarceration among Black and Latino men is most certainly an
extension of bondage under a system of slavery. This modern bondage, similar to
slavocracy, replicates a system of forced labour, mandating that prisoners work the
menial tasks within prison walls frequently for wages well below minimum federal
standards. Under the pretences of authenticity, the prison experience, like that of
slavery, is commonly used to authenticate contemporary Black experience,
particularly Black masculinity. Consequently, Jackson is the example par excellence
of Black masculinity, even if he is attempting to counter its privilege.
In popular discourse, bondage is Blackness. For instance, conservative
African-Americans, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have
discursively related their personal “injustices” to the institution of slavery as a method
to legitimate their elite experience as authentically Black.48 After all, race is a
codified means of ignoring the persistence of class warfare. Similar to the pimping of
slavery by elite black men, the marketing of hip-hop and its related cultural
accoutrements uses the prison experience to authenticate itself as genuinely ghetto
(and therefore Black). Since the ghetto is somehow more real than the suburbs or
rural communities, meaning more Black, it becomes the site of contestation for
48 During the Anita Hill trial, where Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was
accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, Thomas stated that “This is not an
opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is
a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as
far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way
deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a
message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order this is what will happen to you, you
will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than
hung from a tree.”
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marketing agents. The occasional incarceration of rap artists and athletes only serves
to legitimate their ghetto credibility and therefore their Blackness within market
fragmentation. 50 Cent, whom I will briefly discuss later in this article, is but one
example where an athlete’s or rap artist’s incarceration functions to demonstrate
The Absence of Race
When making this leap from chattel slavery to wage-slavery, as well as from the
absence of footwear to the hyper-consumption of commodities (including sneakers),
we need to be careful in our transition. Although my transition is based in capitalist
economic structures as the foundation that establishes inequitable social relations
between working-classes and elites, the identities of subjects within the fluid category
of class must not be made stagnant, as has been done in regards to race. Racial traits
are not fixed, as has been argued, but are constructed in response to larger economic
systems. The history of slavery is the patrimony of modern Black America (as well
as enslaved Native Americans, indentured Europeans, East Indians in the Caribbean,
etc.), but the cultural experiences of Blacks under chattel slavery is not the same as
those under wage-slavery.
Thus, we must not essentialize cultural traits as somehow Black, with others
practices being seen as white. Both of these constructs are fictive and function as
responses to economic inequalities of the modernizing late-capitalist world. As I
hope this article demonstrates, cultural practices are sinuous and the relationship
between Black and white artistic production never operates in binary terms. The
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history of hip-hop and basketball, for instance, are ones of urban plurality, frequently
comprised of Black, Latina/o, and white youth. By collapsing either basketball or
hip-hop into the category of Blackness, the ability of these entities to problematize
hegemonic notions of race is negated.49
If we return to George Jackson’s comments, it becomes apparent that slavery
has been an unending practice, if mostly in discursive form. The relationship
between professional basketball players and National Basketball Association (NBA
or the League) teams, as well as corporate sponsors, can be seen as a continuation of
the neo-slavery system, albeit a system where these wage-slaves earn multi-million
dollars salaries. New York Times columnist William C. Rhoades articulates this well
in $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.
In fact, recent studies indicate that there remains an economic discrepancy
between the salaries of non-superstar white and Black players. In “Colorline on the
Court?” by David Leonhardt states that there is in fact an eighteen-percent barrier
between white and Black player salaries.50 As such, even the highly paid wage
labourers of the NBA see the effects of U.S. racial inequalities on a daily basis. This,
nonetheless, has not deterred the popular media from perpetuating myths about
49 The conflation of Blackness and hip hop continues to occur. Although it would
seem as though intellectuals would be the first to attack the notion that hip hop was/is
an exclusively Black phenomenon, this is unfortunately not the case. During a panel
entitled “Hip-Hop and Activism” at the 2005 Hip Hop Theatre Festival in
Washington, DC, a member of the panel placed attacks on non-Black artists and
musicians for stealing a cultural form that was not “theirs”. For this panelist, hip hop
somehow emerged in isolation from larger historical contexts as a purely “Black”
artform. The role that economics played was completely absence from the panelist’s
argument. 16 July 2005, “Hip-Hop and Activism: What’s the Connection”, 2005 Hip
Hop Theatre Festival, Provisions Library, Washington, DC.
50 David Leonhardt, “Colorline on the Court?”, Business Weekly 22 December 1997,
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Blacks as innately talented, while whites succeed because of hard work and
Michael Jordan happened to be one of the innately, physically gifted, based on
his biological Black body. In 1984, fresh out of his stellar career at the University of
North Carolina, NBA rookie superstar Michael Jordan attempted to get a shoe
contract with German multinational corporation Adidas. Unfortunately for him,
Adidas was uninterested and Jordan was “forced” to sign a lucrative deal with Nike.
As the legend goes, Jordan travelled to the Nike headquarters in Bend, Oregon where
he was unimpressed, but nonetheless signed a five-year, $2.5 million endorsement
contract.52 Although there had been previous signature models of sneakers,
specifically the Converse Chuck Taylor, the 1985-86 release of the Air Jordan I
would begin to fortify the oblique connection between superstars and their signature
commodities. During previous decades, professional athletes would be under contract
to wear certain models, but these models were not particular to that individual. For
instance during the 1980s, Larry Bird and Ervin “Magic” Johnson wore the same
model shoe, but each had specific colour-matches for their uniforms (white with
green for Bird; white with purple and yellow for Johnson). With the expansion of the
distribution of the sneaker in 1986, the Air Jordan took shoe aficionados by storm. In
an attempt to maintain control over its high paid wage labourers, the NBA attempted
to ban Jordan’s signature model, because it was entirely red and black. Until this
point, the League wanted its’ athletes to only wear white shoes that would not distract
51 M. Dufur, “Race Logic and ‘Being Like Mike’: Representation of Athletes in
Advertising, 1985-1995”, Social Forces 30:4, 345-356.
52, 07 May 2005
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from the game. This sneaker ban, however, did not work and countless athletes now
have individual shoes in a variety of color matches and designs.
With the release of his signature shoe, Jordan, known for his acrobatic ability
to conduct moves while in the air, was transformed by graphic designers and
marketers from a human being with human abilities, to an asymmetrical geometric
form absent of humanity. In other words, Jordan became a brand, complete with
logo, instead of remaining an active ball-playing agent. What originally began as a
photo-shoot for the cover of a magazine, was later re-contextualized by Nike, before
completely removing all human presence in the desire to create a purely aesthetic
form (illustrations 4 and 5).53
The original magazine photograph featured Michael Jordan slam-dunking a
basketball with this legs spread apart. Nike, in hopes of creating a regional market,
localized this image with the addition of the Chicago skyline to represent Jordan’s
team affiliation, the Chicago Bulls. This image was released as a print advertisement
and subsequently sold as a poster.
Finally, graphic designers removed all contextual references to the human
being Jordan, by creating a stylistic rendering or abstracted logo of Jordan. This logo,
known as Jumpman, removed all references to race and agency, therefore
dehumanizing its original subject in the process. In fact, this deracializing of Michael
53 If we look at the advertising by Nike’s Jordan advertisements as a cohesive corpus,
we would notice a strange alienation where Jordan’s body no longer stands-in for
itself. Instead, Jordan’s body, as a Black body, is not entirely human, but rather more
akin to a mechanical machine. His “ability” to jump made him the perfect candidate
to be transformed into an airplane. So as with much of his corpus (pun intended) of
advertisements, Jordan’s body in not a human body at all. Jordan has been
transformed into an industrial machine used for commerce and warfare. The exact
uses of the Black body within larger U.S. contexts.
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Jordan is not isolated to the Jumpman logo. Journalists have likewise noticed that
Jordan, similar to other popular Black athletes, was positioned into a discourse, as if
he were raceless. In 1991, Robert E. Washington and David Karen note the increased
investigation into the deracination of mainstream athletes by the popular media.
Washington and Karen write that “some black superstars (e.g. Michael Jordan, David
Robinson) have achieved cross-over status, which allows them to shed their racial
identity and cash in on their celebrity.”54
Even though U.S. society is fixated on race, media and advertising
professionals attempt to posit US society as a colour-blind one. This “shedding of
racial identity” that Washington and Karen refer to is simply a cipher for Whiteness;
Jordan and Robinson are acceptable because they are raceless, or rather because they
become white. This type of non-raced acceptance of Black athletes by white fans,
further perpetuates hegemonic notions of multicultural tolerance.
Tolerance is mediated by pre-existing structures and assumptions about
acceptability. Presently, media moguls use projections of Black bodies as modes to
authenticate their products as “street credible,” yet during the mid-1980s race
functioned slightly differently within the media. The removal of Jordan, and his
physical body, from its inclusion on his line of Nike shoes, made the products they
adorned much more easily consumable by white America. His transference from a
Black male, therefore seen as physically threatening, to a raceless “Michael” or “MJ”
is made compete by the construction of an abstracted logo. This is further finalized
by the Gatorade “Be Like Mike” campaign, where Jordan becomes recognized purely
54 E.M. Swift as referenced in Robert E. Washington and David Karen, “Sport and
Society”, Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001), 195.
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by his first name, as if he is a common acquaintance. Historically, academics have
referred to women and people of colour by first names, while those held in high
regard (predominantly white) are always evoked by using their last names. By
naming Jordan Mike, he is removed from any position of privilege and relegated to
the status of an everyday acquaintance. Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls,
once asked rhetorically “Is Michael Jordan black?” before answering unequivocally
that “Michael has no color.”55
Although, the Jumpman photograph was originally used for a magazine
photo-shoot, Nike continued to use this exact composition, which they altered by
including the Chicago skyline beneath Jordan. Here, the likeness to a mechanical
airplane (non-human) is made transparent. Jordan, as a super-human, physical
“specimen”, is able to transcend the normal human capabilities of race, while
simultaneously being converted into an abstracted version of Blackness.
Discursively, the transformation of Black athletes into “machines’ is a common one,
albeit problematic. Although high-flying balers were discursively associated with air
or space travel, Jordan advertisements transformed him into the actual plane. The
1983 Nike Air Force 1 advert showcased six professional basketball player all
wearing flight suits. Within this image, they players are read immediately as pilots.
Inversely, the Jumpman poster of a similar 1986 advertisement featuring Jordan
standing on an airport runaway begin to transition Jordan from a human with
supernatural powers into a synthetic machine and finally into an icon.
55 Jerry Reinsdorf cited in J. Kornbluh. “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” TV Guide 22
April 1995, 26.
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This transformation from a living, breathing entity, with all the precariousness
that may entail, to an (deracinated) icon, occurs through the creation of the Jumpman
logo. The method of conversion from human to symbol parallels the transformation
we see with the mainstream memory of slavery from one where human bodies are
physically abused, tortured, and killed into simplified aesthetic imagery. Through
this abstracting process during the mid-nineteenth century, the nuanced horrors of
slavery were co-opted by white abolitionists by stripping away all human agency
from representations of Black subjects. Historian Marcus Wood discusses this
progression away from the African (American) as human, to a location where their
likeness simply serves as a signifier within a discursive system constructed by whites.
For Wood, graphic images of slavery in fact have little to do with the dominant
societies opposition to racial oppression.56 Instead, the imagery serves to discursively
strip Blacks of their humanity. According to Wood, as part of this dehumanization
process the Black body has been translated into an aesthetic device. When writing
about the iconography of the abolitionist movement, he writes that “in purely
aesthetic terms the slaves have no human presence at all; in terms of compositional
balance the white spaces where the slaves are not are as important as the black spaces
of ink which represent their bodies.”57
Likewise, Jordan’s human presence has been completely erased from the
marketing of Air Jordan sneakers, although his celebrity status remains. Although
globalized consumers would have been cognizant of Jordan’s phenotypic identity as
56 Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representation of Slavery in England and
America, 1780-1865 (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).
57 Wood, 29.
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Black, this actual knowledge is dislocated and alienated from the products he is
contracted to endorse. So the wearing of Air Jordan sneakers is void of any racialized
signification. The Jumpman iconic image reduces the nuances of race and capital in
(post)modern society into an easily digestible symbol, presumably void of meaning.
This goes along with post-modernist and post-structuralist misconceptions that
contemporary visual culture can be entirely ambivalent.
While marketers need to construct the racelessness of many Black
professional athletes to make them acceptable to hegemonic audiences, the
authenticity of the ghetto is equally used to sell Blackness to young consumers. The
making of a “street credible” product-line endorsed by rapper 50 Cent is an important
example of the manner in which race is constructed by the mass media.
In media representations of 50, as he is commonly known, the most common
touched upon theme is his “troubled” childhood in Queens, New York, where he
engaged in the distribution of narcotics and was shot multiple times in response to his
involvement in gang activities. The 3 April 2003 issue of Rolling Stone (RS) featured
50 Cent in the cover story. Before even reaching the main body copy of the article,
readers were keyed into why RS was interested in 50 Cent. He was seen as
embodying a violently authentic Blackness. This is accomplished through a complex
use of text and image. Mieke Bal maintains that visual culture, including art and
graphic design, may be read through the status of signs in communication, a process
called semiosis.58 For Bal, although image and language communicate in distinct
ways, the reading of written language, as well as visual imagery, is an active process
58 Mieke Bal. A Mieke Bal Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), 294.
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of reception.59 That is to say an act of assigning meaning. By including text and
image together, the designer is able to better direct a specific interpretation of the RS
For instance, the subheading on the cover states that “At twelve, he was a
crack dealer. At twenty-three, he was nearly shot to death. Now, at twenty-six, he is a
hip-hop ruler. And old rivals want him dead.”60 Although this is not a common
experience in the twentieth-century, the media uses these facts to its advantage. For
them, 50 Cent graces the cover as a codified symbol of Blackness. In many ways, 50
Cent functions as a metonym for Blackness.
Additionally, the cover photograph positions 50 Cent as a young, angry Black
man looking over his shoulder as if always “watching his back.” The cover text states
that 50 Cent is “mastering the art of violence,” with the 0 in the rapper’s name having
been converted into the target of a handgun.61 Through these devices, it becomes
apparent what 50 Cent’s popularity in the mainstream media is grounded in: his
maintenance of an essentialized Black (male) identity. This is particularly grounded
in a Black masculinity that is embodied in authentic ghetto violence.
In the mainstream imaginary, 50 Cent does not simply come from the ghetto
(Queens, New York), but he also physically embodies it. To be Black, as perpetuated
by media representations and stated previously, is to be ghetto. And to be ghetto, is
to be violent!!! For this reason we see the “mimicry” of essentialized Black culture
59 Ibid.
60 Toure, “The Life of a Hunted man”, Rolling Stone 913 (3 April 2003). This
citation was taken from the RS website:
61 As depicted on the cover of Rolling Stone 913 (3 April 2003).
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by hoards of white youth (commonly known by the derogatory and pseudo-racist
designation “wiggers,”) who flock to ascertain their identities through dominant
constructions of Blackness.62 Blackness, as operating within the U.S. hegemon, is not
about countering the privilege of Whiteness, as it should, but rather it purely
replicates pre-established norms of Black culture. In many ways, Blackness has little
to do with phenotype, but is discursively constructed by those in power to make
phenotypic difference (race) relevant to Black oppression.
It must be re-established that Whiteness only exists in reference to its
absences. In semiotic terms, names (as signs) only exist because of their “difference
from all other signs, each is meaningful and understandable only within those
structures of difference.63 Following semiotic logic that signs only signify through
difference, if Black is violent, than white is non-violent. So by articulating an
authentic Black identity as a violent one (through individuals such as 50), the
connection between Whiteness and (historic) acts of violence (such as genocide,
colonialism, slavery, etc.) are all nullified. In a sense, by using violence as an
authenticating tool of Blackness, white consumers reify the discourse that negates the
historical legacy of slavery and white violence. In contrast to the abstraction of
Jordan’s body, we finally have the Black body front and centre; this time, however,
the body is couched in terms of modern bondage: the prison system and authentic
62 I have intentionally used the concept of mimicry to refer to the hegemonic
construction and replication of Black identity by white youth.
63 Malcom Barnard. Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture (New York
Palgrave, 2001), 153.
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A 2005 issue of Slam, the self-proclaimed hip hop hoops magazine, presents a
two-page advertisement for 50 Cent’s line of Reebok sneakers.64 The left page (page
9) presents a dimly lit 50 sporting his trademark scowl. The right page (page 10)
portrays a close-up of fingerprints, presumably 50 Cent’s prints from his time served
in prison (if we believe that he really was imprisoned). At the top of this page are
printed in a san serif typeface “‘Where I am from, there is no plan B. So, take
advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised.’ –50 Cent.” Below this
quotation is a modified blackletter (Olde English) script featuring all lower-case
letters proclaiming that “i am what i am.”
The interplay between image and text serves as the quintessential portrayal of
Blackness. Within this advertisement, the black body is seen as one with propensities
to violence. The Black male, as biologically other, is unable to negate the ability to
become violent, but this violent behaviour is simultaneously connected to the
environmental constraints of, as 50 Cent states, “where I am from.” Through
contextual analysis, it is easily apparent where 50 Cent comes from: the ghetto.
As this advertisement maintains, Blackness is both biological, as well as
environmental. So within one sneaker advertisement, everything comes to a head.
The authenticity of the Reebok shoe is made real by 50 Cent’s capacity to be violent
as well as the rap artist’s connection to the sites of violence and bondage: the ghetto
and prison. The allusion to the ghetto is textual, while the reference to prison is
conducted by way of the inclusion of the bodily marks seen in his fingerprints.
64 Slam, arguably the most intelligent basketball magazine, uses hip-hop “vernacular”
as a method of legitimating itself. Slam 87 (May 2005), 9-10.
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As this brief analysis demonstrates, the connection between athletic sneakers,
race, and masculinity is one that cannot be easily discounted. In fact, this connection
traverses multiple chronotopes and time period, from Victorian England to 1950s
America to contemporary global b-ball culture. Although cultural critics have failed
to draw proper connections between the divergent relational meanings of these
constructs, this by no means reveals the incompatibility of their discourse. Inversely,
as I have hopefully demonstrated, there exists an irreversible semiotic meaning within
an individual’s footwear. Whether this is intentional, as with sneaker connoisseurs,
or a structural necessity, as with slaves, the agency of an individual can be seen in the
power of his or her shoe (or its absence). It is for reason’s such as this that I always
maintain an ample supply of fresh sneakers in my quiver. After all, I never know
what discursive acts I may need my kicks to accomplish.