Trayvon Martin, David Hammons and How to Think About Hoods

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David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993 Courtesy Tilton Gallery / Photo courtesy The New Museum
David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993
Courtesy Tilton Gallery
Photo courtesy The New Museum

I have some unsettling news. The best work of art related to the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was made not in response to the actual events of the past 2 years, but, rather, was created 20 years ago. We-Americans-clearly haven’t learned anything, are demonstrably bad at learning things.

David HammonsIn the Hood is a disemhoodied hood from a generic dark green hoodie, mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. Wire props up the rim of the hood, so it holds its shape as if it were covering an invisible head. Hammons’ artworks often appropriate and undermine objects, activities and stereotypes with heighted racial and cultural baggage. For example, his Spade series uses garden spades to cleverly, but pointedly, comment on the word “spade” as a racial epithet.

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I’ll point out that Boudicon, writing at Mass Appeal, beat me to the Hammons/Martin connection by almost a year and a half. But, a lot has happened since then around the Martin/Zimmerman case, including a resurgence of the idea of the hoodie as a racialized fetish object, and it’s worth revisiting what we can learn about the current media fascination with Martin and Zimmerman through the connections to Hammons’ artwork.

By now, the events of that February night last year, when Zimmerman more or less hunted and then shot the unarmed Martin, are well known. The tragedy got dredged back up over the past few weeks during Zimmerman’s trial and ultimate acquittal last weekend. Because the news media in the United States are embarrassingly childish and have many racist practitioners, we have been subjected to a lot of talk about the hoodie Martin was wearing when Zimmerman killed him. The state of the discourse has gotten to the point where Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert needed to write an essay titled “Trayvon Martin and Why the Right-Wing Media Spent 16 Months Smearing a Dead Teenager.”

Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin

Geraldo Rivera, on Fox News, natch, got started early. As far back as March of 2012, just under a month after the shooting, Rivera freely opined on Martin’s hoodie, placing much of the responsibility for the killing on this sinister garment. Media Matters and ThinkProgress did an excellent job of calling out and preserving Rivera’s words. On Fox & Friends, he held forth with comments including “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman,” and “Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-11, the kid is wearing a hoodie. […] When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid the confrontation.” Rivera doubled down after the acquittal last week by declaring, also on Fox News, “You dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug.”

Last week, after the trial had ended, more pundits decided to stand with Rivera. Pat Robertson told his viewers, “There’s been some crime in [the community where Zimmerman and Martin lived] and the criminals were wearing these hoods so it’s one of those things.” By “one of those things,” Robertson presumably meant “let’s have a murderous, fire-arm fueled orgy of misplaced vigilantism.” What could possibly go wrong?

Most prominently last week, Richard Cohen wrote an Op-Ed, “Racism vs. Reality,” for the Washington Post, which earned him the title of “The Worst Person In The World” on Eschaton. Cohen begins with a gesture of humanity, but immediately falls off a precipitous cliff: “I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.” The “uniform we all recognize,” of course, is a hoodie. When the word immediately following “I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead” is “But,” it’s time for some soul searching. That “Reality” in his title refers to the point he makes that I’ll paraphrase thus: We all know that young black men are prone to violence and crime, so it’s completely reasonable to assign presumptive guilt to the wholly innocent Martin, since he was wearing a hoodie, you know, like those people do. I’m just being honest! There’s a special place in hell. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a great job of parsing everything that’s wrong with Cohen’s essay.

WSS snap gif smallAdding insult to fatal injury, these people talking about hoods in the news don’t really bother pretending they’re talking about anyone other than African Americans. It’s the 21st century; everyone-and I mean everyone-wears hoodies, but only some are “thugs.” I can’t get past how bizarre it is to declare the hoodie to be a special menacing-violence garment. It seems so old-fashioned and, frankly, so crackpot. Cohen calling Martin’s hoodie a “uniform we all recognize” might as well be a warning that finger snapping is a terrifying prelude to gang violence. Although, in fairness, I’m not sure anyone really does think hoodies have any special meaning; it’s more probable that the focus on hoodies is just a manufactured strategy for racists to pretend their racism is logical analysis aimed at something concrete, and not just free-floating malice.

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Which brings us back to Hammons’ In the Hood. It was recently on view in New York City in the New Museum’s great show “NYC1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” In the wall label at the New Museum, the curators directly acknowledged several cultural and racial issues suggested by Hammons’ hood-KKK hoods, stop-and-frisk-and they even, albeit obliquely, referred to Martin’s killing with a mention of hoodies’ connection to “racial profiling that targets ‘suspicious’ youths.” Note that this is a lot of complex work being done by what seems like a simple artwork. As the curators show, In the Hood refers simultaneously to both sides of racial intimidation and violence against African Americans: the hood of the Klansman and the hood(ie) of the racially profiled victim.

There are both humor and menace in the work. Of course, there’s the word play of the title, fixing the racial overtones of the sculpture by referring to both the hoodie hood and the then-much-less-mainstream-than-it-is-now use of “hood” as shorthand for a certain kind of neighbor-hood. This is something we all easily do recognize: Beverly Hills is not a “hood,” South Central is a “hood;” John Singletons’ Boyz N the Hood came out only two years earlier, in 1991. Also, there’s a kind of gallows humor in the hunting-trophy presentation, and Hammons exhibits playful audacity by showing this work-and many, many other racial charged works over his career-in the not-very-diverse high-end art world.

A sense of menace uninflected by humor comes through in many ways, as well. The empty hood has a ghostly quality: even though the wire is plainly visible holding up the shape of the hood, the uncanniness of the missing head remains powerful. There is a strain of anger and violence in the jagged edge where Hammons removed the hood from the hoodie. It’s not a surgical cut, not even a clean guillotine cut. The hood, as a stand-in for the ghostly missing head, looks to have been gruesomely hacked off.

All of this is to say that two decades ago, before Trayvon Martin was even born, Hammons, elegantly and with sophisticated wit, showed the connection of hoodies to this kind of racist thinking, and In the Hood effectively communicates the malignancy of that connection. Martin’s story-and how many others?-make it clear that this isn’t abstract, and our journalists (and whatever Robertson is) make it clear that nothing has gotten better over these 20 years. Hammons’ work isn’t so high-profile that it necessarily would have created a shift in cultural thinking directly. But he does show that the ideas were available for others to grasp if they had wanted to do so. Plus, it’s really not such a hard lesson to learn to understand that teenagers shouldn’t get shot for wearing hoods. However, for some people, for some people with national public platforms, this lesson is out of reach.

The Young Turks last week drove home the point that all this talk of hoodies in the news is racist hypocrisy:

Read the CFR’s previous coverage of Martin, Zimmerman and the need for critical thinking here.