My February’s Black, My Nikes Too: A Conversation About Nike’s Black History Month Collection

Jacob Greenberg from The Diss and Felix Huang from Broken Yellow Lines get together to discuss Nike’s Black History Month Collection. This conversation took place over several days and is also cross-posted at The Diss.

When Kevin Durant stepped onto the Pepsi Center floor on Sunday, January 20, 2013, his feet were adorned in a special black, grey, and orange colorway of his signature KD V shoe. Why did the colorway debut that particular Sunday? Because the day after was the federal holiday known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The shoe, it turns out, is part of Nike’s 2013 Black History Month Collection, which launched on January 26, 2013, with a surrounding ad campaign featuring Durant, Didier Drogba, and Serena Williams:

Here’s what Nike has to say about the collection:

In honor of Black History Month, Nike is proud to release the BHM Collection, celebrating the civic leadership and social stewardship of three of our athletes. With design elements influenced by the community work of Didier Drogba, Serena Williams and Kevin Durant, the BHM Collection sets a new standard for style and social awareness. Show your support by grabbing a pair of KD V, LeBron X, or Kobe 8 shoes. Or pick your pair from the Nike Sportswear Collection, featuring the signature black, grey and orange BHM print.

Nike will donate proceeds from sales of the BHM Collection to the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. So, you can make a difference and look good doing it.

The BHM collections launches 1/26, 8am Eastern on Nike.com. Access to the Nike.com BHM launch of the Kobe 8, LeBron X & KD V will be available via Twitter link only.

Felix Huang: When I first came across the ad, I was more befuddled than anything. It took me a while to be able to process what I saw, as “CATEGORY ERROR” flashed in my mind’s eye. I’m not a complete stranger to the conflation of consumerism and activism—it seemed as if every pair of feet that tread through my alma mater’s campus was smugly, er, snugly fit in TOMS. But the appropriation of BHM for a collection of overpriced basketball shoes left me perplexed. That is, until my (probably overly) critical and cynical disposition towards marketing, advertising, and consumerism kicked into full gear, and the confusion was replaced by indignation. Which was then later followed by an attempted exercise in suspending my hermeneutic of suspicion. I’m still not sure what I think about it all.

Jacob Greenberg: So, when I first saw the Nike ad campaign video, I was presented with their answer: “Be Bold. Be True.” It was an interesting assertion, but still left me with more questions than answers.

To be fair: there honestly may be more “good” here than “bad”.  Black History Month is merely a suggestion, not a requirement — there is nothing set in stone by the federal, state, or local governments that say that any public or private institution.  So it was only a matter of time before somebody (or something, though according to law, corporations are somebody’s now, too) decided to brand the month, and try to make money off of it.  In this case it was Nike, a corporation that both directly and indirectly affects the black community dramatically (or at the very least, its purchasing habits).  I’m not too surprised, if I think about it.

But anyways, if this is the imperfect vessel of message spreading, we do have the option of taking the good, and trying to look past the bad.  Indeed, being a fan of professionalized sports — what with the multi-million dollar contracts, overt racism, gender imbalance and nascent homophobia that goes along with it — is an exercise in suspending reality, so it’s not that far of an intellectual reach.  The Nike spot introduces the viewer — not to be confused with the audience, which is presumably black youths and young adults — to some individuals and professionals that they may not have seen before, or may be surprised to see exist in the flesh.  We see a young black woman making her own movie, and young black men playing chess in the ubiquitous New York-based park in the morning. The spoken word poetry provides an excellent back drop to the images on the screen, and serves as an interesting departure from the stock hip hop beats that accompany most sneaker commercials these days.  There are themes of creation, charity, education and self-reliance laced throughout the commercial, and one doesn’t have to look too deeply to see it.  This, at face level, is impressive; something not typically seen in any commercial, let alone a shoe and clothing commercial.

But there is the “bad” as well, and we’d be irresponsible to look past it. In preaching a racialized message, Nike also racializes. Though the spoken word poetry breaks a tired theme, black people are portrayed to be interested in two things that are repeated time and time again in commercials, television and movies: basketball and hip hop. Of course, it’s Nike, so in addition to Durant (who is, as far as I can tell, the only professional athlete in the spot), we see the stereotypical young black man playing in a Rucker Park-type atmosphere in front of a raucous crowd; a fairly standard image of black basketball culture, and one that can be easily packaged, branded and distributed. The poet deploys the word revolution, and the screen shows a man handing money to a woman who, presumably, is selling him Nike’s, preferably from their limited edition Black History Month line. The commercial itself concludes, disappointingly, with another stock hip hop beat, as the camera zooms in hip-hop video style, focusing on three black subjects, while Kevin Durant waltzes in, dribbling a basketball slowly, a basketball-fashionista-black militant here to sell us some new clothes and shoes.  At that point the show is over, and it’s hard to suspend the realities of capitalism and racialization for profit.

Perhaps this is just the messy product that comes with branding Black History Month, something that is more abstract than actualized. Yet at the same time, it feels more “genuine” than this effort from ESPN, who implore us to celebrate BHM “loudly” by bombarding us with stereotypical images of black athletes screaming, hitting, dunking, tackling, scoring, high-fiving, and the rest.  It’s an effort that seems almost to childish to take seriously, the perpetualization of the image of Black as athlete, a type-casted, forecasted future.

So what to do then? If not branding, what, then?  And if Black History Month is supposed to have any sort of impact besides informal discussions and muted celebrations, is this terribly off point?

FH: As you note, Black History Month is something that is more abstract than actualized. In a way, Nike materializes the abstract through their BHM line—these are tangible things tied to BHM. That being said, materializing the abstract isn’t always good—it depends on how and into what. It would seem less problematic to me if Nike just incorporated some messaging promoting BHM without an actual line of BHM products that they directly profit from. Of course, Nike would still presumably benefit from any BHM-tinged advertising, because it would still be Nike advertising. With the BHM line, it’s not just messaging, since proceeds are being donated to Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Admittedly, there’s probably no scenario in which everything would be acceptable. Perhaps an ideal would be a campaign that has messaging promoting Black history and Nike donating a portion of all profits in the month of February going to an organization (without having a specific BHM product line). Still, such a campaign would be driving sales for Nike (which isn’t bad per se, but does feel a bit icky). There’s always the option of Nike just not doing anything with BHM at all, but while not all publicity is good publicity, it is kind of nice to have a major company give BHM some shine, even as a very imperfect vessel. So let’s say Nike is a socially responsible company. They’re aware of the power they hold in the marketplace, and they’re using it to promote BHM. But just because someone has power, does that mean they ought to exercise that power? What if how they got that power in the first place is problematic?

When my cynicism and optimism converge, there’s a resignation to the fact that we do live in a capitalist and consumerist society (a fact that’s not changing anytime soon), and power is obtained and exercised with inevitable impurity. If Nike is going to do something with BHM, I think Nike has enough brand capital to do something better than what they did. What that is, I don’t know, but perhaps we’ll see it in the years to come. Also, for Nike to do something with BHM, a move that may not be uncontroversial (from multiple perspectives), requires a certain degree of capital in the first place.

JG: Well, I guess it gets at two things: what is the purpose of Black History Month, and what is the purpose of Nike?

The latter part is easier to answer. Nike, Inc. is a multinational corporation that makes products for a global market. At the same time, it is a recognizable global brand that can be used as a valuable marker in both formal and informal economies. It is a violator of human rights and has a spotty environmental record.  It is neither a governmental department nor an educational institution.  It has no responsibility to do anything with its power other than what the system that has empowered it allows it to do.  And, as you say, we live in a capitalist and consumerist society. As such, Nike has no responsibility to educate (and God Shammgod help us if we’re looking to Swoosh State University for our knowledge on African-American history and progress).

Then things get a bit stickier, not just for Nike, but for ourselves.  What is Black History Month?  And further: how does one behave responsibly in this month?

We should be careful ourselves to not make Black History Month into something more than it actually is. Black History Month, as it currently exists, is simply a month long event that’s recognized by the federal government.  In its fledgling days, it existed as “Negro History Week”, a way to commemorate the same-week births of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln among a fairly narrow part of African-American civil society.  Over time it became championed by elected leaders as a way to create a popular front; a sort of anti-politics machine to please a particular part of the (voting) population, black, liberal or otherwise.  As such, it is available for all, and can be molded to fit whatever purpose one sees fit for it. Black History Month in itself is weakened by its own meaninglessness; with no prescribed protocol for the week, multiple interpretations and practices can be created and codified.

Nike’s job is to sell products. And in the same way we have materialized and commodified other celebrations (either religious like Christmas, or political/governmental like Veteran’s Day), Nike has found a useful vessel in the malleable body of Black History Month. Should we be surprised — or even outraged — that Nike created clothing and shoes around an event that hadn’t yet been branded?  And if they didn’t anything besides create clothing and shoes, would it be seen as legitimate, or genuine?

FH: While it’s certainly not Nike’s primary responsibility to educate, I do think that responsibility extends beyond institutions of government, religion, education, etc. (institutions which are not untouched by the capitalist consumer complex).

And whether we like it or not, Nike is going to be educating. The question is what are they teaching. “Our products are high-performance and will give you social capital, therefore buy them.” Ok, we know about that angle. So isn’t it great that they’re giving a nod to Black History Month? Well, thing is, assuming the best of intentions, when Nike seeks to educate on BHM, it is impossible for them to only educate on BHM, since that message isn’t void of context—it’s coming from a particular speaker (Nike) that has a particular reputation. It’s the ethos of Aristotle’s appeals, the credibility of the speaker as inseparable from the persuasiveness of the message. And in this case, as you’ve documented, Nike has some work to do there with regards to human rights, the environment, etc. But, Nike has a particular credibility with the black community that other brands don’t have (imagine, say, New Balance trying to do a BHM campaign).

In addition to the issues of the speaker and the message is the question of the medium used. The message of BHM is promoted through commercial advertising and a product line. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message,” and thus beyond the positive message of Nike’s campaign is the meta-message of conveying it through such commodified means.

At the beginning of our conversation, I said I wasn’t sure what I think about all this. I’ve got a better picture, though I’m still unable to stamp the campaign with either “APPROVAL” or “DISAPPROVAL” (not that it matters to Nike), but I suppose that’s not how our messy world works anyways.

God Shammgod help us, indeed.

JG:  Well, I need some resolution.  Otherwise I haven’t done my Black History Month duty.

I’ll begrudgingly approve this effort from Nike. I can’t believe it, but I am.

If the medium is the message, then the medium, on the whole, is good. Consumerism is implied but not prescribed in the commercial. It is, in fact, possible to take some sort of meaning away from the spot without feeling guilty that you aren’t going to buy the clothing line, and perhaps even feel you feel annoyed that Nike would even suggest that you show pride in black history and culture through shoes.  The images shown don’t feel authentic, per se, but they certainly aren’t forced.  This is well produced and refined. Indeed, if the commercial ended before KD and a Swoosh showed up, we’d be impressed.  But he, and it, did.

In the end I leave feeling more anxious than assured.  Despite my critiques, this is not the direction I want this month of celebration to go; a blank slate for corporations to identify captive markets and push problematic products. I’m not excited to have prominent figures and ideas commodified anymore than they already are.  I’m not ready to think of Malcolm X and Kevin Durant in the same sentence, no matter how similar they dress. It’s not appropriate, it’s not accurate, and it’s not really right.

Sigh. Happy Black History Month, Felix. Just in time for Noche Latina.

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