“It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo.”
These are words from the Black Power icon and lifelong activist Angela Davis’s 1994 essay, “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia.” In the years following her emergence as a Communist, a revolutionary for black freedom, an enemy of the state, and an enduring voice of prison abolition, Davis’s image—one that is considered by many to be synonymous with black liberation and the social-resistance movements of the 1960s and ’70s—has been slapped onto endless memorabilia, such as apparel and collectibles, in which the entirety of her scholarship, activism, and the larger political effort she represents are mostly reduced to a logolike image of her Afro. Davis was greatly disturbed by how her likeness was used as a backdrop for advertising, and by how little control she had over her own image. In her writings, she laments that she was reinterpreted as a “fashion influencer,” and the ways this undermined her message, her activism, and her anti-capitalist principles. Davis is, for many, a living legend, but for others she is the blueprint for how to merchandise a movement.
Last week, the release of Nike’s 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign featured a tightly cropped still of Colin Kaepernick’s face and Afro, beckoning us to “believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” If Nike’s imagery of Kaepernick in a black turtleneck and Afro conjures a dorm-room poster of yore, that is quite intentional. In his latest role as an outspoken celebrity voice against police brutality, Kaepernick has been routinely photographed wearing his hair in the style that signals the Black Power movement of which Davis and other revolutionaries were a part. The commercialization of social-justice activism has long required the market-ready iconography of its most visible individuals. Nike’s images are meant to recall Davis—not as a person, but as a moment—and the resistance as fashion that came out of her image. In teaming up with Nike, Kaepernick voluntarily lends his image—and any contemporary vestiges of Black Power writ large—to corporate commodification.