In Conversation with Shantrelle P. Lewis on Her New Book Exploring the World of Black Dandyism

OkayAfrica speaks with Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator and author of her new book that explores global black dandyism.

DIASPORA—The world of black dandyism and its continuous challenge of black masculinity through style are now pages you can flip through your fingers. Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator and researcher, authored her longstanding and traveling initiative that examines global black dandyism through photography and film, The Dandy Lion Project, into a hardcover book titled Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style.

The New Orleans native who specializes in diasporic aesthetics, as well as the survival and evolution of African retentions, carefully selected images that surveys the global black dandy movement in all its splendor: vibrant patterns, bright colors and poses dripping with effortless swag. You might even see some familiar faces in her book, including Baloji, Iké Udé, Blitz the Ambassador and more.

On the eve of Lewis’ book launch event at the Brooklyn Museum, read our conversation with her below where we discuss her process of writing Dandy Lion, how this project is a conversation tool around the word ‘diaspora’ and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OkayAfrica: Since your project in now tangible book form, what was the process like for you putting this together?

Shantrelle P. Lewis: Painful [laughs]. I mean, writing a book is not easy, and I was writing at the same time that I was still going through my initiation at the Lucumí Initiate, so my level of interaction with the general public was very limited during that time period and that was stressful. I was also planning my wedding which was a huge production, as well as working on the Brighton Photo Biennial that I co-curated, which featured Dandy Lion in the UK. When writing a book most people will go into some kind of retreat where they're in solitude, trying to get their books done, but I was writing this in the midst of everything going on.

The process was a little bit easier because I've been working on this research for seven years, so it wasn't novel, it wasn't anything new. But the book definitely stretched well beyond what I've already done in terms of the exhibition—it involved so many more photographers, so many more subjects and personalities, then the management of all of it. The team at Aperture, particularly my editor, Denise Wolff, were so incredible and so amazing to work with. I felt a lot of pressure to make this happen and get it done, but they made it an enjoyable experience as well.

OKA: What is one main takeaway that you’d like for folks to receive when they read your book?

SPL: That blackness is not monolithic, nor is black masculinity. There's a wealth of diversity within blackness, and at the same time, we need to look at black masculinity on the spectrum where it exists. My work is definitely deeply rooted within diaspora—not just this “traveling the world” concept of diaspora. Literally, when I travel, I interact in a very profound way with the communities that I encounter. It allows me to really understand and try to understand diaspora on a deeper level.

And in that, I'm then being exposed to the richness and the extreme diversity of the black community globally. And I think that the book really speaks to that—how diverse blackness is—but at the same time, there are so many similarities that will connect us as a people. That is, how we enter spaces as immigrants, how we maintain and preserve certain cultural and heritage traditions. I also believe that black masculinity exists on a spectrum, which is why I have cisgendered men in the book, I have trans men in the book, I have masculine-of-center women and effeminate women.

OKA: There’s also an in-depth conversation to be had around the word ‘diaspora’ and what it means. For those who are curious on exploring that, what would you suggest for them to start off with?

SPL: More black people are traveling than ever before and we're also connected in ways that we weren't in the past. And I feel there was always a level of Pan-Africanism that existed among the black elite, black intellectuals and black activists. But in terms of society in general, that same level of access wasn’t there in terms of being able to connect with other folks across the diaspora. Now, with the internet, social media and with the ease of travel, there are so many relationships to be built.

And I think the first to start off with is to find out who has friends, relatives and colleagues in the place where you're visiting, so you're not just going to do tourist activities, but you're actually going to spend time at someone's house, spend time with someone's family, really learning about the culture that exists there. And you can't do that typically in public spaces. That's where the experience truly happens—in those private places when you're building those deep relationships and building those bridges between your own specific culture and that of someone else's. That really makes a difference.

For me, the Netherlands is my home away from home. It’s my home away from New Orleans and my home away from the east coast. I've been going back and forth to the Netherlands for the past several years. The black community there is my family. I'm not just going to take tours of the Red Light District and the coffee shops. But I'm going to my friend's birthday parties, their family celebrations, their baby showers and all these significant things that are happening in their lives. I've become a part of that, a part of their community.


OKA: Based on what I’ve seen of your book, I felt a sense of pride and also a sense of nostalgia. These photographs brought back memories of my parents’ old photo albums with images of my grandparents donning the name tailored look that we still see today.

SPL: That's exactly it—that's a huge part of the book. People ask about the idea of respectability and whether that takes hold in black dandyism. Dandyism, is definitely a European tradition; it came out of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. But it's something that black people have Africanized through the incorporation of vibrant colors, dutch wax and power prints, as well as a flamboyance that exists within the African aesthetic that has taken this very European thing and transformed it into something else.

I think dandyism is a continuum of African masquerading traditions, the New Orleanian Mardi Gras Indian tradition and the like. I feel like the suit, in the contemporary context, becomes something similar for the black men and black women who wear them. And there's definitely a sense of pride. I don't believe that black people are dressing up to gain acceptance by white society and because of their consciousness of the white gaze, but they are moreso reflecting a level of pride that is nostalgic. That is reminiscent of a bygone era where we did dress up consistently for church, the holidays and even the Civil Rights movement. They were on the front lines dressed to the nines. They were sitting at the lunch counter dressed to the nines. And so this is also a part of a long history of using fashion and dress as resistance. Whether here in the U.S., amongst those early immigrants to Europe, or even on the continent during colonialism. So the book and dandyism speaks to all of that.

Join the Brooklyn Museum and Aperture Foundation to celebrate black men’s style as a form of personal politics with a night of fashion, film and music, organized in honor of author Shantrelle P. Lewis’s new book. This evening celebrates the art and style of black dandies, featuring Shantrelle P. Lewis, Darnell Moore, Editor-at-Large, Interactive One, Ignacio Quiles, Haberdasher, QP & Monty and Abiola Oke, CEO, OkayAfrica. The discussion will be moderated by Rashid Shabazz, VP of Communications, Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Buy your tickets here.


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