Kimberly McNair

Cotton Framed Revolutionaries: T-Shirt Culture and Black Power Iconography

My project focuses on radical iconography of the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States and the t-shirt trade industry. I am concerned with the discourse surrounding Black radicalism and the ways appropriated images from the past informs historical memory in the present moment. Using visual analysis, remix theory, performance theory, African Diaspora Studies, and cultural studies, I investigate t-shirt culture as not only a form of commodity culture associated with the t-shirt industry but as a meaning making behavior. I contend that “wearing history” is a type of performance, and that individuals who don the symbols of African American protest tradition extend and enliven that tradition by and beyond aesthetic means. I explain how contemporary products remix and reimagine not only the images (both the physical image and the iconic, “public” image) of specific individuals and groups, but also their political philosophies and the overarching tenets of the Black radical tradition. My central concerns are how these t-shirts convey historical, cultural, and political meanings in the present moment, and how they relate to modern political struggles and communication within the African diaspora.