Vernaculars of Black and Queer Remembering

Eric Darnell Pritchard

In March 1992, almost five years after Willi Smith’s passing, the poet, novelist, and educator Melvin Dixon traveled to Boston. There, Dixon delivered a keynote address titled “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name” at OutWrite, a conference of gay and lesbian writers.

Valerie Simpson, Toukie Smith, Robert De Niro, and Nick Ashford at Auction for Willi Smith Day, 1989

Dixon, HIV-positive and health quickly failing, encouraged the community of writers gathered to take whatever steps were necessary to uncover, document, preserve, share, celebrate, and ensure the survival of Queer literature, history, and culture. Part of the ritual of that work, Dixon said, was to speak the names of the ancestors. “I may not be well enough or be alive next year to attend the lesbian and gay writers’ conference, but I’ll be somewhere listening for my name. . . . You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, and by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.”1 Dixon passed away within the year.

Practices of ancestor honoring, evidenced in call-and-response between ancestors and descendants, between the past and the present, augment the dominant Western language and cultural-historical documentation systems to illuminate the legacies of influential ancestors like Willi Smith. Exploring the ways Black and LGBTQ political figures and creatives have remembered Smith declares his resonance within Black and Queer political, cultural, social, and aesthetic life and illustrates the power of vernacular traditions to amplify contributions that are often maligned in mainstream histories.

Call-and-response originated in the cultural practices of sub-Saharan African people to engineer and support a participatory and unified form of communication. Throughout the African diaspora, call-and-response rituals have been embraced as a means to transmit knowledge, build community, and evidence the power of recursive collective verbal and nonverbal expression.2 Call-and-response became commonplace in the spirituals and “slave songs” of enslaved African people and the work songs of Black women and prisoners. Call-and-response is also a hallmark of Black musical compositions such as jazz, blues, and gospel music, including the work of Count Basie, Muddy Waters, and Mahalia Jackson, respectively.3 In Black churches, we witness call-and-response whenever a pastor or emcee issues the call from the pulpit, “Let the church say Amen,” and congregants respond, “Amen.” Call-and-response was also present in the protests of the 20th-century civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ, and AIDS movements. Protests and rallies from Selma to Stonewall employed chants and songs to build fervor and endurance. “What do we want?” “Justice!” “And when do we want it?” “NOW!” is so entrenched in the popular American psyche that it has become synonymous with a protest action. Today, the various organizations in the movement for Black lives—such as Black Lives Matter—and the Immigrants’ Rights Movement, March for Women’s Lives, and youth activists addressing gun safety policies continue the tradition, often utilizing digital platforms to build intensity.

During his life, Smith engaged in a call-and-response with the street. In an interview with Essence magazine, Smith remarked, “What is happening on the streets of New York is happening to me, so I put it right in the collection,”4 and as Ed Decker writes, “Smith would often stroll down New York City streets, his designer’s eye picking up strange color mixes or ‘attitudes’ that people conveyed through what they wore and how they moved.”5 Since his passing, Smith’s feedback loop with the streets and inclusive agenda have been kept alive by those who have lived realities of inequality and violence based on race, sexuality, and gender.

When former Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins proclaimed February 23 Willi Smith Day in 1988, he told Women’s Wear Daily that Smith had been selected to recognize “his significant achievement in the fashion world in conjunction with Black History Month.”6 Willi Smith Day was used as a way to support community efforts for social change and raise funds for AIDS research. Attendees of Willi Smith Day events came from various dimensions of Smith’s life and included Smith’s family; fashion design colleagues Donna Karan and Betsey Johnson; soul singers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson of the duo Ashford Simpson; and actors Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, and Harvey Keitel.7

This honor from an African American borough president to a self-identified Black gay man who died of AIDS-related complications during the resurgence of conservatism in Ronald Reagan’s America was uncharted territory. By the mid-eighties, the backlash to civil rights and women’s rights movement protections and gains was in full throttle; neoconservatives were rolling back policy gains and people of color, women, Queer people, urban youth, and the poor were left to defend themselves. Dinkins might have chosen to honor someone with less political risk, but he determined to celebrate Smith’s commitment to diversity and difference. Smith was the first fashion designer to be honored with this recognition in New York City.

The recognition of Smith’s work on the municipal calendar institutionalizes essential acknowledgment for Black and/or Queer designers seeking models of success. As I’ve written about in Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, many Black LGBTQ people have found that Black LGBTQ ancestors and elders have been excluded from historical records. A troubling impact of the ubiquitous practice of “historical erasure” is that many Black LGBTQ people struggle to achieve the identity affirmation, sense of historical achievement, and communal connection that others enjoy from having ready access to histories that document, preserve, and celebrate their group’s life, culture, and politics. A number of scholarly, popular, digital, and artistic multigenre projects endeavor to fill the gaps left by exclusions across genre and experience, from Black Queer literary movements to Black Queer fashion designers.8

A recent example of such responses that directly impact the way fashion history and design is taught and understood is the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT’s) award-winning 2016−2017 exhibition Black Fashion Designers, organized by Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way. The project explains that “because Black designers have too often gone unrecognized and underrepresented, there is much to be learned . . . about the challenges faced by Black designers and how their experiences have changed over time.”9 Smith’s work was featured in the exhibition alongside Black fashion designers from various decades, including Ann Lowe, Zelda Wynn Valdes, Arthur McGee, Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows, and Patrick Kelly, beside work by contemporary Black fashion designers such as Tracy Reese, Mimi Plange, Grace Wales Bonner, and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss.

Similarly, a 2017 issue of the International Journal of Fashion Studies featured a special forum titled “Black Fashion Studies,” edited by Rikki Byrd.10 The forum included essays and interviews referencing the importance of recuperating the contributions of designers such as Smith to fashion history, and engaging intellectually, creatively, and pedagogically with the insights he and other Black fashion designers bring to fashion.

Among the earliest responses to calls to remember Black Queer designers was on February 17, 1990, when the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum (BGLLF), a national Black, gay, and lesbian rights organization, held its third annual conference in Atlanta. One of the BGLLF conference events, hosted by the African American Lesbian and Gay Alliance (AALGA) of Atlanta, was a gala luncheon and fashion show tribute to Smith, fellow Black gay designer Patrick Kelly, and legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey. Funds raised from the luncheon were to benefit the Prevention Awareness League and its work on HIV and AIDS education and prevention.11

Another response was a Black Queer memorial of Smith that took place at the Millennium March on Washington for Equality, held to raise awareness of the continued issues of social, economic, and political inequality faced by LGBTQ people. One of the speakers at the march was writer and activist Keith Boykin, former executive director of the BGLLF. On April 29, 2000, Boykin delivered an address titled “I Speak: A Poem for the Millennium March” to a crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. In the poem Boykin sought to make visible the contributions of Black LGBTQ people—and Black freedom fighters at large—to the movement. Including Smith in his poem, Boykin states:

I speak because Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass have taught me the value of struggle. I speak because our community has a right to know how all decisions are made and a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable. I speak because Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith, Countee Cullen, Josephine Baker, Mel Boozer, and Marlon Riggs could not be here. I speak so that my silence will not be interpreted as complicity. My concern is not discarded dismissively. And my thoughts not represented simplistically.12

Calls to address overlooked Black contributors to the global fashion industry were also answered through print and digital publications that have noted Smith’s influence and documented details of his life and work. For instance, a Fall 2013 issue of Swerv magazine, a Black LGBTQ-centered publication focused on “culture and community,” is dedicated to “A Celebration of Style.” The magazine cover names legendary fashion editor André Leon Talley, stylist Lloyd Boston, and designers Edward Wilkerson, Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, and Patrick Kelly as honorees.13 In the magazine, Swerv’s publisher, Jamil A. Fletcher, writes about the importance of celebrating Black LGBTQ people as the too-often-unsung thought leaders and creatives fueling the fashion, beauty, and style industries:

This issue pays tribute to all the Black LGBT folks involved in the style business and the extraordinary work they do, often behind the scenes and unrecognized. From the makeup artist who beat out those faces, and the hair stylist who can make a pauper look like a king or queen with just the right cut, to those fashion designers who transform clothes into walking works of art—their influence is undeniable. . . . Fashion legends like Willie [sic] Smith and Patrick Kelly changed the fashion game dramatically for Black designers before their young departures from this earth.14

The call-and-response to address historical erasure of Black Queer life, culture, and politics has now extended to the film and TV industry. Streaming services have injected the industry with increasingly equitable representation, and GLAAD’s 2018 “Where We Are on TV” report logged more LGBTQ characters of color than White characters for the first time ever.15 Pose, the FX network’s Peabody Award−winning and Golden Globe−nominated musical-drama series, is a shining example of a show representing the historical narrative of Black Queer life. Debuting in June 2018, Pose focused on the predominantly Black and Latinx house and ball culture of New York City in 1987, famously depicted in director Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary film Paris Is Burning (1990).16 The show, which made history due to the unprecedented number of transgender and nonbinary actors in its cast, centers Black and Latinx queer people in factual and speculative takes on the Queer subculture and its community. In Episode 2, Ricky, a young Black gay man, invokes Smith’s influence: “What? You like my tank top? It’s WilliWear. I mopped it. From Macy’s.”17

More than 30 years since his passing, Willi Smith: Street Couture at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the first museum survey of Smith’s exquisite and exhilarating work as a designer and activist. The research for this exhibition relied not on institutionalized narratives, but on the told stories of his friends, collaborators, peers, and fans. Drawing from and sharing the public’s collective memory to honor Smith will continue throughout the run of the exhibition and beyond, calling for shared remembering to continue to enrich Smith’s legacy. Such an offering, one response to the call of Smith’s life and work, functions also as an invitation to a myriad of future responses. And with joy there will be our ancestor, Willi Smith, somewhere, everywhere, hearing his name.

White round pin with red text stating, "Willi Smith Day, Tues. Feb. 23, '88"

Willi Smith Day Pin, 1989

Four people smile and pose for a picture, their arms around each other. One woman wears a shirt that reads "Willi Smith Day '89".

Valerie Simpson, Toukie Smith, Robert De Niro, and Nick Ashford at Auction for Willi Smith Day, 1989

A man stands on a raised fashion runway in the center of the image. His leg is raised as if he's dancing, his hands in the pockets of a large dark coat. A crowd of people smile and watch him dance.

Christopher Walken modeling Willi Smith for WilliWear in the Willi Smith Day Benefit Fashion Show at the Tribeca Grill. Photographed by Robin Platzer, 1990

Eric Darnell Pritchard
Eric Darnell Pritchard is an award-winning writer, cultural critic, and associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who has authored publications about the impact of LGBTQ and Black communities on culture and politics.

    1. Melvin Dixon, “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” Callaloo 23.1 (2000): 83.
    2. See Geneva Smitherman, Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), 104, 108.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Smith quoted in Essence (July 1987): 49. See Ed Decker, “Willi Smith 1948−1987, Fashion Designer,” Contemporary Black Biography 8 (1995): 233. 5. Ibid.
    5. Ibid.
    6. “February 23 Is Proclaimed Willi Smith Day in NYC,” Women’s Wear Daily 155. 32 (February 22, 1988): 19.
    7. Ibid.
    8. Eric Darnell Pritchard, Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), 102−52.
    9. Fashion Institute of Technology, Black Fashion Designers, news release (2016), Link.
    10. “FORUM: Black Fashion Studies,” ed. Rikki Byrd, International Journal of Fashion Studies 4.1 (2017): 103−39.
    11. BLK 23, February 1990, accessed May 22, 2019, Link.
    12. Keith Boykin, “I Speak: A Poem for the Millenium March,” “Millennium March for Equality,” C-SPAN, 6:35, Apr. 30, 2000, Link.
    13. Jamil A. Fletcher, “Publisher’s Letter: ‘Style Matters,’” Swerv (Fall 2013): 7, accessed May 22, 2019, Link.
    14. Ibid.
    15. GLAAD, “Where We Are on TV, 2018−2019,” accessed July 14, 2019, Link.
    16. Paris Is Burning. DVD. Directed by Jennie Livingston. Off-White Productions, 1990.
    17. Pose. “Access.” Episode 2. Directed by Ryan Murphy. Written by Ryan Murphy, Brent Falchuk, and Steven Canals. FX, June 10, 2018.