Wesley Morris has a powerful new essay in the New York Times Magazine about his mustache — specifically, the shifting meaning of that upper-lip fuzz as it relates to race and masculinity. Morris, a gay Black man, decided to grow a mustache during this quarantine period, before the start of the summer's string of racial protests, and has a lot of thoughtful — and complicated — insight into the socio-political implications of his facial hair — cultural perceptions about the mustache's relationship to blackness and queerness, that exist regardless of one's personal intentions in growing said mustache.
In 1954, when the court ruled in Brown, it wasn't so rare to see a mustached man. They were a common feature among blue-collar joes. Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn had been stars; and the country hadn't quite finished with Clark Gable. Ernest Hemingway had aligned the mustache with distinctly American ideas of masculine bravado, concision and sport. But a mustache could also be a softener, a grace note. A mustache advertised a certain commitment to civility. On a man like Gable, it embellished his rough edges, gave his characters' chauvinism a classy place to land.
On Black men, a mustache told a different story. It was fashionable, but it was more than that. On a Black man, it signified values: perseverance, seriousness, rigor. Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Albert Murray, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Joseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Julius L. Chambers, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Elijah Cummings: mustaches all. Classics. (It should be noted that the superstar ideological iconoclast among the freedom fighters, Malcolm X, did battle accordingly. He was the only prominent American leader, of any race, with a goatee.)
A mustache might have been a dignified symbol in the pursuit of equality. But there was nothing inherently Black about it. A mustache meant business. An Afro meant power.
I knew before the summer's Black Lives Matter protests that my mustache made me look like a bougie race man: a professional, seemingly humorless middle-class Negro, a moderate, who believes that presentation is a crucial component of the "advancement" part of the N.A.A.C.P. mission, someone who doesn't mind a little respectability because he believes his people deserve respect. It's a look to ponder as the country finds itself churning once again over ceaseless questions of advancement and justice and the right to be left the hell alone.
This is one of those surprising, thought-provoking essays that I genuinely believe everyone should read.
My Mustache, My Self [Wesley Morris / New York Times Magazine]
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