I'm pissed at Roland Martin. Not because of anything the broadcast journalist has said in one of his ubiquitous, ranting TV commentaries. Yeah, the guy's hard to avoid — his face is all over CNN and TV One and he's loudly, loudly, opinionated — but that's OK with me. I wish the brother nothing but success in his professional life. I just wish he hadn't messed it up for my wardrobe.
Let me explain.
For about two weeks this month, Martin and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart went at each other in prime-time over Martin's choice of neck wear, namely an ascot. (A primer on ascots: they're fancy ties that are squared at both ends and tied with two knots, as opposed to being pointy and tied with one knot in the middle like a regular tie). RoMar, as associates call him (full disclosure: Roland and I are on the board of the National Association of Black Journalists together), rocks these things on a regular and took to wearing them in prime-time on CNN after Lou Dobbs, perhaps the worst-dressed former CNN personality, dared him to. Enter Stewart, for whom the oddities of cable newsmen is fodder for hilarity.
For news junkies what happened next was hilarious: Martin and Stewart taking shots at each other on their respective networks over a funny-looking tie? (See Stewart's original riff here; and Martin's response here.)
Below the surface, though, was something that probably made a lot of brothers groan, something that rarely gets discussed on the nightly news. By making fun of Martin's ascot, Stewart took a lightweight shot at the sartorial choices of black men who just don't want to appear like the rest, myself included.
Musician Andre3000 donning an ascot.
Stewart and most of white America probably didn't realize this, but Roland Martin is hardly the first black man to make "odd" fashion choices staples of their wardrobes. In rocking the ascot on-air, Martin is doing what a lot of brothers do in our regular lives: using quirks in his wardrobe to silently, but noticeably, distinguish himself from the mainstream; to state without yelling that we're not only comfortable with our difference, but that we can be visibly so without being unfashionably loud enough to offend the eye. I've worn ascots with my tux to black tie events because who the hell wears a regular bow tie? Just not my style, and not the way of many black men, who as a rule rather than an exception try to step our game up a notch above everyone else's.
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Actor Morgan Freeman with a subtle accent around his neck.
We know something they don't know, and we like it that way. Or at least we did.
Now brothers in that category have one less trick up our sleeves — or around our necks — and we have Roland Martin and Jon Stewart to thank for it.
Since Stewart took Martin to task, the Brooks Brothers white guys are in on the joke that the rest of us were playing on them. Like so many other cultural nuances that cross over, now that they get it (or think they do), it can't be funny to us anymore. Or cool.
Before last week I could wear an ascot and people would glance with a mix of curiosity (how'd he tie that thing) and respect (I wish I was bold enough to wear that). Now they'll look at me and see…Roland, as in, that guy's trying to be like the Roland Martin. And that's not cool.
Keith Reed edits Catalyst Ohio magazine and writes the personal finance blog Keith Reed's Money Corner.