By Len Lear
Political correctness aside, seeing a few Black teenage males walking towards you definitely makes some white folks (maybe most white folks) nervous, especially if they wear saggy pants, walk with a certain swagger, talk loudly, use profanity, etc. It might even cause some folks to walk across the street, just in case.
When long-time Germantown resident Shantrelle Patrice Lewis sees the same thing, however, she perceives a whole different reality. A historian, critic and filmmaker, Shantrelle, 39, is a 2012 Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellow and a 2014 United Nations Programme for People of African Descent Fellow. She is also the curator of a coffee table book, “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style,” which was released last month by the New York publishing house, Aperture, and is drawing a closet full of attention from the fashion cognoscenti.
Even before the book came out, thousands of copies were pre-ordered from the publisher, and since it went on sale June 1, it has been holding out as the #1 New Release on Amazon in Fashion Photography. The book is awash in striking photos of “Black Dandies,” i.e., Black men dressed in eye-catching outfits — colorful prints, pinstripes, floral designs, dazzling patterns, etc. You might say that Lewis’ mission is turning a negative perception into a positive one. These guys pictured in the book have glitz and glamour coming out of their razzmatazz. And time has not laid a glove on them.
A native of New Orleans who graduated from Howard University and then in 2004 came to Temple University, where she earned a master’s degree in African American Studies, Lewis was also the spark behind a highly acclaimed traveling exhibition on Black Dandyism that features the images of emerging photographers and filmmakers from various regions around the African Diaspora.
According to Lewis, their subject matter is “young Black men in city-landscapes across the globe who defy stereotypical and monolithic understandings of masculinity within the Black community. ‘Dandy Lion’ also confronts the myth of the young Black man as ‘thug’ via the juxtaposition of an alternative style of dress. Using the African aesthetic and swagger as a point of departure … the men photographed are exceptional in both style and manners and provide the opportunity for a paradigm shift to occur as it relates to how men of African descent are seen and treated by society-at-large.”
Lewis, a live wire with a passion for truth, became interested in the “Dandy Lion” subject because she “was disturbed by the bombardment of negative imaging of Black men in the media and popular culture. It was after the 2008 LeBron James King Kong-esque cover of Vogue and its absurdity that I considered how I could go about combating some of these harmful and derogatory images.”
Lewis put out an open call to photographers and wound up with 14 photographers and their photos, which began attracting the attention of museums that were willing to exhibit them. Over a six-year period they have been exhibited in numerous cities, the biggest one being Chicago, which drew more than 17,000 visitors. Oddly enough, the traveling exhibit has yet to be shown in a Philadelphia museum.
“I’d love to have it in Philly!” Lewis said. “At least one institution has reached out so far, but nothing has been confirmed yet. I could easily see the show going to the Pennsylvania Academy of fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art or the gallery at Drexel University.”
Lewis has lived in Germantown for 13 years. “I first bought my home in 2004 and have been coming back and forth since then. I finally decided to settle here, at least for the time being, and start a family after convincing my husband to move here from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. I love these neighborhoods! Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill are so rich with history, specifically the Underground Railroad and abolition. Also, I absolutely love the architecture and local flora.
“I actually adore living in Germantown. One of my college roommates grew up in Nicetown, so my friends and I would drive up to get cheesesteaks from Max’s on the weekends. This was during a time where we had no GPS and had to use old school road maps. So there were a few times where we came into Philly from Germantown Pike because we knew that it would somehow take us to Germantown Avenue, where she lived.
“We drove through Germantown, and I immediately felt a sense of belonging, so when it was time for me to buy a house when I moved up here for graduate school, I insisted on purchasing a home here.”
What is the best advice Lewis ever received? “From my dad: ‘Have an opinion about everything. Either stand for something or fall for nothing.’”
What does Lewis hope will ultimately come out of the Dandy Lion Project and the book? “The end of racist stereotyping of people of African descent, not because I believe Black dandyism should be universal, but I hope that it forces people to move beyond trite narratives and explore the vast universe that is global Blackness.”
What is the most difficult thing Lewis has ever done? “Plenty of things! Moving back to New Orleans from Philadelphia after Hurricane Katrina to revitalize the McKenna Museum of Art with no funding. The second most difficult thing was initiating into Lucumi priesthood, which entailed a year of me wearing all white, going into seclusion with the exception of my work and not being able to touch people who were non-initiates, among many other restrictions.”
Who are Lewis’ heroes in real life, living and/or dead? “Living: my mama and my great-uncle, Robert. Dead: Harriet Ross Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Queen Nanny of the Maroons.” (Ed. Note: Queen Nanny, 1686-1755, escaped from slavery in Jamaica and led a rebellion against the slave masters.)
For more information, visit shantrelleplewis.com or amazon.com for “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style” ($22.48 in hard cover).