What was most striking to me about the portrait that my son made in Play School as a Father’s Day gift for my husband was the green tie. Miles’s teacher had asked us to bring in a small picture of my husband that would be used for making a separate gift, and in that picture, he wore a tie. Did they make ties for all the fathers as it is a traditional Father’s Day accessory or were they intentionally trying to make the portrait representative? Whatever their intentions, we thought they did a fabulous job! Even the hairline was accurate. A few things, though, came to mind regarding that bright green tie as a marker of formality and its relationship to notions of appropriate dress. First, when I was a child, my grandfather used to rail against young people’s desire for “sneakers” instead of church shoes as desirable purchases. “When I was a boy,” he would say, “I never woulda asked my Mama for no sneakers.” To laughs, he would continue on, “man, are you crazy. Naw, no way. No sneakers, Jack!” I didn’t quite get the joke then because tennis shoes were practical as far as I was concerned. I was an athlete so I needed “sneakers.” As I continued to think about it years on, I realized that it was precisely because they were practical that my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted them–he would have been put to work in practical shoes. He had decided that as a young black boy coming-of-age in the Jim Crow South that he had more than enough work to do requiring shoes thought practical for him. I always believed that my grandfather wanted a life of the mind and as much as he could give that to himself, he did. Thus, “sneakers” did not suit the intellectual life he desired. Sneakers were more suited to a life of physical labor and he would not have chosen that for himself.

Thinking about my grandfather in this way led me to another portrait. This one by famed Tuskegee photographer, Prentice Herman Polk:

Mr. and Mrs. T.M. Campbell and Children, ca. 1932. You can find a full listing of the subjects in the photograph by following this link to the Paul R. Jones Collection, Atlanta, Ga.

Thomas Monroe Campbell stands out in this family portrait. It’s only later that I really pay attention to the rest of the family. He dominates the portrait with his defiant, almost confrontational, gaze. Then you notice that everyone except Anna Marie Ayers Campbell, looks at the camera, which is something that I have noticed in many formal portraits of middle and upper-class women. What was it like for Mrs. Campbell tucked inside her half of this frame? Even as this Easter portrait is beautifully balanced and composed–one adult to each group of three children; two dark uniform suits across the back with boys of equal height; three across the middle of about the same height; the hats, the ties, the white dresses, jackets, pants, and socks–you can’t help but notice that this portrait has a center, a black male center and he offers no apologies for where he sits. T.M. Campbell embraces his distinction.

T.M. Campbell did live a life of public distinction. He was the first African American extension agent for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to work with rural black farmers in advanced farming and land-management methods. The Jesup Agricultural Wagon that carried seeds, fertilizers, and the tools of modern farming practices was first begun by George Washington Carver, Campbell’s teacher and mentor. With Carver’s support and Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington’s endorsement, Campbell took over the school’s Moveable School of Agriculture. Campbell achieved great success in his work and created opportunities for other black extension agents. Though presented with many opportunities to enter other fields, he declined opportunities to work outside of his extension work serving poor, rural, black folk.

Polk’s photograph of the Campbell family, particularly Mr. Campbell’s depiction, challenges our image of black southern men, especially during the 1930s. This Arthur Rothstein image suits that construction:

Arthur Rothstein photograph from Gees Bend, Alabama 1937.

This documentary photograph of a sharecropping family also features a black man set apart from the others but his distinction is due to his location on the line and not the suggestion of his command or authority. The desperation that one might imagine in the Rothstein photograph is nowhere present in the Polk photograph of the Campbell family. Interestingly, Mr. Campbell’s posture and his engagement with the camera resembles one of Polk’s more famous photographs:

P.H. Polk, “The Boss,” 1932.

The subject of Mr. Polk’s photograph, “The Boss,” had been visiting a farmers’ conference on Tuskegee’s campus when he saw her. Seeing power and command in her, Mr. Polk thought this “woman can boss anybody…” so he asked her to put her hands on her hips but the look is all hers. Mr. Campbell appears to be a “boss” as well. He and the subject of “the boss” confront the camera in unexpected ways–especially as they speak through conventions of dress and portraiture. Despite the habiliments of domestic labor and their suggestion of subservience, “The Boss” participates in being photographed but on terms she seems to have decided for herself; the same can be said for Mr. Campbell. He has agreed to dress formally for the occasion of the family’s yearly Easter portrait but he will comport himself as he pleases. I think that this photograph of my great-grandparents and my grandmother performs similarly:

Like Mr. Campbell, my great-grandfather, Charles Lewis, sits and is dressed formally, but what strikes me about him is that he’s actually the parent touching the child. The touching in this family portrait appears thematic. No one here gets estranged from intimacy.

Even as black men in the 1920s and 1930s dressed themselves for formal portraits, they still broke through convention with original voices, thus uniquely asserting themselves into tradition and altering expected utterances. I wonder what place formality holds for us now in our contemporary self-portraits? What role does fatherhood play in our efforts to define formality? Does fatherhood have a central role in crafting contemporary family portraits?

Generationally speaking, the photos that I have of young families in my own home don’t feature young men wearing ties. Even when there is clear color coordination in contemporary photographs between the men, women, and children in my growing little collection, young men do not wear ties. I noticed this recently at funerals too. While it wasn’t something that offended me, I noticed that young men and their children were not dressed in what I would have considered formal attire at my father’s funeral or my uncle’s. I think I noticed because my father was a suit wearing man. He took pride in having clothes to meet the expectations for whatever occasion was being marked. Too, my uncle and I had had a conversation not long before he passed about a young man who my uncle felt was far too casually dressed for court. “Can you believe he actually wore that to court today?” he asked me rhetorically as the young man was approaching from a distance. “I can’t even imagine what the judge thought when he saw that fool,” he said laughing. I remember thinking at the time that he and that young man certainly had very different definitions of what it meant to be cool. For my uncle, it certainly meant having a wardrobe that marked life’s key moments.

The relationship between black men, formality, and death, especially funerals, occurs in Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls. This eloquent memorial film pays tribute to the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. In one scene, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III recalls his experience of preparing to attend the mass funeral for three of the girls. His school’s principal, George Bell, pulled him aside and while taking his tie off, said to young Freeman, “son, you wear dark ties to funerals.” While placing the tie around Freeman’s neck, he explained to the young man that he was representing the school through his attendance. Dress conveyed meaning beyond personal expression. Dress had the power to convey seriousness of purpose and could carry a group message of love, support, sympathy, and solidarity. Too, dress suggested that a child had been taught. That someone had prepared a young person to participate in public rites and ceremonies. Thus, a child’s attire carried an adult’s imprint.

There was a time when my observations about formality wouldn’t have been about class and education but now they appear to be. The example of my father and my uncle marks such an earlier period. Things appear to be changing. Young men who attend college, even for a time, will take photographs wearing ties, but otherwise, this does not appear to be the case. I was recently in a conversation with a woman and her colleagues who were in the Math Department at Morehouse College. The woman’s colleagues were teasing her for wearing a Spelman College shirt after being presented with it as a gift from the College following a speaking engagement. “Well, of course I wear it!” she said. “They actually had me in mind when they presented it. Morehouse only ever gives out ties. What am I supposed to do with a tie?” They laughed. Historically Black Colleges and Universities continue to create occasions for formal dress. For that matter, single-sex private high schools do the same. I recently received a newsletter from my high school that featured some of the girls in the formal uniform, which requires a blazer. In these contexts, spirited debate certainly follows the mandate for compulsory self-expression. What troubles me is that there are some people clearly being left out of the debate; it’s as if they don’t know that one is taking place. In the case of my father’s funeral, being sharp for going to a club shared the same aesthetic as attending a mourning ceremony. I wonder what this does for your sense of life’s fullness. It’s hard to imagine that life would seem more than mere monotony with every event being some slightly altered version of itself.

I had never considered the role that fatherhood played in how formality might get defined until I looked at my son’s portrait of his father and saw that green tie. I will be interested in seeing how this theme continues to play itself out as we’re raising him in this new media age. I wonder if his father’s ties will impact the Facebook photos he will one day post or even what new arguments he will bring to the table, presumably, against formality.