Two objects have been elevated to symbols in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin: Skittles and the hoodie.
When Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot in Florida late last month, he was carrying the candy and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Wednesday, his style of dress inspired a “Million Hoodie March” in New York City, where hundreds rallied to honor Martin and call for the arrest of George Zimmerman, who shot him.
Martin’s supporters believe his death was racially motivated; Zimmerman and his family say it was not. Supporters point to a call to police from Zimmerman just before the shooting, during which Zimmerman said he saw a “suspicious” man wearing a hoodie. That man was Martin. Hundreds of people on Wednesday uploaded pictures of themselves wearing hoodies, with captions like: “Am I suspicious enough?”
The hoodie has had a long and tortured history, long before Trayvon Martin. But let’s start with him, and then rewind backwards.
One question at the center of the Trayvon Martin debate is: Would this have happened if the hoodie-wearing teenager was white? Michael Skolnik, editor of Global Grind, doesn’t think so:
“I will never look suspicious to you. Even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on...in fact, that is what I wore yesterday...I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggie my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you... And I certainly will never get ‘stopped and frisked.’ I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only. The color of my skin. I am white.”
Before Martin, hoodies have had a mostly positive association in recent years. They’ve become signifiers of pride, with high school kids wearing their school names or mascots emblazoned across their hooded sweatshirts. They’ve become fashion symbols, like when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon famously wore hoodies under dress suits in the 1999 movie “Dogma.” And they’ve become the modern version of getting “pinned” by a boy; for a high school girl, it means the relationship is serious when a guy gives you his hoodie.
In the 1970s, the hoodie wasn’t seen that way. Before hip hop dress translated into mainstream fashion, it was associated by some with criminal intent. The New York Times’ Denis Wilson wrote of the hoodie in the 70s:
Hip-hop trendsetters used the hoodie also to cloak and isolate themselves, and lent it a sinister appeal... The sweatshirt hood can work much like a cobra hood, put up to intimidate others. But even more important is its ability to create a shroud of anonymity. This came in handy for at least two types of people operating in hip-hop’s urban breeding ground: graffiti writers and so-called stick-up kids, or muggers. Wearing a hoodie meant you were keeping a low profile, and perhaps up to something illegal.
When the hoodie was first produced in the U.S., 40 years before this, it wasn’t associated with criminals or rap stars. It was simply utilitarian — worn mostly by laborers working in freezing temperatures. As Wilson points out in the The Times, there is a reason the boxer in the film “Rocky” wears a hoodie as he hits a bloody carcass in a freezing meat locker.
But far before the hoodie began its torturous history in America, and far before it was associated with an allegedly race-based crime, it was worn by another subset of people — Medieval monks.
The hoodie’s original inspiration is from the long decorative hoods these monks in Europe wore.
A Facebook page created recently entitled “Monks wear hoods — How often do they knife people?” attempts to make the same point as those who participated in the Million Hoodie March.
“Want to get the message out there that not everyone who wears a hoodie is an assassin,” the page wrote.
Update, Friday, 12:51 p.m.:
Fox contributor Geraldo Rivera has incurred criticism for comments he made on the show “Fox and Friends” this morning, during which he said: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.” Rivera also urged black and Latino parents not to let their children go out wearing hoodies.