Senatus Populusque Urbanus

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Photo: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

I’m always struck by how people react with such vitriol to men dressed like the gentleman pictured above, as if the fact that his jeans hang below his buttocks somehow threatens to sunder the very fabric of American society. Concerned citizens and legislatures all over the country periodically introduce efforts to criminalize this fashion statement scourge, and while most of them ultimately fail or are struck down, the very efforts themselves represent the level of concern with which some view sagging. Where legislative efforts fail, however, cultural warfare often seeks to succeed, as in the case of the untrue rumor that this style originated in prison as a symbol of the wearer’s sexual availability, a falsehood which seeks to lampoon this fashion while apparently piggybacking on and abetting the persistent stigma surrounding homosexuality.

I feel the same way about sagging that I do about skinny jeans: They’re not for me, but I don’t find them offensive or indecent. At first I saw this as one of the many efforts to reject and ostracize sartorial trends pioneered by and associated with minorities, not unlike the sometimes violent attacks on zoot suits in the 1940s, but that fails to take into account a key difference.

Sagging is the American toga.

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Cato the Elder, famous for wearing his toga without a tunic and calling for the destruction of Carthage in a series of grudge raps.

The above mentioned origin story of this trend is partially correct, since it did originate in prison. As one might expect, prison clothes are not made bespoke and thus often fit poorly. Combined with the necessary lack of belts for safety and suicide concerns, this leads to pants which sag and require a specialized gait and the aid of hands to keep them up at all, though this still hang off one’s bottom, nonetheless. In the dawning era of gangster rap, many artists either emphasized their own experiences in criminality and incarceration or simply effected a similar style in the absence of such experience, so this fashion of sagging and grabbing came loping to the fore, representing a life spent in part behind bars for a life spent in part in conflict with the law. How does this elementary history relate to the style of Roman citizens?

Martial prowess. The toga was a large, heavy, elaborately wound bolt of cloth that draped over the body and rested on the arms and, by the time of the empire, was worn exclusively by male citizens. As such, it was a highly impractical garment used as a status symbol and ceremonial garment for peacetime. Few things in Rome were without the influence of Janus, however, and the toga was no exception. To properly wear it in most instances required supporting it on the forearms, and given that it was so large and usually made of heavy wool, this meant one would carry a significant weight in one’s arms all day in a position not unlike that of a Roman legionary bearing a scutum. All Roman men trained for military service, so this was merely a natural extension of that martially inclined life. It took that kind of training to bear the awkward toga effectively, and it signified that even in peace, Romans stood ready to do battle, preparing even in the way they dressed.

Sagging then bears much of the same symbolism. When donned outside of the walls of a prison, it is a status symbol, not of citizenship to an empire but of street cred. In its most originalist and sincere context, one might wear it to boast a history of conflict with the law and a dedication to the same in the present and future, while the impracticality of the style necessitates a particular gait and use of the hands to remain dressed, similar to the toga. This communicates no need for practical movement, that the wearer is comfortable being hobbled in this way because they feel no immediate threats, a powerful status symbol that conveys power and confidence. Even when the more aggressive undertones of sagging’s prison origins are divorced from it, this self-assured air remains.

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Stop Editing; Relax

I hope all of you managed to consume the assignment for this blog post. No? That’s fine, I’ll just leave it right here. Enjoy it at your leisure before we continue. I’ll wait for you.

Wasn’t that great? Let’s discuss these guys a bit.

 

Like many people, my introduction to the rap group Das Racist was, unfortunately, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, at which point I unwisely wrote them off on the basis of a single song. Luckily, a friend of mine linked me to a video from their most recent album, and I quickly became an enthusiastic fan as I listened to more and more of their music. Though it’s not strictly the point of this particular post, the fact that I almost summarily dismissed Das Racist as a jocular stoner rap group, like too many people, and nearly missed out on a talented trio with subtle but powerful social messages illustrates the very purpose of my whole blog.

 

I’m going pretty far afield, though. Let’s get back to this track and take a look at a very specific excerpt at the very end.

 

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Photo: TimeOut

papa need his medicine

reticent to let them in

hesitant bedouin

-Himanshu “Heems” Suri

 

No doubt those lines and their rhymes are particularly impressive, but I mostly want to take a look at the usage of “reticent” there. Most dictionaries will distinguish between “reticent” and “reluctant” by stipulating that the former involves holding one’s tongue while the latter involves not wanting to take action more generally. When I initially heard the line, it caught my ear. Obviously not wanting to let someone in seems to be a prime candidate for “reluctant” and makes little apparent sense if we’re just talking about someone laconic. “Reluctant” would through the meter and excellent rhyming off, but I thought it would have been easy enough to swap “reticent” with “hesitant” in the next line and all words would fit with proper standard usage. Such a simple solution! Why didn’t they think of that?

 

That’s sort of where my solution falls apart. These gentlemen are three well-educated, word-savvy artists who’ve released multiple rap albums, a musical genre most famous in my mind for literary technicality. That’s not to say that their judgment shouldn’t be questioned, but maybe I ought to delve a bit deeper than the “simple solution.”

 

While “reticent” seems to work well enough with “Bedouin” in the freedom of a vacuum, when “hesitant” is contrasted with “reticent” here, it highlights the forgone action. In such a context, this usage evokes the nomadic tradition of Bedouin culture, one both embraced by emigration and left behind by living in a home (into which the subject is so reluctant to let people). Hesitance is thus more than reluctance; it is dichotomy, the ambiguity of an immigrant’s life. Through the lens of immigration, reticence is about more than being unwilling to say, “Come in.” Rather, it communicates the fear of language and accent barriers. Keeping mum obscures that perceived cultural handicap while simultaneously excluding people from his situation. The picture here is suddenly not of a man reluctant to open the door but of a man caught between two worlds, afraid to leave himself vulnerable and available in the face of both unfamiliarity and opportunity.

 

All I had to do to see it was stop trying to proofread their rap song and listen.

Be Whose of You

Years ago, a gunner in my platoon addressed us from the front of the formation, lecturing us on some mundane task which we’d need to complete after work. He told us that it would be in our best interest. He told us we would regret neglecting this task. Then, slowly, a self-satisfied smile played across his face, and after preparing us by saying he was bringing out one of the only big words he knew, he told us, “It would be whose of you to get this done.”

 

I physically recoiled. He smirked.

 

I understood that he meant “it would behoove you,” a phrase non-commissioned officers throw around like a dagger in a doily all the time, but my body seemed to be literally rejecting the mangled parody of language he had cobbled together in an attempt to parrot his colleagues. The platoon leader, standing at the back of the formation, must have noticed my turmoil because he asked, only half joking, “Dill, are you okay?” I lied and told him I was fine, even though I wanted to call for a medic or a court martial or some kind of justice, for god’s sake.

 

But I was fine. Just as importantly, I understood what he meant.

 

That gunner died a year or so later, victim to a triple-stacked anti-tank mine in Iraq.

 

I tell this anecdote not to point out what an uneducated rube he was but to point out what poor priorities I had. This was a man who had sworn to my family that he would keep me safe and had selflessly passed on any knowledge he had to me and the rest of the platoon. I may, to put it mildly, not see eye-to-eye with the military anymore, but to nitpick a man’s admittedly bizarre but still completely intelligible pronunciation in the face of literal self-sacrifice seems rather crass.

 

I hope to make this blog a chronicle of my attempts to avoid searching for errors and instead search for why those interesting oddities exist. An effort toward description and explanation rather than prescription and judgment. Embracing the way things are.

 

Please join me, won’t you?