All Heroes Wear Capes

September 11, 2017

Nelly on the cover of Sweatsuit, Eve during New York Fashion Week, Cam’ron on Rap City’s Tha Bassment. This week, we follow the rise, fall, and rise again, of the durag.

CREDITS

The Nod is produced by Eric Eddings, Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser, with editing help this week from Jason Parham and PJ Vogt. Engineering from Cedric Wilson and Haley Shaw. Our theme music is by Calid B. Other original music in the show by Calid B, Bobby Lord, Dynamedion, and Nana. Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka.

Show transcript

Eric: From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod.

Brittany: And you are here with blackness’ biggest fans. I am Brittany Luse.

Eric: And I’m Eric Eddings. And today… ?

Brittany: We’re gonna talk about duraaaags.

Brittany: I realize that some of you people listening… some of you poor, poor people, some of you may have absolutely NO idea what a durag is. And if you know what it is, you may not actually really know like all that it can really do and all that it’s really about. Eric, will you please tell some of these sad sorry people what a durag is?

Eric: A durag Is a hallowed garment for–i would say black men and black women. Black people. Primarily… uh but it’s most known for its association with black men. But it is used to hold down the hair, usually so that waves would form, but it also protects the hair from like if you go to sleep so your hair doesn’t get messed up.

Brittany: Right like The durag is all about Keeping. Your hair. Fresh.  But there was a period of time when it was so much more than that… when it had this like huge moment. And that’s what we’re talking about today….  I’m going to walk you through the story of the durag’s meteoric rise and devastating fall in pop culture and its eventual redemption. And I found someone to help me tell that story…

Brittany: You have a lot of space. This is like–

Vann Newkirk, II: That’s  the benefit of not living in the city I guess.

Brittany: (laughs)

Brittany: This is Vann Newkirk the Second. Eric, you know him already

Eric: Yeah.

Brittany: Yeah. So I went down and talked to him at his beautiful house in suburban Maryland. Vann is a writer for The Atlantic. But back before he was this super accomplished journalist…. Vann was just a kid out there trying to be cool and style his hair. And he remembers the day he got his FIRST durag VERY well.

Vann: I went to the beauty supply store down the street. And this is in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina so we’re in the country right? So so this is the beauty supply store in the country you – you know. It is one of the five blackest places on earth. And you walk in there and you know there’s not a whole lot of men’s products in the beauty supply store. There’s one little rack of men’s products. You got your standard – your brushes, the little wooden brushes. You got some other afro products – Afro-Sheen you know your Sta-Sof-Fro.

Vann: And then beside all that your afro picks and all that stuff you had the durags. And back then you had 2 options. You got the black durag with the long cape. Or you got the gray one. I had known the one I wanted forever, it was that black one, the black the black durag with the long cape.

Eric: The classic. It’s like the Jordan One of durags.

Brittany: So vann took his jordan one of durags home…and he was a happy happy teenage boy. And he could not wait to put this thing to work.

Vann: I was beaming, I was hype. I went upstairs to the bathroom and I mean I wanted to put it on right away right? But I had to get my waves right. So I spent the day up until bedtime – I – I brushed maybe 500 times. I have like 500 strokes – like I just knew when I woke up the next morning, I was gonna have the 360-est of waves, right?

Brittany: What happened the next morning?
Vann: My waves were not 360. They were actually worse than they were before.

Brittany: Tell the people what 360s are.

Eric: 360 waves… One, just for the record this is a peak moment in my life… to be defining 360 waves…. as a part of my job… but 360s basically when your waves are so defined that like you have little concentric circles starting from the crown of your head going from the crown of your head going all the way out to the edge of your hair…and they’re like shiny. And you know, not greasy if you’re doing it right

Brittany: (laughs) Well i mean so Vann had NOT mastered the art of the 360 wave. BUT you know getting the durag was still kind of a win because it served another purpose for Vann.

Vann: I had a group of kids – I guess teenagers that I played Yugioh! cards with and stuff. Like – real real black nerd culture. They all wore durags, jerseys, and we just played like trading card games with each other. And I had my freshest tall throwback jersey on. And you know you gotta take the durag off right at the last moment so people can see the lines. And I had a still-red line right in the middle of my head. And I went to school and I remember, one of the guys that I played with all the time, he was like “Newkirk you got a durag.” And – “Yes. Yes sir.”

Brittany: So Vann.. he gets this durag, he’s got this line on his forehead… and all of a sudden all his friends are looking at him kinda different. Right? I mean, getting waves was not even the most important thing to Vann, it was the durag, that was the thing that made him cool to his friends. Because during this time, durags WERE COOL. Like I have so many good memories of seeing like very cool men — and it was men, I mean women always have worn durags–but they tend to wear them more privately, in the house. But we’re talking about a specific moment when men were wearing durags all over the place. Publicly. Like ja rule, obviously you know LL Cool J, he kind of switched from the kangol to the durag. Oh my god Nelly…. Mr. Sweat Suit himself. He always had on a durag. I know you have a favorite durag memory.

Eric: Oh yeah. Its Cam’ron on Rap City, tha Basement, the moment when he freestyles. This was a very significant moment in my life if I’m being honest.

Brittany: Please, share with the class. Share with the class.

Eric: so I used to come home…i used to come home everyday, I’d be the first to get home, and I would come home and watch Rap City’s Tha Basement, you know? And I’ll never forget the moment where I come home, I cut on Rap City the Bassment. And Cam’ron was there. Dipset was there actually. And you Cam’ron was one of the leaders of Dipset at that time.

Brittany: Yes

Eric: And, I’m just gonna pull it up real quick.

Dipset… Rap City the Bassment…

Eric: So he had on this beautiful luscious, like short sleeve, Coogi shirt

Brittany: Hmm. I see this.

Eric: Very pink, and he’s got a white durag with a pink bucket hat over it. And he’s got the beautiful, big, eagle, Dipset chain.

Brittany: Oh my gosh

Eric: Crazy earrings. And a big stack of money in his hands. Like this man is money in this moment. He is success. You know, and like it was all like accentuated by — like, by his durag. It was a beautiful moment.

Brittany: But see here’s the thing… and I’m going back to our hero Vann here… wearing a durag may have made him feel like he was you know ready to count bills on Rap City…. But not everyone in Vann’s life thought the durag was so cool….

Vann:  It was the first time in my life I was wearing my hair differently than other men in my family. It was such an expression of individualism. You know it really was the first time I stepped outside  of my parent’s worldview and that lead to some things.

Brittany: One of the things it lead to…was a break in a very important tradition…

Vann: You go every two weeks you get a haircut. It was clockwork. You go to the barbershop, and you talk your trash. The barbers were my dad’s frat brothers. My little brother was a little boy then, and we got cut one [1], two [2], three, [3]. And when I started not getting cut one [1], two [2], three, [3], it was a big break from just the ritual that I had with my dad, and my brother, that was bigger than I thought it to be. Then it was actually like a legit scandal in the family. You’re not getting your haircut, with your dad, what are you doing? My dad he always took it hard because he thought i was rejecting him. That was one of those rituals you didn’t break. And i broke it. And it ruffled some feathers.

Brittany: So all kids kind of go through something like this in their lives…that moment where you are breaking away from your parents, trying to become your own individual, and even–as Vann said–ruffling some feathers. So Vann was ready to take that step toward independence. But Vann really wasn’t ready for what would happen next for him and his trusted durag… That’s coming up after the break.

[Break]

Brittany: Welcome back

Eric: Welcome back

Brittany: so when we last left vann, he had you know ruffled some feathers in his family by breaking their barbershop tradition. Even though he was allowed to wear a durag to achieve his wavy look, he was not allowed to wear one out of the house as a fashion statement. But all that was about to change. Because for the last two years of high school — right when the durag was at it’s, like, zenith — Vann actually went away to boarding school — where he was finally free to live his best durag life:

Vann:  I was getting a little wild in high school in boarding school I had cornrows for a while and I wore the durag over the corn rows you know. That was the thing right. You got the spaces greased up. And you wore the durag. I was wearing like two durags. It was just really like my parents weren’t there and we were just wilding out. Yeah it was me and five other black kids basically and everybody tries to out black each other right. So you know everybody is trying to take it to the max. See what you can get away with in this 97 percent not black school. I had a platinum FUBU Jersey. XXL 05 platinum FUBU Jersey with a tall tee underneath it. I had South Pole baggy jeans but I wore my shirt long enough where you couldn’t see the tag. And I had a pair of forces with laces to match whatever other accessories I was wearing. And sometimes i had the two laces where you could do like the real fat laces with two different colors. And I would just wear the durag with like a headband and I would match the headband with wristbands. And so I would have like a white do rag a red headband a red wristbands and red and white shoelaces. Me and my boys link up and we would go to parties and  the whole squad  everybody have a different durag or different color do they like the power rangers right.

Eric: I actually wish that the power rangers– instead of wearing helmets that they did all wear durags

Brittany; It might be more protective that way

Eric: It’s true

Brittany: You know, this is PEAK durag. Like In the early 2000s, you saw durags EVERYWHERE… you were seeing people wearing them at school, or at church, at the mall. They were kind of inescapable.

Eric: It was everywhere

Brittany: You know Another place durags were kinda everywhere was like NBA basketball

Eric: Sports yeah.

Brittany: But there was one guy

Eric: Yes, I know. I don’t even. I know who you’re talking about… Mr. Allen Iverson.  

Brittany: [laughs] You would be correct.    

Eric: Yeah!

Brittany: he had the durag, it was popping, he just brought a lot of flavor into the mix, you know what I mean?

Eric: Yeah, he’s like the avatar of hip hop, basketball, and like everything else wonderful and great.

Brittany:  That’s exactly why Iverson was the number one durag role model for Vann.

Vann: He gave a press conference while on Team USA in the Team USA red, white and blue durag. And I was you know, man – that was patriotic, right? Like it was like Captain America, it was – that was my Captain America on the screen.

Brittany: So like ok so Allen Iverson, you can bring his name up now and he’ll get lots of love. But also like, he also wasn’t the most… chill, you know what I mean, like easy going, fun to be around.

Eric: No no no no no no no… he was very authentic to himself in every single situation.

Brittany: That’s actually a perfect way to put it. He was always butting heads with his coach. He was consistently getting in trouble off the court. But also like, like you said, he was himself. And to be this Black man who had millions of eyes on him, out in the public eye, you know, not really giving a shit about what white people thought of him… like that really like struck a chord with Vann.

Vann: His ability and willingness to speak his mind..to express himself, and to never be afraid. One of the things I dealt with as a kid was fear. Fear of being judged, fear of not fitting in, fear of not making it somewhere because I was too black, or maybe because I was too not black. Allen Iverson was a perfect antidote to that. That’s what I looked up  to.

Brittany: He was all these things Vann wanted to be. But he was also exactly the person that Vann’s parents did NOT want him to become.

Vann: Oh… boy my parents HATED Allen Iverson. They wouldn’t get me AIlen Iverson shoes. My dad thought he was exactly the kind of image he didn’t want he did not want  his son to have.

Brittany: And it wasn’t just Vann’s dad who felt that way about Allen Iverson. You know what I mean, even just thinking about the way he seemed to other people… A black man. Black durag. Bad attitude. And for the NBA, this image was problematic.

Vann:  Allen Iverson came into the league and everybody was all oh there’s question marks around this man–you know the whole pearl clutching. And they were really worried they had an image issue.

Brittany: So the NBA kinda seemed like it was looking for a reason to crack down and have more control over the image of its players. And then something happened, something that gave the NBA the excuse it needed to make some new rules. And that thing was…Malice. At The Palace.

NBA: Ben Wallace is fouled and Wallace did…oh Wallace, right at Artest. This can get really serious if they don’t get in between…

Vann: So Malice at the Palace, what 2004, was a giant basketball brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons. And Ron Artest was in the stands, fighting fans. Fans got injured. Multiple players were throwing blows on the court. The whole game just devolved into a giant brawl. And it really really pushed the NBA to start think about its image, and unfortunately for me, what they came up with was the NBA being too aligned with street culture. And they needed to make a change that way.

Brittany: And it was just a little while after this that…. the NBA created a dress code for its players…

Vann: And the dress code you know it banned durags. Also you know you had to wear a blazer or ridiculous you know – and and I think Allen Iverson- my favorite player. It was – he saw it as an attack against him personally, and I think it was.

Brittany: But it didn’t even end there. You know how things happen, a a major event happens in the news, and it’s all in public discourse, everybody’s talking about it, everybody has an opinion, and eventually those attitudes, you know they trickle down, and eventually they trickled down to Vann and his classmates

Vann: Because me and my friends – we would you know go to lunch with – we’d be in class in durags and you know we just – wilin’ out, acting out. So that whole uniform – there were some real people getting their you know panties up in a bunch about black kids going to class in Tall T’s and stuff. The rules against that passed while we were there in the 2 years I was there. It was rough.

Brittany: If you think back, Durag bans in the early 2000s were pretty common. First there was the NFL, then high schools, college campuses, night clubs…this stuff was happening left and right. Any place where a whole group of young Black people could meet, they were going to have a durag ban. And after a while, it kind of fell out of popular culture.

Brittany: So Vann stops wearing durags at school, because he can’t wear them. And durags stop appearing in sports… Nba players can’t wear them, Nfl players can’t wear them.. You can’t wear them at the hottest nightclubs any more. And once they lose visibility with like, you know, the cool people… and the places that you go everyday,  they start to lose their cultural cache.

And meanwhile… Vann kind of…. Grows up. But like let’s fast forward about 10 years, ok, Vann’s an adult now and he hasn’t worn a durag like as like a part of — like a critical part of one of his outfits in years.

Vann: Well it’s not really functional for me now. I still can and do wear them if i like need to dry my hair out and go someplace and want it to have certain shape… but I don’t need them

Brittany: But one day, something happened that brought durags back to the forefront of vanns mind. Vann was at work, sitting at his desk, checking the news…

Vann: I forget, which of the protests we were on at this point. I think everyone was just burnt out, completely, from seeing black people get shot and beaten and killed by police.

Brittany: And Vann really wanted an escape. So he went on Twitter.

Vann: And i remember people on twitter saying they were trying to quit twitter and how they didn’t want to keep seeing this and people were just demoralized. And I was sitting down trying to think of some joke to come up with. And I remember seeing a picture of an Egyptian pharaoh, with clearly what’s a kufi, not a durag, but it looks like a durag from the right angle. And I said “very first durag” and tagged it #duraghistoryweek.

Brittany: From there, I mean, the whole thing kinda blew up.

Vann: I remember it was going pretty well in the morning and I had to go to work, and i was not paying attention to it at work and it came back, and there there were like thousands and thousand of tweets.

black people are good for this right. They take a joke and take it to the moon and back. And just like that call and response type one up game black folks you know they were finding pictures of all these dU rags.I had no intention of it being viral or celebrated It was just a joke inspired by being sad on twitter.

Brittany: Eric you remember when that durag history week hashtag popped up?

Eric: Yes it was a good time.

Brittany: Yes it was a good time! people on Twitter, specifically Black Twitter were one upping each other with these amazing photos of people wearing durags or things that kind of approximated durags?

Eric: It was it was a wonderful moment of traveling through the history we create. And celebrate. I’m going to pull up some pictures of it right now. (typing.) Um. This one is really sentimental. It is Sammy Davis Jr. Just like in his dressing room counting money.

Brittany: Wow.

Eric: Callback to Cam’ron.

Brittany: Cam’ron. Exactly.

Eric: Cam’ron was later in this tradition.

Brittany: Wow. This shit is for us.

Eric: It is.

Brittany: Solange was really right.

Eric: I love this one. Its uh Moses leading his people through the Red Sea parting the Red Seas. And this looks to be it’s definitely an improvised durag.

Brittany: Yeah I think the Cape–the capes on the long side.

Eric: Yeah. It’s like definitely the durag cape is like down his back.

Brittany: Yeah.

Eric: Ah ha! Sorry this is I good. It says “Rare photos of Moses controlling all types of waves.” That–i tell you there is some good writing on twitter.

Brittany: So that was the first year of Durag History Week but Vann has kept durag history week going, actually. And even since then, durag history week has provided comfort for people looking for a sense of community during troubling and confusing times

Vann: Actually durag history week was still going on when Donald Trump won the presidency.

Brittany: How did that feel?

Vann: I’m a political journalist and so my my job that night was to follow the news. Right? And it was I didn’t sleep I was on for maybe 48 maybe 72 hours and just trying to figure out what happened. And then coming back to social media after all this and seeing people still posting direct History Week posts as another I guess coping mechanism it was just fascinating and it was you know I think really neat to see people leaning on it that way.

Vann: These little things that build up that build a culture up. Um. They take on much more significance when they’re like a secret language between people who are looking for that type of connection. Who may not have it at work. But they find some bit of community and solace. It was the same way at boarding school with 5 black people using our own secret language and i think it is a couple of thousand people on twitter.

Eric: Yeah i mean that secret language thing is real. Like i feel like people are always like you know, what causes something to really hit on Black twitter? You know, you see those questions–

Brittany: A million marketers want to know

Eric: They do! They do! And it’s like, these things that we talk through and discuss are a shorthand for experiences. Like the durag is just a hair covering, it’s like a two dollar hair covering, that hair covering is a shorthand for these experiences that means so much.

Brittany:  You know, the durag to me, is like–its one of the most perfect objects in that way. Everybody knows what it is and seen one, but only a few really know its true power.

Eric: That’s very true, that’s very true.

Vann: There is a long running debate now over whether President Obama wears durags. I think he does. And I think we’ve caught him with durag lines. This was a real forensic investigation over whether Obama wore durags. Now, some people say he may have been furrowing his brow or something like that, but I am convinced that they were durag lines and I am a durag truther.

The Nod is produced by me, Brittany Luse, with Eric Eddings, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser, with editing help this week from Jason Parham and PJ Vogt. Engineering from Cedric Wilson and Haley Shaw. Our theme music is by Calid B. Other original music in the show by Calid B, Bobby Lord, Dynamedion and Nana. Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka.

Eric: If you want to see some of OUR favorite images from durag history week–including the ones we mentioned on this episode– you should SUBSCRIBE to our newsletter. Go to Gimlet Media dot com slash newsletter to get The Nod newsletter sent to your inbox EVERY WEricK. You won’t regret it!

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