The ‘Costumes’ We Wear

The cover image of Wings of Ebony by J.Elle; illustration by Taj Francis

The cover image of Wings of Ebony by J.Elle; illustration by Taj Francis
Illustration: Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

It’s Lit!It’s Lit!Where all things literary live at The Root

It’s the time of year where I try to decipher whether I’d prefer to channel my inner pumpkin or Catwoman. It’s always one of the two. I’ve never tried to dress up as anything else for Halloween. Though I’m in complete awe of people who get really creative and can make costumes, I’ve never been that crafty. And I’m way too cheap to buy a fancy one.

Advertisement

But this year, as Halloween approaches on the cusp of my debut novel releasing in February, I’ve been sitting with the idea of costumes and the layered complexities of the figurative “costumes” we often wear. I find the latter isn’t nearly as celebratory and festive as the former. But for many, myself included, and for one of the characters in my novel, costumes can be a means of self-preservation. And it begs examination of where those pressures originate.

I’ve never won Best Costume at a Halloween party. (Big surprise, right?) But, I’ve seen some costumes that are wildly impressive. And I think about the time and energy that went into crafting each little detail to make the veneer believable. It’s always in the details, isn’t it? The blending of the makeup contour, the veil, fake engagement ring, and bouquet the “dead” bride carries, the way the 3D makeup makes it look like the knife is really coming out of someone’s back. Hours of forethought poured into selecting a costume. What if Halloween were every day? Can you imagine how exhausting? How expensive? Red lipstick over a tired smile, a hat over hair deemed unruly…

Advertisement

For many of us, it often feels like it is.

The character I’ve written is engaged in a rescue mission of sorts. (Ahem, let’s try to do this without spoilers.) Because of what he looks like, he isn’t free to simply walk around and accomplish the task he’s after. He isn’t free to exist in the world around him without concealing the truth of who he is, so he dons a costume. And that’s a poignant reality for many of us who’ve had to minimize ourselves to move freely in a space.

The figurative costumes we wear are woven—often subconsciously. Code-switching is a big one for me. When I speak to someone who I consider a part of my community or inner circle, I speak in a tone that’s relaxed, with a vernacular that’s authentic to me, African American Vernacular English (AAVE). I am understood. Communication occurs. But, when I’m in a setting where I feel the need to sit up a little straighter, my dialect often changes. And why is that? Could it be that the expectation is so deeply ingrained, we’ve internalized “sounding Black” as a bad thing? Or is it a fear of being judged as uneducated, unintelligent… fear of losing our chance to be heard or taken seriously?

Hair is another way I and so many others deal with acceptability, often finding ourselves conforming from a place of just being tired. Tired of conflict, stares, uncomfortable conversations. Several years ago, in a workshop (where there were students from all walks of life, races, genders, ethnicities) I was told my hair was “too large” and could I consider “taming it” to not be a “distraction” in future.

Advertisement

I was mortified, and what did I do? Conformed. I flat ironed it before the next class. My cheeks burn as I type this, but I’m trying to peel back the veil on what it’s like to be mercilessly reminded that your natural state of being is constantly othered. To be consumed with how you’ll assimilate—because of course, that’s the expectation, isn’t it? Make no mistake, they approached me with warm smiles and lots of “you understands.” The delivery wasn’t abrasive in tone or angry—it wasn’t a shotgun—it was a handgun with a silencer.

Inclusivity and diversity aren’t the same thing.

Back then, before I’d faced the muck of racist oppression I’d unknowingly internalized for years, I chose the path of least resistance and tried to just be small; get through it. Put it behind me. Sit in the humiliation hoping my Blackness didn’t offend anyone else. Would I do that today? Hell, no. Now, if you can’t see—move seats! It’s what I’d be expected to do if someone was a distraction to me.

Advertisement

I’m making a concerted effort to take off these “costumes.” That doesn’t mean I’m only going to speak in AAVE or use slang consistently. It means when I switch up how I speak it will be because I choose to. Because I possess a diversity of language that I will use as I see fit, instead of allowing societal expectations to dictate my speech.

My heart soars seeing my people embracing their natural hair, speaking how they choose. Shedding that oppressive sludge so many of us have made a part of our costumes. But, we are not a monolith. Every person who straightens their hair isn’t in denial about internalized oppression. And the inverse of that is also true. The difference is in motivation; shaped by whether or not we anticipate being allowed to engage in a space authentically.

Advertisement

So, don’t read into it the next time you flat iron your hair…or do if you think you’ve got some stuff to face or deal with. The key is you’re in control, not them. Put that iron to your scalp and switch up that tone because you want to; not because you’re expected to.

Wearing figurative costumes goes beyond code-switching and hair, of course. The list is lengthy and varies from person to person. But the fact remains—and Halloween is such a good reminder of this—costumes should be a choice, not a requirement.

Advertisement

If you’re one of those who feel like you don’t have to wear a costume, I applaud you. I also am a bit jealous. I encourage you to consider others who might still be shielding themselves behind one. If a person speaks and you understood the meaning of what was said, any judgment of them is your problem, not theirs. Why is the way you communicate more “correct” than the way someone else does? Especially if they got their message across.

And if that stung a bit, sit in that discomfort. Empathize with the person who feels like they must speak differently in your presence because…? Go ahead, fill in the blank. But start your answer with “I.”

Advertisement

This year, as we dress up by choice for fun, give some thought to people who, for various reasons, might be wearing costumes you can’t see. People who don’t have the freedom to don their earnest capes and show the S’s on their chests. Consider being intentional to not “host” accidental “costume contests” in the spaces you navigate daily.

Consider the ways you’re free to be yourself in ways others aren’t.


J.Elle is a prolific Black author, former educator, and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community. Her debut novel, Wings of Ebony, is part of a YA fantasy duology releasing February 23, 2021 as a lead title in Simon & Schuster’s Spring lineup. She is also the author of Park Row Magic Academy: A Taste of Magic, a lead title on Bloomsbury’s Spring 2022 list.

Leave a Reply