FNAA winners Aurora James, D’Wayne Edwards and James Whitner gave vogue their go-ahead for racial equality – Why We Cannot Give Up Now
“I was so over it.”
With these words, Aurora James, the Person of the Year 2020 Footwear News Achievement Awards, described the feeling of desperation she felt in late May when she saw headlines and videos depicting the police murder of George Floyd. Her emotions were heightened when she saw company after company take to social media for a trending conversation.
“I was so excited about everyone who just said what they said, you know? All of these companies that posted the black squares or like to do whatever [on social media]”James said to Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, in an open discussion aired last night as part of the first Virtual Footwear News Achievement Awards, which shed light on black voices in fashion this year take up the subject mantle of change.
The feeling James described – an almost borderless hopelessness – is one that everyone (and probably everyone) can relate to.
We’ve all been through this.
As a black person, it’s the severity that comes with the news of Breonna Taylor – who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, while she was sleeping in their home – or from one of the dozen other colored people murdered by the police have been other potential authorities in recent years.
As the singer-songwriter John Legend described in his monologue on social justice at the event last night: “These murders made it clear to the public what blacks already knew: Racism is real, ugly and tied into the prevailing systems of our everyday life. “
But when it comes to racial injustice, 2020 was – for better or worse – the year of profound changes.
Within hours of feeling “so over it,” James started a nonprofit, The 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges large retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to black businesses.
“As a black woman who lived in America in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the mindless killings of many other people, I needed that to feel like corporations support black people,” she said. “So I wanted to ask a clear question and give people the opportunity to meet me where I am, or to be very disappointed.”
The story goes on
So far, Sephora, Rent the Runway and Macy’s Inc. – the largest department store in the US – have responded to James’ call to action by signing the pledge.
James Whitner, founder of the Whitaker Group and recipient of FNAA 2020 for Retailer of the Year, is just over 15 years from the day he woke up buckled in a hospital bed after a street brawl in Pittsburgh. The friends who came to see him when he was recovering in that hospital room have all died since then.
Whitner probably felt that too.
That feeling in which you could look back on your life and all the losses, false starts and disappointments and think, “What is the point? Things will never get better … My little efforts to make change will never be enough. “
Or you can take the jump, the step, or the jump.
The start of the run that – although it doesn’t guarantee that you will win the race – leads you to the goal: the finish line.
This year, Whitner, whose banners A Ma Manners, Social Status, APB and Prosper have become an impressive force in the streetwear and fashion lifestyle industry, used his platform as a safe place for powerful conversations and actions around racial justice and equality for blacks in America.
For example, the Whitaker Group closed its banners on August 28th to protest the racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Three months later, as the country prepared for the most unprecedented presidential election in modern history, shops closed again on election day, shifting all resources to casting the black vote.
Proof that starting his run was a jolt towards progress? In late October, Social Status in Charlotte, NC welcomed a high profile visitor: then-vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris (now vice-president), who saw James’ store as a critical stopping point on her campaign trail.
D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy and recipient of the 2020 FNAA Icon Award for Social Impact, grew up in Inglewood, California, in the heart of South Central. At 17, he was a high school student working at McDonald’s doing sneaker designs on his lunch break. That same year, he won a Reebok design competition, but was turned away from a job with the brand, which recommended that he take a degree in shoe design from college – something he couldn’t afford.
That feeling again.
The overwhelming feeling that the options are exhausted and that there is no path to your goal – or that the goal itself is too insurmountable and small steps do little more than exhaust you from the little energy you have.
You could – you should – stop right there.
Not Edwards, of course.
Thirty years later, his far-reaching efforts to build and develop a minority shoe pipeline has helped reshape the lives of thousands of black youth who may otherwise have lacked career paths. He started Pensole in 2010 and has led the design academy to fruitful partnerships with New Balance, Puma, Under Armor and Vibram.
Additionally, the industry veteran is one of only six designers to ever create an Air Jordan sneaker.
These achievements, as high as they may be, are due in no small part to his will to start the race – to join the fight.
As a recovering perfectionist who grapples with my own analytical paralysis on a daily basis, I understand only too well where many blacks are in America today – and where we were all when we saw a white cop kneeling on a black’s neck for more than eight minutes in May.
It’s a terrible feeling.
It makes you want to give up. If we don’t want to fix racism in one fell swoop, if we can’t do all bad things well now, why bother at all?
Well I don’t know about you, but I’m glad Aurora James took care of it. that James Whitner rose from the hospital bed in Pittsburgh; and that D’Wayne Edwards knew his fate was far greater than a McDonald’s break room in Inglewood.
When it comes to racial justice issues, the shoe industry – and America – is nowhere near where it needs to be, but we can’t stop there.
Feelings come, feelings go.
But meaningful changes are eternal.
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