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Cotton Framed Revolutionaries: T-shirt Culture and the Black Protest Tradition


In the proceeding chapters, I examine protest t-shirts that incorporate graphic representations of movement photography, symbols, and slogans from 1965 to 2015. I argue that protest t-shirts are a form of discursive activism that function as mediums for contestation, exchange, and memory making. In the first two chapters of the dissertation I conduct a visual material history of t-shirts and iconic images from the Black Power Movement. In the final two chapters, I focus on the specific ways both men and women have been iconized as victims of state sanctioned violence in the current Black Lives Matter movement. To conclude the project, I discuss what protest t-shirt culture can tell us about diasporic communication regarding global struggles and the points of differentiation between varied Black experiences. By looking at protest t-shirt culture as a political practice, my project illustrates how black political participation has shifted from leader-centered to group-centered models of organizing. It also sheds light on historical gaps in the archive, especially in relation to representations of marginalized members of the black community.

My research has involved analyzing how protest t-shirts circulate through private collections and grassroots organizations, online retailers of user-customized products, and public culture. It has also necessitated personal interviews with activists and family members, academics, research think tanks, and grassroots organizations. The majority of these interviews are dedicated to specific printing companies that work exclusively with grassroots organizations focusing on fair housing, immigration rights, and the criminalization of communities of color, to explore how the t-shirt trade can also serve as fundraising platforms that support activist campaigns. I also investigate African Americans’ move from being seen as mere consumers of social media to being recognized as social actors at the forefront of both movement organizing and entrepreneurial endeavors. The incorporation of social networking analysis further documents the history, popularity, and use of the black protest t-shirt genre during the civil rights and black power generation and for today’s hip hop and millennial generations.

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