About 30 years ago, I bought Dr. SJ a full-length black mink coat as a birthday present. It was not one of my better “investments,” as a few years later, PETA was out on the streets of New York City throwing red paint on women in mink coats. She put it in the closet and never wore it again.
It was never clear to me what purpose was served by not wearing the coat, as it wasn’t as if the pelts would regenerate into happy little playful minks, but I understood both the symbolism of wearing the coat as well as the potential of confrontation. To wear it was a political statement Dr. SJ didn’t choose to make. Fair enough. So it still sits in the closet, unworn and lonely.
It thus came as a surprise to find that mink coats are making a comeback, according to the New York Times. Not because cute little minks are now deemed vermin with nice fur, or nobody gives a damn about slaughtering living creatures for the luxury and warmth of their pelts.
My mother purchased her first fur some 15 years ago, when she was a single woman, employed at the drug rehabilitation center she credits with her own sobriety. “I saved some for a down payment, then paid the rest off over three, maybe four years with an installment plan — a layaway,” she said. The second coat, the fox, was an anniversary gift from her husband, also a longtime fur wearer, whom she married in 2010.
What made the writer immune from the influences that compelled my wife to closet her coat? It wasn’t that we suddenly recognized a compelling human need to wear mink.
These days there are plenty of other materials available to cover one’s nakedness, a point that anti-fur activists readily make. The past few decades have seen a humanitarian backlash to animal fur clothing. Major fashion designers, including Gucci, Stella McCartney and, most recently, Chanel, have forsaken it; several cities in California, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have banned sales of the material.
And yet, unacceptable as wearing real fur had become for some, it wasn’t for others.
But there is a sense among many black women that this broader, cultural disavowal of fur has coincided with our increased ability to purchase it. (Or as Paula Marie Seniors, a historian and professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech, reported her mother saying: “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé.”) For women like my mother and grandmother, my aunts and my sisters, a fur coat is more than a personal luxury item. It is an important investment.
The taboo against wearing animal fur as a status symbol is a white woman thing. Whether the “cultural disavowal” of mink coincided with black women’s ability to purchase it isn’t entirely clear. There may be some distant coincidence, but the correlation is shaky. But that the shift was somehow a racist plot to deny black women the luxury of mink that white women had enjoyed before them is a curiously twisted contention. So it had nothing to do with the cute little critters, but was about white women who saw black women with cash in their pockets heading for Saks and started screaming, “Hide the minks, HIDE THE MINKS”?
The cultural disavowal of fur coats was largely the product of a very effective campaign by PETA back in the 1980s to inform people of the suffering inflicted upon animals for the sake of their luxurious wrap. One of the tactics used invoked comparing the animals to the suffering of black people.
In 2005, a PETA exhibition juxtaposed a photo of a black civil rights protester being beaten at a lunch counter with images of a seal being bludgeoned. Another piece from the show, titled “Hanging,” paired a graphic photo of a white mob surrounding two lynched black people, their bodies hanging from tree limbs, with the image of a cow in a slaughterhouse. In 2007, in an advertisement, the organization compared the American Kennel Club to the Ku Klux Klan.
If PETA rode the coattails of the civil rights movement to save animals, was there not a debt owed to black Americans? And what did PETA do for “maginalized communities” anyway, as they were all about the animals and let the human suffering go unmentioned? If black women were denied the opportunity to bask in the luxury of mink before because of racism, are they not entitled now to their luxury?
My mother’s furs are her insistence on public elegance in a world frequently inhospitable to her. It is a point of pride that she wears, and will pass down to me.
There is no serious contention that the wearing of fur by black women is any different than white women. Rather, the argument is that they didn’t get to do it when this awful thing was socially acceptable, so they’re going to make up for it now by insisting on “public elegance.” Or to put it more curiously, in reparation for their deprivation before, they get to do wrong now with impunity. Was this really the perspective?
I have worn and sold my share of recycled furs while purveying vintage to stylists, designers and all. I have long questioned the notion that we black people should expend energy on being anti-fur.
On one outing, I channeled Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic fox piece as I strolled unself-consciously through a city department store. Within a few minutes, a white woman in her 30s followed me closely as she erupted in high-volume condemnation.
Her reaction failed to filter harsh realities about race: Black human beings in our country have historically endured worse treatment than the animals such freelance activists protect.
Suffering no detriment as a result of one’s race is certainly a constitutional right and a cause for which everyone should be willing to fight. But when the “right” at stake is to wear a mink coat with social impunity in reparation for historic racism, the ramifications are stunning.