Fashion Statement as Political Statement: The Antislavery Movement and “I Can’t Breathe”

Professor Joshua Rothman’s recent publication at examines similarities between recent protests against police conduct and the antislavery movement.


Amidst the protest movement that has taken shape in the weeks since grand juries in Missouri and New York determined not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, few elements have been more visible than the wearing of black t-shirts emblazoned with the words that have emerged as the movement’s slogan and rallying cry. Athletes, entertainers, and ordinary citizens alike, both black and white, have made appearing in shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” a sign of identification with and sympathy for protestors’ demands for reform of police forces and the criminal justice system. While easily and often dismissed by opponents as a cheap gesture or a stunt, in truth fashion statements have doubled as important political statements in movements for racial justice ever since there have been movements for racial justice.


The transatlantic antislavery movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presents the prototype for the meeting of fashion and politics as it relates to race. In 1787, a group of a dozen Londoners formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and several members were soon charged with the task of designing an engraved seal for the group’s use. They turned for expertise to Josiah Wedgwood. Most famous today for the blue china pattern that bears his name, Wedgwood was a pioneer in industrializing the production of pottery, a close friend of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and an early member of the Society.

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