BY TOM WILLIAMS
The first time I wore a bowtie to work, I expected questions. I expected students and peers to ask if it was “real,” meaning had I tied it myself. I expected my assent to that question would not prevent an occasional tug to see if indeed some clip on device wasn’t ingeniously hidden somewhere. I also expected I’d be asked if I had some other event I needed to attend after classes were over, a George Will book signing or a political event featuring then Senator Paul Simon. To be true, I anticipated one more question. And I heard it, from an older and otherwise genial Americanist (himself a wearer of knit neckties with a squared end), whose ethnicity might be obvious after learning what he asked me: “What kind of statement are you trying to make with that tie?”
What does this have to do with an online issue of Barrelhouse, you might ask.
When my white colleague asked me about what statement I was trying to make, I laughed, as if to dismiss I might have anything ulterior in the decision I made that morning to wear my blue and red striped bow tie ordered from a Land’s End catalogue. I said, “I’m stating I can tie a bowtie,” and moved along, knowing I’d not sufficiently answered the question, and that for every other time I sauntered (bowtie wearers are known to saunter) through the halls, this full professor would mentally supply to himself statement I was trying to make, uncertain whether he should worry about what my neckwear meant.
I am not trying to be ungenerous in my assessment of my former colleague. But I suspect, well, am pretty goddamned sure, that were I a white man, he might have simply thought the bowtie a touch of swank, an unexpected but not unimaginable addition to an assistant professor’s professional wardrobe. If any questions might have come to his mind, they’d be of the more innocuous variety, the kind that gently assault me still when I sport what the French call, “un noeud papillon.”
But on a man of color, a bowtie suggests more than “fashion statement”; apparently, to some, it screams “political statement.” As all this went down when our current president (who to my knowledge has never appeared publicly in a bow tie) was teaching Constitutional Law, my guess is my bowtie generated in my former colleague’s mind images of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan, all of them angry, all of them wearing a bowtie. (Once, in t-shirt and jeans, I was approached by a vendor of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. He wore a bowtie, this vendor. And when I held out the dollar for my copy, he said, “I’m gonna give you two, brother, ‘cause it looks like you need them.”) Perhaps, in my former colleague’s mind, he feared I’d soon be leading protests or filing a name change form at HR. Aziz Saladin, perhaps. Jamaal Ahmad Sadat has a nice ring to it. But if this is what he was thinking, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
While I will tirelessly defend the grace and dignity of the bowtie, along with its necktie cousins and their ineffably wondrous knots: the four-in-hand, the Windsor, the Shelby—in the end, it was and always will be just a bowtie.
And here again the reader asks, What does this all have to do with the Barrelhouse-y goodness that awaits?
Once upon a time, as a young writer of color, I thought it my duty to be a maker of statements. (I also rarely wore any neckwear back then.) And what I wrote was earnest, full of dignity, and dull. But when I started to write fiction that didn’t make statements (after I started to wear ties to work. Coincidence?), it was difficult to find places that agreed I was writing for the better. And I worried that either I didn’t know the right kind of statements or couldn’t use my fiction appropriately to make them. Until Barrelhouse. Allow me now to appropriate and alter a statement from Voltaire: If Barrelhouse didn’t exist, it would be necessary for me to invent them. For though I have seen none of its editors ever in a necktie (wait a minute, maybe a photo of McAlister once), let alone a bowtie, they all have made it possible for me to be the writer I am today.
Because if you have published in Barrelhouse, you too have probably said what I said to the editors when I first met them. “You know, I didn’t know what this story was about, but I liked it. And I sent it out to a lot of places. Then you guys took it.”
And that’s why I signed on to be guest editor. I knew that there were likely writers like me who wrote about mimics and fried chicken and Thin Lizzy, writers who were uncomfortable as statement makers, whether that duty was self-assigned or handed them by readers due to gender, ethnicity or class.
Middle finger givers.
That’s what I was looking for.
And that’s what I found.
Is this a statement of sorts?
Never let it be said I’m opposed entirely to statements. I just want to be sure I’m looking good when I make them. Hence, the bowtie.