On Black Decadence

How Boasting in the Midwest Taught Me About Class

I was in my early teens when I attended my first Indianapolis Black Expo, an annual summer celebration of everything Black. I was lucky that Expo always landed on my birthday weekend. My father gifted me a Rocawear tank top and matching sandals for the occasion. My hair was freshly done—permed at the time—and the summer wind flowed through it without being altered by the humidity. I was different, more grown feeling. But I was still just a girl, going with my father to one of the biggest Black events in the city.

I don’t know which aspect of Black Expo made me notice the divide between childhood and teendom. Maybe it was the Rocawear outfit. Or maybe it was that my father, after telling me Expo was an event for us, by us, a weekend where we could flaunt our Blackness in peace, let me roam the convention center alone as long as I didn’t leave his sight. I ran my fingers over the products on each table—books with Black characters, rubber bracelets, custom t-shirts, CDs by Black artists. All of us, on display, deserving of celebration.

Every year after, I never forgot what my father said. This is for us. This is for us. This is for us.

When my friends and I were allowed to go by ourselves around age 15, we made as much of a big deal out of it as my father had. We scoured Lafayette Square Mall on the West Side of Indianapolis over and over again, until we found the best streetwear outfits. Girl, you know my dad isn’t letting me wear these, I said as I tried on jeans with words “Apple” and “Bottom” on the butt. And you know you don’t even have a butt, so that’s not going to work anyways, my friend responded. Sometimes, if we were unlucky in our search, we’d head to the downtown mall, even though Lafayette offered the most streetwear back then. Other malls only offered GAP jeans and Abercrombie shirts, clothes we couldn’t afford, clothes that earned laughs at our mostly Black public schools.

Then we’d beg. Beg our parents for spending money, beg them to push the curfew back a little further, beg them to drive us both ways and not just one. Do you have drive-both-ways gas money? My mom asked. This was before Ubers, before we were old enough to drive ourselves, before we had driving boyfriends.

Each Black Expo experience melds into one. My friends and I found outfits. We got our nails done. We made sure our other friends knew what time we were popping up, where we were going first. We made sure our crushes would be there and that we knew who they’d be with to make “running into them” easy. We had one mother drive us, complaining the entire time about the traffic and big cars.

Those big cars were part of the boasting. Older folks brought out their nicest ones: “special-occasion cars” are what I call them. The same cars you see during summer holidays, or for concerts when the night will end in club-hopping. Old-school Cadillacs and Camaros, purple or lime green or baby blue, rims possibly a different color, hydraulics, glowing lights underneath. Black Expo was a show. The show. And I made sure to be there, to be in it, to see it.

As we headed downtown, we let the wind whip our straight hair, rapping to the mix CD I’d made the night before. The closer we got to the convention center, the closer we got to the crowds. The Expo we were attending was outdoors, the street fashion show, walking around so everyone could see us. So everyone could gaze upon what we went broke for.

Each year, the amount my parents could afford to give me for Black Expo dwindled.

My friends and I got out of the car and walked. And walked. And walked. You walking too slow. Let me get in front, a friend said when they got tired of me strolling, restless of my dreaming eyes. Girl, what does she have on? We asked each other rhetorically, expecting every parent to spend their money on one evening. We never paid for the Expo-hosted parties or browsed the exhibits inside the convention center for very long—too expensive or not enough of our friends going, or both. Instead, we walked the downtown sidewalks, a different friend leading the way each go around. The sidewalks as packed as house parties, as bars in college towns on Saturday nights. Body to body, our grand outfits sliding past one another.

The walking was boasting. It was about showing anyone looking that even if only for a day, we had it, whatever “it” might have been. Money, style, popularity. Permission to stay out past a curfew. The ability to dress well—or at least expensively.  I don’t remember the sweat, of which I’m sure there was an abundance, or my feet hurting from walking in sandals for hours. But I remember how often we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to give our phone numbers to boys we’d only text until school started again. I remember the long lines and the longing to always have this type of money and attention, to be seen as fortunate, not just a public school kid with free lunch. I remember the desire for everlasting excessiveness.

One year, I spent all of my birthday money on a bright yellow, collared Coogi dress, with sandals to match. Nothing left over for nails. We got dropped off at our friend’s house before Expo, his mother the designated group driver of the night. Damn, you bright as hell, my friend joked when I arrived. I told him how I didn’t care, how much it had cost, how the point was to turn heads. I wanted everyone to wonder how my family and I were living.

What I remember most about Expo: the police. Always on horses. Because what is Black joy and decadence without state control not too far behind? What are Black masses without the chance of massacre? In the years before I could point out the racism, I didn’t feel watched by the cops.  I could enjoy Black Expo outdoors without crowd control or friends being slammed against brick walls for smart mouths. I tried not to forget what my father had said. This is for us.

Each year, I became older and expenses grew. Each year, my parents became more hesitant to send me. More eager for me to get a job. More afraid I’d end up in a fight or shot, because someone always brought a gun, and always used it, and always mistaked that for showing out.

The outfit I wore to my last Black Expo—not knowing it was my last—was a red tube top, a gold waist chain, jean shorts, and gold lace-up sandals. No Coogi or Rocawear or other popular brands. I was newly 17 and hadn’t understood the strain Black Expo put on my parents until that year. I realized that maybe, because I was an only child and wanted to keep up with my friends, my parents wanted to help me keep up.

I know it broke them. I sold mix CDs—and once iPods/MP3 players came around, I sold the service of curating playlists—to have a little money for myself. I’m sure the school-year money only made it through the first half of the summer. But I’m sure it made a dent, lifted a burden.

My parents always told me it was difficult, but I didn’t know what that meant. We had a place to live and never went without food and sometimes they had to say no. Had I known how hard it was to work paycheck to paycheck and to cut back on enjoying life to pay the bills, I want to believe I would have treated Expo differently. I want to believe I would have hustled harder, asked them for less. I don’t know if that’s true.

We all—adults and teens—did Black Expo big because most of us couldn’t afford decadence any other time of year. Going meant we could splurge and watch everyone gush over or hate on our efforts. We’d get compliments. Photos of us would end up on someone’s digital camera and subsequently, on Facebook and other social media platforms. We’d get attention from the person we’d been crushing on. And if we were lucky, we wouldn’t regret the amount of money spent the next day.

Black Expo is where I learned to boast, where I learned what it meant to be excited about Blackness, even if I didn’t have the words for it then. And I think my parents knew what it meant, why I wanted to go all out every year, no matter what I had to give up.

I understand what it means to boast when you barely have it. What it means to stretch and bend and borrow and break and sacrifice one important thing for a fun thing because poor people deserve “more life,” too. Because my parents worked hard, had multiple jobs sometimes, had been steady employees and still worked paycheck to paycheck, had lost sometimes, had bounced back.

It’s not ideal, but breaking is tradition. And we keep traditions going for the sake of loving ourselves. My future family will know what it means to boast, to be decadent, to indulge—even if we ain’t got it. Because who will give us permission to do more than survive, if not us?

Boasting is resistance: decadent cars and grill speakers, too-tall stilettos and Michael Kors bags, vivid durags and Gucci belts. Sometimes, we just want to feel good. To feel joy. To express it outwardly and share it with other Black people who want to do the same.

Ah, Yeah Beautiful Girls

He dreamt I was bodybuilder Kay Baxter. A bikinied beauty, yes, but not the figure I would have wanted to represent me at age 10, especially as the new girl in school, Black and visibly other.

The Eye Exam

“You’re not African American?”

He stares. “Not at all?”

He squints. “Not even partly?”


She is a history of black girlhood distilled by time and brutality.