In “AphroChic,” authors Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason acknowledge the bigotry and institutionalized racism — the restrictive covenants, the redlining policies — that once made homeownership an almost impossible dream for Black Americans and even made renting a demoralizing endeavor. The book presents once-common racial ties in housing contracts alongside heirloom furnishings and the whimsical art of modern living. Fragile paperwork commemorating an ancestor’s heroic role in the Underground Railroad hangs framed on a wall behind a gleaming banister. A stylized cotton plant symbolizes the grief of generations of enslaved people who were forced to grow that crop for the benefit of their overlords, but it also stands as a testament to a family’s tenacious success.
Each image is a reminder that the authors tell a familiar story of ambitious homes and seductive furnishings, but from a different point of view.
These are beautiful interiors, but also statements about identity, autonomy and, above all, safety. They are inherently personal, but also political. “As part of being black, everything you do is political,” says Mason. “But because everything you do is political, everything you do has meaning.”
AphroChic is a brand that Mason and Hays founded in 2007. Today, many budding entrepreneurs looking for a creative side gig can launch a podcast or establish a beachhead on the latest social media platform. But 15 years ago, the medium of choice was a blog.
Hays and Mason lived in California. She was a policy lawyer with an interest in interior design; he was an academic who studied theology, religious doctrine and the African diaspora. “I admit it’s my idea of design [was] if a room had four walls, a door, and a place to sit, I was fine,” says Mason. “But I wanted to be a better interlocutor for Jeanine. I realized I wasn’t holding up my side of the design conversation. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we start a blog?’”
The content of that blog sprang from what Hays saw uncelebrated in the pages of the design magazines and books she devoured: the homes of black men and women. More specifically, the homes of black men and women who were not entertainers or athletes. Black houses appeared most often in discussions of extremes – either poverty and deprivation, or the unicorn successes of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James. The equivalent of a “normal” home—an educator’s, lawyer’s, or businessman’s home—was believed to be identical to a white person’s home. “AphroChic” puts that right there to be differ, from aesthetic to symbolic. But other than that, says Hays, black-owned homes should be celebrated because some are simply glorious.
“Black people like color,” says Hays. “When I think about when I was a kid and my great-grandmother’s house, there was color everywhere. Art was everywhere; and there were objects everywhere.”
“We are definitely seeing it across the board in so many homes. We had a few that kind of calmed down the eye, but at the same time I think color is just something we like to embrace,” says Hays. “In America, a lot of design culture is certainly seen through a Eurocentric lens. Color can be very frightening. People are very afraid to put color on the walls. That’s why you see a lot of creams and beiges.”
Indeed, the conventional interior design story has a professional decorator helping a shy homeowner lighten up deeply colored walls or furniture by adding a few cheery throw pillows or tchotchkes here and there. Or it pronounces a single hue informed: avocado, hyper blue, millennial pink, Barbiecore pink. Color is considered a bold statement rather than standard practice.
“People say, ‘Americans are afraid of color.’ And we say, ‘Well, which Americans are you talking to?’” says Mason They chose the name AphroChic and its spelling as a nod to both culture and geography – they’re both from Philadelphia.
The world of interior design has long been associated with wealth, privilege and whiteness. The founders and fathers of the field include Sister Parish, Albert Hadley, Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper, and Billy Baldwin. They were often as well-traveled and well-to-do as their clientele. The industry is built on relationships, which are shaped by agreements and trust. Furnishing a home is a series of intimate transactions that begins with understanding how a client lives – or would like to live. Assumptions are made about who has good taste, whose taste is worth pursuing, whose taste is valued.
The ranks of the best interior designers, those whose work adorns magazine covers or can be seen in show houses now include black practitioners like Darryl Carter, with his mix of neutrals, traditional silhouettes and antiques; Sheila Bridges, who received widespread acclaim for her Harlem Toile de Jouy wallpaper; Brigette Romanek of Los Angeles, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Misty Copeland, and Beyoncé; Corey Damen Jenkins, with his elegant and refined sensibility; Atlanta’s Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters; and veteran Rayman Boozer, whose signature is grand, colorful gestures.
Justina Blakeney’s Jungalow brand combines bohemian whimsy with an obsession with plants, all filtering through her own mixed identity. The Black Artists and Designers Guild supports people of color in the creative industries. The world of acclaimed decorators has become more diverse. Inclusion is a work in progress.
But “AphroChic” isn’t a celebration of design professionals, though it does do them justice. It is a validation of alternative perspectives. It tells stories that are not so widely known. “AphroChic” is not a book of interior trends; it’s a glimpse into homes that are both normal and rarefied.
One of the most notable houses belongs to Shawna Freeman, who lives in Charlotte, NC. She built the cotton tree that stands against a wall in her front room from puffs of white cotton blossoms and fig branches. Her family once picked cotton for plantation owners. Later they became sharecroppers. Eventually they became landowners. The tree tells the story of how Freeman’s family became financially independent. It’s also a compelling artistic gesture. It is both personal and political.
Another remarkable one the home belongs to Alexander Smalls, whose career path has taken him from opera singer to restaurateur to ambassador of Lowcountry cuisine, with his classic dishes like chickpea stew and crab soup. Smalls lives in Harlem, his house a chaotic scrapbook of his former professions, his travels and his many interests. Every corner emphasizes the coziness of home: an overcrowded bar cart, a collection of glassware, a table setting inspired by the African diaspora.
As Hays and Mason put their book together, they asked each of their subjects to describe their home in a few words. Somewhere near the end of their monologue would be words like “identity,” “success,” or “progress.” But the respondents all started by describing home as a symbol of ‘security’. It was mainly a resting place.
“For each of them, the house itself was about, ‘When I come in and when I close the door, I feel safe,'” says Hays. “‘I’m enveloped in this space and I feel like no one can harm me here.'”
Mason attributes that commonality to the tenuous nature of home for Black Americans. Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a host of programs to help homebuyers, the gap between black and white homeownership has widened over the past 40 years. And even if a black person has a place called home, they’re not always king — or queen — of their castle. Successful black entrepreneurs saw their homes and businesses burned down in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. In 1924, a black family’s thriving resort in Manhattan Beach, California, was seized by eminent domain. (It was recently returned to the family after nearly a century.)
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in 2009 when neighbors called the police when he entered his own home after locking himself out. In 2018, Botham Jean was shot and killed in his home by an off-duty police officer as he sat on his couch eating vanilla ice cream. In 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by law enforcement while sleeping in her home. Home is a promise of security; but sometimes that promise is not kept.
The idea for “AphroChic” was born in 2019. But it was born in a world very different from the one in which it was conceived. A global pandemic has revealed what a privilege it is to be stuck at home. Global protests underlined a system of racial injustice. This beautiful book announcing black homes reminds us of the tremendous power of not just having a home, but settling in it with security and individuality.
“We can dismiss design as beautiful things neatly arranged in a space. But for us it is much more than that,” says Mason. “We’re looking at [design] as a kind of window on history, this window on society and politics and economics.”
“AphroChic” transforms stories of home to reflections on plantations where ancestors were enslaved; a conversation about design to a reminder of the Great Migration that brought a generation of refugees north and west; and a homeowner’s classy love of color to a rebuke of this country’s efforts to cover its past in thin layers of beige and gray.
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