Black History Month Spotlight: Jemayne Lavar King Created the First College English Course Dedicated to Sneaker Culture

When it comes to sneaker culture and rearing its next crop of creators, Jemayne Lavar King is in it for the long haul.

The author of “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture” and professor — credited with creating the world’s first collegiate English course dedicated to identification within sneaker culture — has developed a panache for breaking through to African-American scholars in new ways.

“Before I created the course, students — for years — would come to class early or stay late to talk about sneaker culture,” said King, who teaches at historically black college Johnson C. Smith University. “It seems funny now because I was actually teaching about kicks before class, teaching about Shakespeare during class, then teaching more about sneakers after. My students inspired my course. They were my litmus before the opportunity arose.”

Here, the educator and longtime sneaker curator talks inspiring African-American youth and challenging athletic firms to move the needle on inclusion.

What spurred your passion for sneaker culture — why did you write about it?

“Sneaker culture for me has always been about expression. Before I knew I expressed myself this way, I knew it felt natural. Thus, expression — my narrative spurred my passion for sneakers. Some 10-plus years ago, I sat down to pen “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture” for the same reason. I needed to express my story and my expertise. Sneaker culture did not look the way it does now in 2008. Now anyone with a pair of Air Max or Jordan I looks as authentic as Bobbito Garcia through the lens of social media. When I wrote the text, there were not many books on sneaker culture. Now there are a plethora. I wrote it to exhale. I held my breath for years prior.”

Looking back on your career to this point, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

“A few semesters ago, a student came up to me post-lecture on the first day of class. She talked about how her roommate spoke of my composition course almost daily the semester prior. She appeared so flustered; she could barely express herself. She finally expressed that she was hype to be enrolled in my course. I do not think an educator can procure any accolade loftier than the excitement of an engaged learner. I am proud to foster a space where students want to assemble.”

As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

“The biggest obstacle I’ve faced is the stigma of looking like my past — a former athlete. Due to my gargantuan stature, some assume that I am a coach or [that I do] something sports-related. I recall answering a question during a universitywide faculty development. The paid presenter stated, ‘Ah, the jock would know that answer.’ His comment is not an uncommon one. Once that assumption is put to rest, the next assumption is that I’m ill-qualified. Ironically, I believe I’ve overcome this minor obstacle by using the same practices I used when I was an actual athlete: prepare and perform. If one is prepared and is willing to work, the rest will take care of itself.’

Are you satisfied with the representation of African-Americans at sneaker companies?

“I am absolutely dissatisfied with the representation of African-Americans at sneaker companies. I view online and print campaigns wondering if they are satire. I am befuddled by this glaring lack of representation. A gentleman may speak to a woman friend about how to approach a woman he is interested in — if he is not knowledgeable. Sneaker companies should do the same regarding consulting African-Americans about marketing to African-Americans. Sneaker companies continue to roll out colorways that look as if they sold out of the trunk of a 1992 Caprice Classic, parked in a grocery store’s parking lot. Put us in positions of power and watch your company thrive. We are more than rappers and athletes; we are educated, market-savvy consumers/tastemakers who know more about market than the executive who signed off on that Lime/Zen gray/Black colorway.”

What is the best advice you would offer African-Americans looking to break into the shoe industry? 

“Be prepared and shoot your shot. Send your criteria via certified mail. Send direct messages [on social media]. Show up to events dressed to impress. Be knowledgeable about the company in question. In essence, present yourself in the best way possible and give the ultimate respect in the process.”

What specific steps should footwear and fashion firms take to make their teams more diverse?

“They should venture to the epicenter of African-American culture — the historically black college. Since 1837, The HBCU has produced countless innovations, leaders and success stories. Black excellence exists nearly everywhere. However, the HBCU is a great place to begin a recruitment trip. Discriminatory hiring practices hurt companies more than the potential hires.”

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