“Kabin's” and the Dilemma of self-Representation
Chester J. Fontenot, Jr.
Some time ago I was in a hotel lobby in Washington, D.C., talking with a friendfrom another university. The occasion that brought both of us and eighty-two other scholars to the nation's capital was the annual competition for the FordFoundation Dissertation andPost-Doctoral Minority Fellowships Program, hosted by the National Research Council. After two days of intense review sessions of proposals from qualified minority scholars, we had fulfilled our responsibilities and were taking a moment to reflect on the many fine proposals that deserved funding but which—due to limitedmoneys—wouldonly receive “honorable mention.” While we were engagedin conversation, a middle-agedwhite male approachedmy friend and me and asked if either of us was the bellman. We were both taken aback at this man's query, since although both of us are African American males, neither was dressedas a bellman. In fact, my friendhadbeen teasing me about my dapper style of clothing, complete with a 100 percent virgin wool Kango hat and matching topcoat, accented by Stacey Adams shoes, an expensive suit, French-cuffed white shirt, and tie. I, in turn, had been “signifying” on his more than casual style of dress, for he had chosen to “dress down” after the sessions by donning the garb of the hip-hop generation, with a baseball cap, Air Jordan tennis shoes, jeans, casual shirt, and a trendy athletic warm-up jacket. We responded to this man's query by telling him that not only was neither of us the bellman, but also that a bellman traditionally distinguishes himself from others by wearing a particular uniform, which neither of us wore. As the man walked away, we continuedto comment that not only didwe not look like bellmen, but each of us carrieda briefcase, usually a signifier of professional status.
Now that I have achieveddistance from this event, I think there was more to this man's question than one might first suspect. While he was certainly trying to locate the bellman so that he could get some help in signaling a cab andcarrying his luggage, his inability to differentiate between myself, my friend, and the bellman—three African American males—may reflect