The Black Lives Matter Prom Dress: Revolutionary or Risqué?

A colleague sent me the  viral photo of high school senior Milan Morris’ prom dress. The gown—engulfed with photos of those slain by the police in the last five years– is an instant masterpiece. Morris, a stunningly beautiful girl, is the perfect canvass for this art activism. Morris’ dress is a creation of Miami/ Atlanta designer Terrance Torrence and resonates because it beautifies the struggle of black life in reflecting the sacrificial lambs of our contemporary civil rights movement.

I can only hope that Morris’ prom dress will prove a gateway to others honoring those who are no longer with us physically. I also hope to see more clothing honoring our ancestors and elders from Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner to Assata Shakur. Knowing our story which fills the gaps of his story is essential in establishing esteem in the next generation.

Now, before I render my next set of claims, please allow me to say that I do so with great reservation. As an older black female I feel compelled to provide a cause for contemplation for young ladies of the black collective, not to discourage or shame. Thus, I can only hope that readers will consider not only my claims, but that these claims come from a conscious, and collective love.

Morris is a strikingly beautiful child with all the ingredients of a contemporary bombshell. Her hair is long, her body is fit and shapely and her style is ahead of the curve. However it seems that a lace crop top with an exposed back and skin tight mermaid gown is a bit womanly for a seventeen year old child. Namely, while the message is phenomenal the gown’s style seems more fitting for a young woman rather than a young lady.

The faces of slain black youth adorn Morris’ gown. These faces also occupy the fabric closely hugging Morris’ behind, seemingly validating the gazes that will soon be cast along her derriere. While revolutionary, the dress performs a pattern all to familiar to black children. It casts a sweet and athletic black female body as sexy, prematurely accelerating her journey toward adulthood.

The irony in this display is that the subjects of her dress, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were also portrayed as adults in the media coverage following their murders. Seizing childhood from black children is a consistent pastime of western world as it validates the youthful black body facing adult consequences.

Prom dresses in general tend to be quite sexualized. This sexual imaging is particularly resonant with regard to black female bodies, as the black female body is seldom acknowledged as a victim of sexual assault. Thus, we must guard our children and ensure that they do not become sexual objects before understanding that in America they will never be a sexual victim.

I feel compelled to state that I am not against young women enjoying their beauty. I love seeing young girls honing their style. I am against young girls wearing revealing or skin tight clothes that compartmentalize them before they even know who they are.  Teaching our girls that black female provocation comes without protection, is essential  in ensuring that they not only walk the earth with strength, pride and the necessary caution.

I grew up with a young lady who donned a dress far beyond her years at prom. Her dress used very little fabric and she paired this custom unit with faux locks to embody all the attributes the western world deems attractive. That was ten years ago and today she allows her degree to deteriorate as she tirelessly chases visibility to render her a star. Regardless of what you look like or what you wear, you are the star of your life story.

Furthermore, the story Morris’ dress tells is one of activism but is also one of premature adulthood. So, as we praise this young lady for her bravery it is imperative to ask whether it is okay to  send a good message but sexualize a child in the process?

The answer is of course no. To be revolutionary is to be provocative and inevitably risqué, however these attributes need not compromise our children because to do so compromises our future.

Some will say that it does not matter and argue that I am the one objectifying Morris, suggesting that they did not think twice about her attire until reading this post. My counter would be, that the general silence surrounding Morris’ fit is due to the fact that the hyper sexual black female body is a normalized and anticipated component of western culture. Thus, it is not that viewers do not see what the conscious gaze sees, but that the average gaze has internalized the hyper sexual black female image, and thus does not see it as a problem. These counter arguments also oversimplify the issue at hand. Morris’ viral status substantiates the complexities of blackness and acts as a cautionary tale for bringing to light one conflict while epitomizing another.

Furthermore, my argument does not contest Miss Morris’ undeniable beauty and courage, but to suggest that she, like the black collective, is too beautiful and too courageous to combat collective conflict counterproductively.