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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

The sole man: Professor ties sneakers and culture
What’s in a shoe? JCSU instructor offers perspective
Published Thursday, February 22, 2018 9:22 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Charlotte photographer Alvin Jacobs, third from right, leads a discussion on sneaker culture  at Johnson C. Smith University last week. Jacobs was a guest speaker at JCSU professor Jemayne King’s class  “dedicated to identification within sneaker culture.”

Being of good character is more important than being fresh.

Johnson C. Smith University professor Jemayne King’s revolutionary course English 296 – Digestible Sneaker Culture – features guest lecturers who tackle more than the beauty, function and art of the shoe. From Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Randy Moss to photographer Alvin C. Jacobs, King has “never been told no.”

“Anyone who I have asked to guest lecture, they’ve been ecstatic to do it,” King said. “The key part in that is this motif has carried over through every guest lecture, ‘I wish I had this course when I was in school.’”

King’s 2008 book of poetry, essays and stories exploring identification within sneaker culture, “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture,” provided a platform for Sole Food Brand, apparel and other merchandise manifestations of the concepts covered in his book. Seven years later, it turned into academic at JCSU, with King’s book and Bobbito Garcia’s “Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987” as the text.

“In 2014, I had the unique opportunity to create the first English course in the history of higher education dedicated to identification within sneaker culture,” King said. “English 269: Sole Food Digestible Sneaker Culture” used Marxist theory as a basis to study all things sneaker culture. This semester, the class is now housed into disciplinary studies, but the course hasn’t changed. It’s just a different name.”

Virginia State University President Makola M. Abdullah is the 2018 Sneaker Culture keynote speaker, and will address the class on March 26.
“This may be the very first time that a sitting president will travel to a conference rival to speak specifically to one class,” King said. “He is a practitioner of sneaker culture, and is knowledgeable about a multitude of things, but he is actually traveling to Johnson C. Smith on the 26th of March to speak specifically and directly to my class.”

Both schools are members of the CIAA.

Every sneakerhead has his or her moment of truth when it comes to what got them into the culture. For King, it started in kindergarten. He asked his mother to buy him Nike shoes, because he believed the hype that they would make him run faster. Of course they didn’t improve his speed. Yet the canvas white Nike Blazers with the Columbia blue swoosh made him believe that he could fly, initiating a love affair with sneaker culture.

Marketing changed the culture in the 1980s from what King refers to as “team bank” to the lavish and even outlandish styles of the 1990s that appealed to the average consumer beyond basic necessity. Sneakers became the ultimate fashion accessory.  Less was not more when it came to style.  

“Just because you could afford them didn’t mean you could hold onto them,” Jacobs said during his guest lecture. “Your shoes separated who was really about that life. Everybody was cool until ‘what are those?’”

Being a true sneakerhead requires investment, but at what cost? Jacobs shared his experience at Eisenhower Middle School in Illinois where “we bought sneakers before we bought cars.”

“We’re replacing value the same way we do with humans,” Jacobs said. “‘This person is going to make it to the league, so let me invest in this person. Broke his leg. Onto somebody else.’ We do sneakers like that. Put them in the closet. Don’t wear them. One to rock. One to stock, and then maybe one to sell if you got it like that.”

While King’s course covers everything from Air Jordan to Chuck Taylor, its educational rigor comes from the results, not the product.

“I am honored to be but a vessel of scholarship here at Johnson C. Smith University, but at the same time, the academy needs reform,” King said. “The archaic majors and courses that existed through centuries must change with the times, and this course is an example of the new school pedagogy that is going on right now in America, and specifically here at Johnson C. Smith University.”

For more information about King:


For more information about Jacobs:



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