White Sneakers and Narratives of Declension


When the weather starts getting warm in New York, I start thinking about what pair of white sneakers that I may want to purchase. It can be a sturdy canvas pair of Keds or Supergas or a shiny patent of a pair of Puma Baskets. This year, I have settled on leather Stan Smiths with three Velcro straps. I choose them because they look vaguely retro and thus serve as a testament to my current tribal status as a hep cat denizen of Harlem.

I especially appreciate the Stan Smiths because they invoke a definite 1980’s nostalgia. I remember when I got my first pair of sneakers with Velcro and delighted in the crunching sound of opening and closing the straps. I grew to prefer old school sneakers while living in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn and attending classes at NYU during my time as a doctoral student. I had to carry my laptop as well as a couple of books while making the commute to campus each day. I needed to wear comfortable shoes. My graduate stipend limited what I could afford to purchase. I like the look and price point of classic sneakers to this day.

I would not call myself a fully committed sneakerhead. I am more low key and frankly scattershot about my shoe purchases. My major key is history. As a professor who field is African American history and education, I own way more books than sneakers. In fact, I have given more books away to charity than I own today. Yet I like retro sneakers a lot. Sneakers invoke a range of things—for some, they are purely utilitarian and for others they are a signifier of status. For me, they are a mix of practical and ephemeral. I will learn about the intricacies of sneaker culture as I continue to write this blog.

As I think further about white sneakers, I feel that they also represent historical narratives of declension. The Stan Smiths will follow a pretty linear path of decline. They will start shiny and new and will eventually become totally beat up. In this respect, white sneakers are an emotionally fraught purchase because they never stay super nice for super long. As a kid, I used various intervention methods to stop the ravages of normal wear and tear: carefully monitoring and scrubbing all scuffs with a toothbrush, using white shoe polish, and even tossing the canvas ones into the washing machine. I do not have the time or inclination to clean sneakers these days.

Declension narratives are generally frowned upon in the field of history because the discipline values nuance and context. My Stan Smiths, however, will tell a pretty uncomplicated tale. They will go from pristine, fresh and clean to not any of the above. I took the shoes out of the box today, gave them one last look and know the minute I step out into the New York sidewalk, the scuffs, scrapes, and dirt will tell the story of my travels throughout the summer. And, in this instance, that is a very good thing.

What sneakers are you wearing this summer? Sound off in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “White Sneakers and Narratives of Declension

  1. LOVE this!!! Congrats Afrah; so proud that you’ve launched your brand & a wider audience will witness your gifts & genius.

  2. How exciting this is! A pair of clean white Chuck’s are my go to sneakers year round. I’m also rocking Huarache’s when I want to be a little fly! Lol and shout out to my alma mater #NYUSteinhardt

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