Last month, in an aggressive attempt to hold on to my youth and continue my quest of understanding the young people I teach and mentor — and during one of the hottest months in Baltimore — I did the impossible.
I wore a hoodie.
When I decided to embark on my experiment, it was the weekend and Baltimoreans were in an irritated state coming off a week of extreme heat and air advisories caused by those mysterious Canadian wildfires. Everyone but me that is. You see, I had just left the barbershop bipped up (fresh cut in Baltimore talk). I had God-level confidence. The type of confidence that Black men get only from a shape-up and hitting a three-point jump shot. This day made me feel like I had done both.
So confident, that a normal day turned into a day of running errands and I had no errands to run. I don’t even think I’m old enough for errands. But haircuts are like that, will turn you into a celebrity or a hero in your own city, even if you are never close to being one. My cut, however, did something different to me on this day as well. Oddly, mine inspired me to, for a day, become a researcher, an experimentalist, a daredevil, a gold miner brave enough to tackle the world’s greatest mystery right now: Why does Gen Z love their hoodies so much? And I couldn’t take the popular Gen Z “it’s not even that hot” response as the only answer. I had to figure out the obsession with hoodies firsthand.
With my fresh bip and wearing my favorite off-black Essentials brand hoodie, I was the perfect alibi to go undercover as a GenZer and see what the hype is about. And with me being in the “almost” phase of my thirties, you know, young enough to dress and still look cool in the latest trends, but “almost” old enough to trade it all in for Steve Harvey suits and wing
To my surprise, 95% of the mission went smoother than I expected and I never blew my cover, or at least that’s what I thought. Everyone from the guys in the barbershop to the strangers on the street paid no attention to my fit. No mean mugging, no judgmental faces, no “Ain’t you hot in that hoodie” or “I don’t see how y’all do it in those damn hoodies” came my way. Even as I broke a sweat low key here and there, I still didn’t blow my cover, which was motivation to keep up the experiment. I managed somehow to keep a cool composure, and like Gen Z, not let the heat get to me.
After a while, I started to feel Gen Z-certified. In my car, I weaved in and out of traffic blasting some of the generation’s favorite rappers, like NBA Youngboy, Rod Wave, OTR Chaz and Ice Spice (who strangely is my favorite, but don’t tell anyone). And even though deep down, the heat and my hoodie made me feel like I had been fire-kicked by Lui Kang from Mortal Kombat, the validation I received helped me tolerate the harsh elements.
At a gas station pumping my gas and in corner stores picking up my favorite Gen Z snacks, like Flaming Hot Cheetos and Takis, I was showered in compliments either about my hair or my unbothered-ness of wearing a hoodie in the summer. My favorite compliment came from a squeegee boy at a red light “Dummy I don’t care how hot it is, I ain’t taking mines off neva off yuheardme.” And I don’t know if it was the adrenaline of the moment or the praise I was getting, but thoughts of me turning my back on the early 2000s baggy clothes era of my adolescence and replacing it with the simplistic hoodie-era of today’s youth paraded across my mind. I’m really outside draggin and bippin as a Gen Z, I thought.
But all good things eventually come to an end, and I experienced my climatic ending at Trader Joe’s. Yes, I have reached the age where I brag about grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. I like to throw it around in my friends’ circle. “Oh you still shop at Giant ha ha ha.” “Mannn, y’all trippin, why don’t you shop at Trader Joe’s to meal prep?” (Honestly, I don’t do much grocery shopping or meal prepping but saying you shop at Trader Joe’s just seems mature for some reason.)
What happened next, perhaps, is where I started to feel conflicted. As I stood in line buying lunch for the work week, an elderly Black lady approached me in the most Sunday church-service-like manner and said: “Baby, please take that off, it’s too hot for allat.” The allat she was referring to was my hoodie. My cover was finally blown. The mission finally came to a halt. Feelings of failure consumed me. I stood there stunned with conviction. My time in Gen Z’s hoodie-verse was over and I had to find my way home like Miles Morales in Spiderman.
My 9-year-old son and students are the first to tell me “you doing too much” whenever I attempt to use Gen Z slang or try Gen Z TikTok dances. I reflected on my experience later that day while recovering and hydrating in the AC. Did I do too much? Probably. But “doing too much” just means you care a lot. And what I learned from the whole ordeal was that Gen Z cares a lot but in a different way, whether they can comprehend it or if anyone says differently. A hoodie for them signifies an entire generation’s attitude towards being self-driven and finding completeness within self. A hoodie for them means they could care less about what people think. A hoodie is their identity in a world that lacks thereof.
When I was a teen, you got bullied if you did not keep up with the latest trends. That’s not so true with Gen Z young people. In most cases they choose comfort over credibility. Which brings me to another irony of why this generation loves their hoodies: Everyone is included. In my high school days, right before the Hollister and Abercrombie era, Black kids wore baggy clothes, while most white teens my age didn’t. With Gen Z, they all wear the same uniform for the most part no matter their race — Crocs and hoodies.
And while there is no specific scientific or political reasoning as to why, I think we all can agree that today’s young people exude clear confidence in their decision-making, whether it makes them look crazy or not, whether they are right or wrong. A gift and a curse perhaps. But what generation does not have gifts and curses?
My biggest takeaways from my experiment were more internal. I am at the point in my life that J.Cole describes in his song “Middle Child”: dead in the middle of two generations, little bro and big bro all at once. And with the increase of my lectures and performances catering to young people, I believe in my mission to first understand and then empower young people in my city more than ever. Closing out a summer that has already been plagued with death and gun violence across the city that has claimed the lives of young people, the popular adult consensus has been to throw hands up in defeat, washing them clean of our young people. But our approach must be radical if change is what we want, even if we have to wear a hoodie to figure it out.
Wallace Lane is a poet, writer and author from Baltimore and a creative in residence at The Baltimore Banner.