It’s mid-March in Harlem and the streets are an improvised urban bazaar. Young men hawk umbrellas, vintage vinyl, and knit caps. The aromas of curry and fried plantains waft out from the Caribbean spot, and just ahead of me is a teen-ager so slight that I scarcely notice him at first. There’s a perfectly calibrated swagger in his stride. He’s swaddled in an oversized black leather jacket, his jeans cinched five inches below the waist, his footwear immaculate. I’ve nearly passed him before I notice something that makes me pause for a second and then snap a picture with my cell phone: stitched onto the back of the jacket, in dimensions broader than his back, is the seal of the President of the United States. He is standing on Malcolm X Boulevard, and a generation ago that jacket would’ve been emblazoned with a defiant X in homage to a man who defined radical black dissent. There are a dozen questions I could ask him—whether there are metal detectors in his school or when was the last time he was frisked by the N.Y.P.D., whether he sees his future as an amorphous blob of curtailed possibilities or if he has real plans. But I don’t have to ask how the most revered symbol of the American establishment came to adorn his jacket.
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