“AphroChic” Celebrates the Personality and Politics of the Black Family Home


The photographs in “AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home” are as beautiful and inspiring as one might expect from a coffee-table book focused on interior design. There are grand architectural gestures, carefully curated tabletop vignettes and enviable vistas. But in between the admiring looks at thoughtfully adorned spaces, history intrudes and disrupts any illusion of perfection. That is not a flaw but an enhancement. The result is a richer, more complicated story.

In “AphroChic,” authors Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason acknowledge the bigotry and institutionalized racism — the restrictive covenants, redlining policies — that once made homeownership a near-impossible dream for Black Americans and even made renting a demoralizing endeavor. The book presents once-common race covenants in housing contracts alongside heirloom furnishings and the whimsical art of modern life. Fragile paperwork memorializing an ancestor’s heroic role in the Underground Railroad hangs framed on a wall behind a gleaming banister. A stylized cotton plant symbolizes the sorrows of generations of enslaved people who were forced to cultivate that crop for the benefit of their overlords, but it also stands as a testament to one family’s dogged success.

Each image is a reminder that the authors are telling a familiar story about aspirational homes and tantalizing furnishings, but from a different point of view.

These are beautiful interiors, as well as statements about identity, autonomy and, most important, security. They are inherently personal, as well as political. “Part of being Black, everything you do is political,” Mason says. “But because everything you do is political, everything you do has meaning.”

AphroChic is a brand that Mason and Hays established in 2007. Today, many budding entrepreneurs seeking a creative side gig might launch a podcast or set up a beachhead on the newest social media platform. But 15 years ago, the medium of choice was a blog.

Hays and Mason were living in California. She was a policy attorney with an interest in interior design; he was an academic studying theology, religious doctrine and the African diaspora. “I will admit that my idea of design [was] if a room had four walls, a door and somewhere to sit, I was fine,” Mason says. “But I wanted to be a better conversation partner for Jeanine. I realized I wasn’t holding up my end of the design conversation. So I was like, ‘Well, why don’t we start a blog?’”

The substance of that blog was born out of what Hays didn’t see celebrated in the pages of the design magazines and books she devoured: the homes of Black men and women. More specifically, the homes of Black men and women who weren’t entertainers or athletes. Black homes most often appeared in discussions of extremes — either poverty and deprivation, or the unicorn successes of people such as Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James. The equivalent of a “normal” home — one belonging to an educator or lawyer or business person — was presumed to be identical to a White person’s home. “AphroChic” argues that there are differences, from aesthetic to symbolic. But beyond that, Hays says, Black-owned homes should be celebrated because some of them are simply glorious.

“Black folks love color,” Hays says. “If I’m thinking about when I was a child and my great-grandmother’s home, there was color everywhere. There was art everywhere; and there were objects everywhere.”

“We definitely see it across the board in so many homes. We did have a few that gave sort of respite to the eye, but at the same time, I do think that color is just something that we happily embrace,” Hays says. “In America, a lot of design culture is definitely seen through a Eurocentric lens. Color can be very frightening. People are very much afraid of putting color on the walls. That’s why you see a lot of creams and beiges.”

Indeed, the conventional interior design story has a professional decorator helping a timid homeowner ease into deeply colored walls or furniture by adding a few cheerful throw pillows or tchotchkes here and there. Or it pronounces a singular hue au courant: avocado, hyper blue, millennial pink, Barbiecore pink. Color is considered a daring statement rather than standard practice.

“People go: ‘Americans are afraid of color.’ And we say, ‘well, what Americans are you talking to?’” Mason says. They chose the name AphroChic and its spelling as a nod to culture as well as geography — they are both from Philadelphia.

The interior design world has long been associated with wealth, privilege and Whiteness. The founding mothers and fathers of the field include Sister Parish, Albert Hadley, Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper and Billy Baldwin. They were often as well-traveled and well-heeled as their clientele. The industry is built on relationships, and those are formed out of commonalities and trust. Decorating a home is a series of intimate transactions that begins with understanding how a client lives — or would like to live. Assumptions are made about who has good taste, whose taste is worth emulating, whose taste is valued.

The ranks of top interior designers, those whose work adorns magazine covers or is featured in show houses, now include Black practitioners such as Darryl Carter, with his mix of neutrals, traditional silhouettes and antiques; Sheila Bridges, who found broad acclaim with her Harlem Toile de Jouy wallpaper; Los Angeles-based Brigette Romanek, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Misty Copeland and Beyoncé; Corey Damen Jenkins, with his elegant and refined sensibility; Atlanta’s Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters; and veteran Rayman Boozer, for whom grand, colorful gestures are a signature.

Justina Blakeney’s Jungalow brand merges bohemian quirkiness with an obsession with plants, and filters it all through her own mixed-raced identity. The Black Artists and Designers Guild supports people of color in the creative industries. The world of acclaimed decorators has become more diverse. Inclusivity is a work in progress.

But “AphroChic” isn’t a celebration of design professionals, although it gives them their due. It’s a validation of alternative perspectives. It tells stories that aren’t so widely known. “AphroChic” isn’t a book of interior design trends; it’s a peek into homes that are both normal and rarefied.

One of the most striking homes belongs to Shawna Freeman, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. She constructed the cotton tree that stands against a wall in her front parlor from puffs of white cotton blossoms and fig branches. Her family once picked cotton for plantation owners. Later, they became sharecroppers. Finally, they became landowners. The tree tells the story of how Freeman’s family became financially independent. It’s also a compelling artistic gesture. It’s both personal and political.

Another notable home belongs to Alexander Smalls, whose career path has taken him from opera singer to restaurateur to an ambassador for Lowcountry cuisine, with its classic dishes such as frogmore stew and she-crab soup. Smalls lives in Harlem, his home a chaotic scrapbook of his past professions, his travels and his multitude of interests. Every corner emphasizes the conviviality of home: an overstocked bar cart, a collection of glassware, a table setting inspired by the African diaspora.

As Hays and Mason assembled their book, they asked each of their subjects to define home in a few words. Somewhere toward the end of their monologue would be words such as “identity,” “success” or “progress.” But the respondents all began by describing home as a symbol of “security.” Above all else, it was a place of respite.

“For each of them, the home itself was about: ‘When I come in and when I close the door, I feel safe,’” Hays says. “‘I’m enveloped in this space and I feel like no one can harm me here.’”

Mason attributes that commonality to the tenuous nature of home for Black Americans. Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a multitude of programs to assist first-time home buyers, the gap between Black and White homeownership has grown over the past 40 years. And even when a Black person has a place called home, they are not always king — or queen — of their castle. Successful Black entrepreneurs saw their homes and businesses burned in the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa. In 1924, a Black family’s thriving resort property in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was seized by eminent domain. (It was recently returned to the family after almost a century.)

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in 2009 when neighbors called police as he was entering his own home after locking himself out. In 2018, Botham Jean was shot and killed in his home by an off-duty police officer while sitting on his sofa eating vanilla ice cream. In 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by law enforcement while sleeping in her home. Home is a promise of security; but sometimes that promise goes unkept.

The idea for “AphroChic” was sparked in 2019. But it was born into a world very different from the one in which it was conceived. A global pandemic revealed just what a privilege it is to be stuck at home. Worldwide protests underscored a system of racial injustice. This pretty book heralding Black homes is a reminder of how deeply powerful it is to not merely have a home but to settle into it with certainty and individuality.

“We can dismiss design as pretty things arranged nicely in a room. But for us, it’s a lot more than that,” Mason says. “We look at [design] as sort of this window on history, this window on society and politics and economics.”

“AphroChic” transforms stories about home into reflections on plantations where ancestors were enslaved; a conversation about design into a recollection of the Great Migration that brought a generation of refugees north and west; and a homeowner’s stylish love of color into a rebuke of this country’s efforts to cover over its past with thin coats of beige and gray.

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