Black Men Smile clothing line celebrates Black joy

Atlanta-based brand’s apparel is available at Target through mid-March
Black Men Smile, a clothing line dedicated to amplifying Black joy, launched in 2014.

Credit: Black Men Smile

Credit: Black Men Smile

Black Men Smile, a clothing line dedicated to amplifying Black joy, launched in 2014.

For years, Carlton Mackey has traveled the country asking Black men one thing: “What makes you smile?”

Mackey says the question often catches men off-guard, but after a quick pause they begin riffing.

Some named their loved ones or career accomplishments. Others gushed about community empowerment and service. No matter the response, Mackey, an Atlanta-based artist and educator, says he leaves every encounter smiling.

These brief chats began on social media with the hashtag #blackmensmile, then continued in person. But the moment that inspired the conversations — the 2014 death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — was far from joyful.

“I was angry and mad about … the status of Black men, in terms of how we were portrayed, and the violence that was so easily and constantly being enacted upon our bodies,” Mackey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He grew tired of seeing depictions of Black pain and sorrow. So he started initiating conversations about Black happiness.

After countless talks, he put the Black pride he was hearing about on full display by creating Black Men Smile, a collection of apparel dedicated to amplifying the power of Black joy.

Carlton Mackey is the creator and CEO of Black Men Smile, an Atlanta-based apparel brand dedicated to amplifying Black joy.


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For the last decade he’s been printing T-shirts, hoodies and sweatsuits with a variety of celebratory phrases, and a signature crown symbol, an ode to the famous visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Black joy is revolutionary.”

“Black love is Black power.”

“I am enough.”

Many of the piece from Black Men Smile feature a signature crown symbol, an ode to the famous visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Credit: Black Men Smile

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Credit: Black Men Smile

It’s clear the brand isn’t just about cool clothes with catchy quotes. It’s a community-building conduit that promotes self-love, culture, mental health and well-being, and the wholeness and robustness of the Black experience.

It’s how Mackey chooses to fight oppression in the Black community, he says. “[Joy] requires the same thing that any other act of resistance requires. It requires a level of courage. It requires persistence. It requires fortitude,” he said. “Embodying joy is the opposite of oppression.”

Embracing Black joy has additional benefits. A 2009 study found that ethnic pride may improve mental health among African American adolescents.

“These children are bombarded with negative images of African Americans in the media,” Jelani Mandara, the report’s lead author, said in a statement. “They need exposure to African Americans who are doing well to minimize the derogatory images they see.”

That’s always been part of the mission of Black Men Smile. Since its inception, the brand has cultivated a strong network, partnering with companies with similar initiatives, including BET and Shea Moisture Men.

The clothing brand’s latest collaborator is the retail corporation Target. Through mid-March, Target shoppers can purchase exclusive Black Men Smile apparel at Target stores nationwide and online.

The Black Men Smile Target collection, which features nine new pieces, is available at Target stores nationwide and online.

Credit: Black Men S

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Credit: Black Men S

The nine-piece apparel capsule is a part of the retail corporation’s 2024 Black History Month Collection, which highlights various Black-owned businesses and Black designers.

“When they initially reached out, I didn’t believe it at first,” Mackey admitted. “When they tried again, I responded… They began to really affirm the work we had been doing. Many conversations later, I saw it for the first time with my own eyes, on January 21 at Target in Atlantic Station.”

He captured the moment on video and shared it with Black Men Smile’s nearly 100,000 Instagram followers.

“I believe that he’s stretched by what he’s been able to see,” Mackey said of his son, who accompanied him to Atlantic Station the day the collection became available at Target locations nationwide.

“The baseline for him now is, ‘I can be in a major retailer.’ That’s powerful.”

Mackey hopes the Target collaboration will lead to more opportunities. He wants Black Men Smile to partner with other local and national organizations that promote Black joy and wellness.

Mackey also says he doesn’t think the rise in anti-D.E.I. movements, which take aim at corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programs, will affect his brand. “We’re a grassroots organization with a message that seeks to be one of resistance. If there’s nothing to resist, we have to change our mantra.”

Mackey is instead focusing his efforts on what makes him smile.

“I want joy to be a modality of resistance. I want us channeling our hope to be seen as audacious, and as defiant and as powerful of an act as so many of the other ways we resist.”