Aaron Parry celebrates African-Canadian history, identity and culture through his clothing brand

Art can serve as a vehicle for expression, healing, education and social change. It can help create spaces for underserved communities and promote representation. Amidst the current fight against racism, creatives like Aaron Parry are doing their part to celebrate Black identities. 

Parry is a fourth-year student at McMaster University studying anthropology and Indigenous studies with a minor in African and African diaspora studies. In the summer of 2019, right before his third year, Parry turned what initially began as customizing clothing with fabric markers into ISAIAH III, an online clothing brand that highlights Black culture, history and identities in Canada through apparel and stickers.

 

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The name ISAIAH III was inspired by the pseudonym he previously used to post art and poetry. His parents considered Isaiah when naming him and the numeral refers to him being the third child of his family. 

Parry launched ISAIAH III because he wasn’t seeing existing clothing brands that focused on Black issues, history and activism. Through his work for ISAIAH III, he not only recognizes different aspects of Black identity, but he has also helped to create a sense of belonging for African-Canadian students.

Parry launched ISAIAH III because he wasn’t seeing existing clothing brands that focused on Black issues, history and activism. Through his work for ISAIAH III, he not only recognizes different aspects of Black identity, but he has also helped to create a sense of belonging for African-Canadian students.

The shop currently has three collections: the classics collection, the Black history collection and the Black Canadian Colleges & Universities collection. 

The Black history collection is the latest collection. It focuses on important Black figures and events in Canadian history such as Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. 

The BCCU collection features merchandise for Canadian post-secondary institutions with designs inspired by African art and culture. The concept also drew inspiration from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are post-secondary institutions mostly saturated in the southern United States of America that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to serve African-American communities. Prior to 1964, most African Americans were denied or inhibited from pursuing higher education. 

 

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Although Canada does not have institutions like the HBCUs, Parry wanted to help promote a positive sense of Blackness and Black identities within Canadian universities and colleges through his BCCU collection. 

“I know that a lot of people want to be able to actually rep their school and reflect McMaster, but might not be totally for what’s sold in the campus store. They might think that it doesn’t represent them. I had a lot of people telling me, specifically Black students and other racialized students saying, “I actually feel like this design makes me proud to actually rep the school that I go to, or actually wear stuff that tells people that I go to McMaster. I feel like it actually encapsulates me being a student but also being a Black or racialized student,” said Parry.

“I had a lot of people telling me, specifically Black students and other racialized students saying, “I actually feel like this design makes me proud to actually rep the school that I go to, or actually wear stuff that tells people that I go to McMaster. I feel like it actually encapsulates me being a student but also being a Black or racialized student,” said Parry.

Operating the business as a student and during the pandemic has been challenging for Parry. It can be difficult to balance school and his community work with ISAIAH III while avoiding burnout, something numerous mentors from the Black community have warned Parry about.

“As Black and racialized students, we are often very much tasked with the responsibility of trying to dismantle anti-racism, which definitely shouldn’t be our responsibility. But, we’re often tasked with that responsibility and also doing the kind of community work that we want to do or doing the different cultural work that actually is meaningful to us,” explained Perry.

 

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Fortunately, ISAIAH III also acts as a creative outlet for Parry to keep himself motivated and look after his mental health. 

“Everyone has their own outlets of dealing with [burnout] and [ways] of finding healing and time to actually rest so that you can reenter the world. Art has always been mine for that. I think developing a business that reflects my creative interest and my community interest is kind of a daily reminder to actually do art to be creative and to look after myself,” said Parry.

“I think developing a business that reflects my creative interest and my community interest is kind of a daily reminder to actually do art to be creative and to look after myself,” said Parry.

Communicating and connecting with others through the experience has also taught him to be mindful of his actions and conscious of how his work reflects not only his but other people’s identities. Additionally, he appreciates being able to encourage and support other Black-owned businesses through his platform. ISAIAH III has helped to solidify his interest in community work and activism. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Parry also started an Instagram art account to expand his creative activities and give more attention to mental health. He loved being able to share whatever he wanted to create without having to worry or be constrained by designing prints that would look good on clothing.

Many of the art pieces he posts are inspired by events happening around the world and the Harlem Renaissance, an art movement during the 1920s in Harlem, Manhattan, New York, dubbed the “golden age” in African-American culture and arts.

 

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After graduating from McMaster, Parry is hoping to pursue graduate studies focusing on African and African diaspora studies or find meaningful work in the community. Whichever path he goes on, his work with growing and transforming ISAIAH III is far from over. He is looking forward to expanding and growing ISAIAH III, particularly his BCCU collection. Parry will continue to be an agent for representation and change through his art.

Image courtesy of C/O Till Dielmann

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