Listening to Black Voices

Travis Ray on Family, Theater and the Dream That Led Him to Found Dapper Bowtique

"Our world needs real conversations, without anger, that allow us to get on the same page."

By Heather Dunhill November 6, 2023

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Travis Ray

Travis Ray

At just 38, Travis Ray has a five-page resume. That's because he’s always held a job or two—with a side hustle, to boot. His full-time career has included stints as director of advancement at Urbanite Theatre, associate managing director at West Coast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT), and house manager at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (where he simultaneously worked at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Recently, he became a certified chair yoga instructor. Oh, and he's also the owner of Dapper Bowtique, an accessory brand that includes colorful bow ties, pocket squares and head wraps.

Now add in Ray’s side gigs as an adjunct professor of theater at New College of Florida, teaching artist at Visible Men Academy and speaker at this year's TEDx Talk in Bradenton, and that five-page resume starts to make sense.

Ray, who was born in Alabama and is the first in his family to graduate from college, moved to Bradenton nearly nine years ago with his husband of 10 years, John Ray. Today, in addition to running Dapper Bowtique full-time and tending to his numerous other commitments, he teaches free basic sewing classes to youth organizations in Sarasota County, volunteers with a host of organizations and serves on the board of directors for Realize Bradenton. He is also a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. 

Tell us about growing up in Alabama. 

"As person of color, I felt safe there, even though I lived in a Caucasian area. I had to get out because of limitations to my career aspirations. There were opportunities for lawyers, teachers and social workers, but as far as wanting a theater life, Alabama had a glass ceiling.

"My mother was cognizant of the restrictions that come with going to a Black school, so she made sure I went to the predominantly white public school, Reeltown High School in Notasulga, which, because of its stellar educational system, felt like a private school. It was a K-12 school with art classes that included actors who came to our classroom, wood shop, and financial literacy and home economics courses, where I learned to sew in seventh grade. I went to my first Shakespeare performance in kindergarten."

Did your family openly discuss racism? 

"Absolutely. My mother mainly discussed it; my father didn’t much. My mother told me outright that I had to perform 10 times better than white people and others who looked like me because one day I would be on my own and need to survive.

"I took that to heart early. When it came schoolwork, my mother would tell me that I could watch cartoons and play if my homework was done. My teachers gave extra credit if we did our homework on the computer, so I finished my assignments in the school’s computer lab. Because my mom was focused on my college education, I was the first generation in my family to graduate college."

Did you experience racism from fellow students? 

"Not in the way you would think. Because I’m dark skinned, I was picked on by Black kids more than white kids—they would make fun of my skin color. When I told my mom, she wasn’t surprised. She said, ‘The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’

In high school, one of my Black classmates told me that I was 'too cute to be dark.’ I told her that was a backwards compliment. I said, ‘If you think I’m cute, that’s great—but dark skin can be attractive. It shouldn’t be about skin tone.’

The variations [in response to] Black skin colors tie back to slavery, which is something we knew growing up in Alabama. The darker skinned people would work the fields and lighter skinned people would be in the home. Even though we are 400-plus years removed from slavery, it's embedded in the culture. It's is now called colorism."

How does colorism manifest today?

"It still widely exists in American culture. For instance, on TV in the 1990s and '00s, Black leads would have lighter skin, but an enslaved person or drug addict would have darker skin. It wasn’t until The Cosby Show that I saw a dark Black person in a lead role, like Bill Cosby as a doctor. I loved that kids on the show were all different shades—Theo and Rudy were dark like me. It was beautiful.

"On the show ER, Eric LaSalle was also a dark-skinned Black doctor. Being exposed to those dark Black men as doctors, plus the fact that I had a Black pediatrician, made me feel that I could be one, too. My mom and dad exposed me to that side of the culture."

Did you experience racism growing up? 

"When I was about 10, I had a box of candy bars to sell for school. Back in those days, we went house to house, and I took my niece, who was about five. At one house a guy opened the door and asked, ‘What do you [n-words] want?' It was the first time I was called that outright.  With disdain, I flatly said, ‘Nothing.’ 

"After that, my niece told me that she didn’t want to go to any more houses. I took her home and told my mom, who got mad and wanted to go off on the man. But I confidently told her not to worry about it, I had taken care of it—what needed to be said was said. I didn’t react and give him any power over us."

That is powerful.

"On the flip side, while I was in teaching summer theater at a college in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2008, a little boy, about 8 years old, asked if he could touch the skin on my hand. I didn’t mind, so he did and said, ‘It feels exactly like mine.’ So I said, ‘It’s exactly the same. Only the color is different.’ One of the professors who was there later told me that I was probably the first person of color the little boy had ever seen, other than in a store or on TV. 

"That opened my eyes. I spent the whole day thinking about it, and what a great opportunity it was as a teacher to be able to have those conversations about differences. It was a life lesson for everyone, including me. That little boy walked away knowing that the skin is the same, but the pigment is different."

What is it like being a Black man in theater? 

"While working in Chicago, I had a white managing director who I looked to as potential mentor. One afternoon, we grabbed lunch in Hyde Park and toward the end of our conversation, he said, ‘Because you are person of color, no one is going to trust you with their budgets.’ I replied, ‘I don’t think that’s the case, and I know for a fact I’m going to prove you wrong.’ I made it clear that was the last time we would sit and have a conversation together. The experience was almost worse than being called the n-word. I was a young professional trying to break into the industry. But again, I said something back when I was made to feel uncomfortable because of the color of my skin. My mom taught me that you can box with your fists, or you can shut down conversations with words.

"Three years later, that man's theater reached out to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe for a group call while I was working there. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, ‘I am the associate managing director and I just helped raise millions for our capital campaign. I also do the contracts for the actors, directors and interns.’

"This was the main person who said that my color was a hindrance. Even though WBTT is a Black company, our executive directors where white. Julie Leach and Christine Jennings both trusted me with budgets and money. It was rewarding to tell him that.

"I took those experiences as motivation. I learned to go against the grain."

Being gay in society has never been easy. Add to it that you're Black. Tell us about that. 

"I remember checking in to the dorms at Alabama State University, a HBCU, and hearing a father telling his son that there were gay people on campus. He saw me and said, ‘There’s one now.’ I simply walked by with my head up and kept going.

"The son ended up being in a theater class with me. In class one day, he and a straight guy were having a conversation about being gay, but it wasn’t about me. It was a class of guys and we all ended up in the conversation. I said, ‘It’s hard being gay. It would be easier if I was straight. I’m just trying to navigate my life like everybody else.’ Like my mom taught me, I stood in my truth and made sure my perspective was heard while respecting others. I think back on what a wonderful opportunity it was for us as young Black men to have that conversation. By the end of it, I know I had earned the others' respect. And the guy, whose father told him about gays, now had a different perspective."

How did you come out to your family?

"I grew up in the Black southern Bible Belt and my mother knew. When I was about 13, she asked. I never answered. I just looked at her and smiled and she knew. That’s my mom—she asked anything outright to get it out in the open.  

"I have a female cousin who was already openly bisexual at the time. I remember her saying to my mom that she was afraid my mom would be disappointed in her. My mom said, ‘I love you for who you are. That hasn’t changed.’ Years later, my mom and sister talked to me about being safe because I had a gay brother who was 15 years older than me who passed of AIDS." 

How did Dapper Bowtique come about? 

"In 2018, an African woman appeared in my dreams and dropped a Kente-print bow tie onto my head, which then fell into my hands. The dream was so compelling that I launched the business the next day.

"Fast forward to two years later. While visiting my uncle in Alabama, I spotted [the woman from my dream] in a family photo. She is my paternal grandmother, Mag, who passed a year before I was born. She was a skilled tailor who not only worked for a sewing factory but also created head-to-toe looks for locals."

How do you find peace these days, in such a tumultuous world? 

"In kindergarten, I remember my mom meditating every morning for about 30 minutes after she made a cup of Folgers coffee. When I was 7, I waved my hand in front of her face while she meditated, and she swatted it away. She made me sit next to her and meditate for five minutes. Eventually, I meditated on my own. Now, like her, I make my tea and sit down to meditate. The payback now is that my dog tries to disturb me in the way I did my mom as a child!"

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

"I would love for them to not only read this story, but also connect with people of color. Sit down and have a conversation. Be open to hearing a Black person’s story and ask a question that you’ve always wanted to ask. I want both sides to be thinking about unification, clarity, love and being genuine.

"Our world needs real conversations, without anger, that allow us to get on the same page. It’s not about changing each other; it’s about learning. When people do that, true healing ensues."

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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