My traditional cloth is not a prop.
Kente cloth is a traditional handwoven fabric that comes from the Akan peoples of Ghana. My father and half-brothers were born in Ghana, and my family has shaped my understanding of kente cloth.
My late grandfather’s kente cloth has hung in my parents’ living room for decades. The colorful, hand-woven fabric, in a design called Aberewa Bene (wise old lady), serves a dual purpose for us. It is the background for years of family photos. For visitors, the kente is a declaration of our family’s Ghanaian heritage. My father’s father died before I was born, but his cloth has allowed me to feel his presence throughout my life.
At my wedding, I asked my father and brothers to wear similar kente cloth robes as they walked down the aisle. And during my daughter’s outdooring, or naming ceremony, she was draped in yellow cloth as she was introduced to our community.
Those are the proper places for kente cloth. Monday’s display was an incorrect use, however well-intentioned. If you’re going to appropriate my culture, at least learn exactly what it is.
Last year, Ghana commemorated the 400th anniversary of the forced exodus of enslaved Africans to the United States. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were among those who traveled to Ghana to commemorate the occasion, where they received kente cloths. In a similar gesture, the CBC provided kente cloths to fellow Democrats for Monday’s announcement of a police reform bill.
This was not the first time that members of the black caucus had worn kente cloths. “We have been wearing and displaying the kente cloth for a long time,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the caucus, told me. “Since [President] Trump, it has become a symbol of protest about his racist depiction of Africa. On Monday, we wore the kente because we felt that after 49 years [since the caucus was formed], we were finally getting legislation about police abuse.”
I get it. I have seen kente cloth worn at the State of the Union and other events as a badge of solidarity or respect — but Monday’s performance felt different. My first reaction to seeing the pictures of the lawmakers kneeling with kente stoles around their necks was of shock and confusion. The message that a kente cloth conveys did not match the kneeling or moment of silence.
The word “kente” derives from the expression “kea ԑnte,” meaning “no matter how hard you try, it won’t tear.” These cloths have specific names and convey unspoken yet strong messages. The stoles worn by the group were strips of a much larger fabric that is customarily worn in times of celebration.
Indeed, Democrats wrapped themselves in the colorful, bright kente, which can be considered inappropriate or insulting for somber moments. A more appropriate traditional cloth for death, especially a violent death, is a red and black adinkra cloth. If the lawmakers wanted a culturally authentic acknowledgment of the vile and inhumane death of George Floyd, they could have worn that cloth — or, better yet, simply worn red.
I am fortunate to be able to call relatives to discuss the history and importance of these symbols and how they relate to our culture. My family has a direct connection to my history that has been denied to many African Americans.
When enslaved Africans were brought to this country, they were stripped of their language and culture. Some elements survived, and traces are evident in the Gullah language and some “Southern” recipes. But so much more was lost. Broader use of the kente cloth in recent years has been part of some African Americans’ efforts to reclaim a lost heritage as well as a source of pride and connection to their African roots.
Every moment that features a kente cloth is not an affront. The cloths have been and will continue to be appropriated and mass-produced. I am proud that my traditional cloth has helped others feel connected to their ancestral home. I wouldn’t want the reactions to this episode to force others to not wear kente during celebratory occasions.
But at a time of national reflection, which includes a dialogue on what it is like to be black in the United States, congressional and all leaders need to be more sensitive about the messages they send, intentional or not.
This moment is a teachable one. America is at a crossroads, as many seek to acknowledge historical wrongs and injustices against African Americans. We cannot afford to remain ignorant of the richness and complexity of our heritage and roots.
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