Beauty Around the World: Kente Cloth
Updated: Jan 9
Originally Published on: theparachutemedia.com
Attending a very sheltered and close-minded American High-School in Texas as a Nigerian young man often made Moses Aina feel like his African culture was not good enough for the White people around him and like he would never be understood or accepted by White Americans.
“For the longest time, I was always really ashamed to show off where I’m from [and] my culture. I was always brought up with the idea that what I was wearing was ‘poor;’ it just wasn’t good enough,” said Aina. “So, I wear this clothing to show the beauty of it and that yes, you can still be elegant, and you can still be beautiful and still be true to your own culture.”
Kente cloth is a woven cloth from the Ashanti region of Ghana, according to professor, poet, and Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil, Abena Busia. The mythology behind the creation of kente cloth is that weavers within the Royal Court of Ashanti were inspired by spider-webs when creating the pattern.
Kente cloth is known to be very ancient, but there is no known date for its creation. It was associated with royal culture originally because of its expensive price. If you are purchasing real kente cloth as opposed to a mimicked printed version, the cloth is quite pricey.
Real kente cloth is handwoven on narrow strip looms that are about 4 inches and stitched together. There is a lot of precision involved because every weaver has to know where they stopped, the pattern they are stitching, and whether it's made for a man or a woman. The length of the cloth differs whether it is being woven for a man or a woman. Men’s kente cloth is wider and longer because it wraps around the body including one shoulder, while a women’s cloth extends from either breast to mid-calf or waist to ankle.
“It is a cloth that has a number of what one might call traditional designs, but as each piece is individually woven, each piece is, therefore, individually, re-conceptualized in terms of color combination,” Busia said.
There are several different patterns of kente cloth, and they all symbolize different meanings. For example, the Achimota Nsafoah represents knowledge, diversity, and harmony, according to William Kodzo, founder of the website KenteCloth.net. Awia Repue symbolizes progress and Kyemfere represents experience and knowledge.
Kente cloth can be worn for special occasions or as everyday dress. One popular way it has been seen within African American culture is on graduation stoles. On Monday, June 8th, 2020, Nancy Pelosi, along with other Democratic lawmakers wore kente cloth stoles as they introduced their 2020 police reform legislation after nationwide protests for George Floyd’s murder.
The Democratic lawmakers received backlash for donning the kente cloth stoles because many perceived it as performative solidarity. The legislation was not actually aimed towards Black Americans but was a general aim at working to end police brutality, according to an article in the Washington Post. It was clear that the history and significance was not understood by the congressional Democrats because wearing kente cloth in this situation did not connect to the legislation being passed, which was something that involved all American citizens, not African Americans specifically or African culture.
The term kente cloth is often used to describe several different things, but most of the time the word is signaling just the pattern. Kente cloth is supposed to be a completely woven piece of fabric that is not cut. It was considered anathema to cut the cloth. Cutting the cloth was seen as disrespectful and offensive because the weaver could have spent two months weaving it. Today, it is more acceptable to cut kente cloth, and it is often woven by machines or fakely printed onto cotton.
“Manufacturers have started weaving cloth on a broad loom with the machine. It simulates the kente cloth, but it's woven on a broad loom with a machine, but it's still, at least, woven,” Busia said.
Throughout its history, the significance of kente cloth has slightly changed. Kente cloth is now considered a symbol of Africanity and one's tie to Africa as a whole. It used to be solely considered a symbol of Ghanian culture, and seeing somebody wear the cloth would be a signal that they were Ghanian or had at least been to Ghana. Those with African heritage living in various parts of the globe, now wear it to show their pride in their African culture. It also used to be associated with only royalty, but because the pattern is being printed on cotton instead of the expensive weaving, kente cloth has become more democratic and universal. Although this is true, its importance and involvement in the Ghanian culture remain the same.
“It is an heirloom [and] it is still a special cloth,” Busia said. “If you look at pictures of Ghanian presidents on inauguration day, they are usually wearing kente cloth. Most brides, if they're not wanting to be Victorian virginal fluffy white will be wearing kente cloth. Inside Ghana, it is still very much a prestigious and important ceremonial cloth. I own the kente cloth that my mother had woven for her wedding 70 years ago, I wore it at my own wedding. It’s like how in the West, some women will inherit their mother's wedding dress and adapt it and wear it, or a man will give his love his engagement ring to his bride if his mother's passed away and let him have it. It has that kind of symbolic meaning.”
Kente cloth has also spread throughout the African diaspora. The presence of similar aesthetic patterns is evident in the diaspora through the tradition of quilting in the southern states of the United States, according to Carol Boyce Davies, a Professor of Africana Studies, and literature in English at Cornell University.
Although the African Americans participating in quilting have been displaced from Africa, they are still carrying that culture with them by recreating some of the patterns, said Professor Boyce-Davies. This is an example of the way African culture is still rooted in some of the practices of African Americans. The knowledge systems are carried generationally and the patterns don’t simply disappear, they are re-interpreted.
Professor Boyce-Davies asserts that Ghana probably has the most influence on Pan Africanist Culture and the country has a lot of influence over the spread of kente cloth because it was the first colonized country in Africa to get independence in 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, who wore kente cloth.
“A lot about Ghana and its African history carries over into the diaspora, and I think that’s why kente becomes more representative, and I say this because if you go to Mali, there is another set of fabrics and designs that are used as well,” Professor Boyce-Davis said. “So in other words there are several different versions, like South Africa will add beadwork, but technically [Ghanian’s] would be the first because of Ghanaians prominence and independence being the first out of the bloc, as it were, and therefore the marketing of that fabric.”
Although there is controversy within the Black community about African Americans wearing the cloth, many people think that Black Americans should be able to honor their African American heritage by wearing kente cloth.
“I think that that was sort of a problem before because I think before like 10 or 15 years ago, where Black people just were claiming Africa. Many people within the African communities, sort of shun Black people,” Aina said. “Even like my parents, they always told me to not hang around Black people, you know, and that was sort of a problem.”
Aina said he believes that Black Americans should be able to wear the cloth, as long as they understand the history.
“I think that [wearing the cloth] grew into a bigger problem where many Black Americans just didn’t know exactly where they came from, and I think that that's extremely sad and problematic and that's not right,” Aina said. “I do think that many Black people should wear this clothing and embrace where they come from, but I think that they should also do research on those [clothing items].”