Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

Ranking Races in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala

Note: I have tried to keep this entry spoiler-free, so as not to discourage those who haven’t seen Mississippi Masala from finally watching this slightly-cheesy but lovingly-made film. It’s worth a watch if only because it’s one of the few films of that era (well, probably even now) that does not feature any main characters who are white: enjoy this large serving of melanin with a cup of spicy chai. But not that shit from the coffee conglomerate down the street. Warning: only one in ten American “chai” lattes is actually anything close to authentic chai.

The immigrants’-child-American-citizen experience that’s been successfully mined in shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat made one of its first appearances in America when Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala hit screens in 1992.

Nair was born in 1957 to a Punjabi couple in India. Her father was a civil servant, so Mira and her family moved several times, and Mira herself later lived in several different places including the United States and Uganda.

(A Young Mira Nair)

As its title suggests, Mississippi Masala takes place in the southern state of Mississippi, a prominent part of the notoriously conservative Bible belt, still glowing with ghosts of its dark plantation slavery past.

My dad came to Atlanta, another of the South’s treasured gems, in the late 1970s after the city played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movements of the 60’s. He had friends who were attending Georgia Tech, and he attended Atlanta University to earn a Master’s in Business. He was heavily influenced by the blaxploitation films of the era, but, honestly, a lot of men, especially men of color, had gone all in on the macho magnetism of Richard Roundtree and carefully trimmed and greased their hair into Imitation Afros and thick, porkchop sideburns. It was a look they could actually recreate, and their plaid bell-bottoms and leather jackets completed the look in a comically dashing, or maybe dashingly comic, way. My dad seemed to absorb qualities of the black and white men he came to know, while honing his best Indian self with his friend family of other South Indian immigrants. He loved to listen to his folk and film songs from India, but he also sang along to Lou Rawls and Dolly Parton – he still loves the chorus of “Jolene.”

When Indian immigrants found each other, they tended to stick together, teaching each other where to find the right spices for their home-cooked food and how to do laundry and clean their homes – things they were never asked to do in India, where mothers, maids, sisters — basically, women — handled those chores for them. The wives they brought over also faced several firsts together, and, together, they learned how to pay mortgages, buy cars, get loans, attend universities. Their still-thick accents and obviously-ethnic looks might have alienated them from mainstream America, but they found comfort in each other and the warmth of Americans who did want to learn about another culture: one rich with tastes, traditions, and stories that their new brown friends were so eager to share with them in an effort to keep their memories of home safe from erasure. Immigration led to both situational hybridity (the forced mixing seen in public transit, schools, neighborhoods) and organic hybridity (the sharing that occurred wherever people eventually figured out how to work, learn, and live alongside each other, picking up bits and pieces of each other’s cultures until they formed a mosaic created by thousands of fine pieces).

Not everyone got along so harmoniously, though. In America and beyond, people of color, who had been displaced and dispersed throughout the world during the Imperialist Era, sometimes found it extremely difficult to collaborate, not compete, with each other.

East African countries and India share an extensive history, especially in regard to the trade they conducted via the Indian Ocean. (Some research even suggests that the roots of Rastafarianism can be found in ancient Hindu worship of Lord Shiva – a dark-skinned lord with matted, dreadlocked hair whose rishis, intense devotees, seemed to feel closest to Him while experiencing the highs of ganja, also known as marijuana – but that’s a different entry for a different sort of platform.)

However, some Indian immigrants of the 70’s wave arrived as exiles after Idi Amin commanded them to leave Uganda, indicting them for earning a disproportionate amount of money while native Ugandans struggled to compete – an echo of anti-immigrant sentiments which were also rising in America. Though the most vocal opponents of immigration were usually white, many black and brown Americans were also seeing such different faces for the first time, and the immigrants brought their own prejudices about skin color, class, and “appropriate” behavior from back home.

My personal experience with race-mixing was closer to that of the protagonist of Mississippi Masala. (Though, sadly, I did not fall in love with a handsomely adorable young black man with a blue-collar job and gold-colored heart.)

I grew up first in Atlanta, then Columbus, GA, attended a predominantly white Judeo-Christian private school, and spent too many years looking like Steve Urkel wearing one of Blossom’s or Brandy’s hats. There were about 15-20 Indian-American kids in my school, a smattering of Asian and Latino kids, and a few black students. My childhood was filled with Indian culture. My dad is a storyteller at heart, a master of voices and comic timing who thrilled me with Indian folktales and memories of his family’s village.

My parents loved to host large music parties during which they and their friends (The Greencard Fellowship, if you will) brought their instruments and sang, danced, and played cards well into the wee hours of the morning. My mother loved classical Indian music and dance; she enrolled me in Bharatha Natyam classes when I was four and became my dance mom and makeup artist for the next twenty years. My grandmother loved to knit and sew, and she was my source for Hindu mythology. My mother loved pointing out how “new trends” in America, like recycling or organic food or yoga, were old hat or common practice already in India. “Water conservation? India has been conserving water for centuries. Even in my house, we kept the cold water in a big well, and we’d only heat up whatever we needed for our bath, and we used to mix the hot and cold water in a bucket and use a big cup to pour the water. These showers you love so much waste so much water.” Then she’d passive-aggressively add “India did it first” in the same tone all moms use whenever they decide to eventually tell you “I told you so” before smiling smugly and returning to their Reader’s Digests.

All of this kept me deeply rooted in my culture even while I (unsuccessfully) wore Hammer pants, listened to Michael Jackson’s Bad while dancing in the kitchen with my mom, and, later, rapped along with Coolio. (Yes, Coolio. At least I’m brave enough to admit it, unlike y’all in the back who are chuckling. Stop. You know what you did. All of us 90’s Kids know, deep down inside, just like we all secretly know the lyrics to “Ice, Ice Baby.”)

Unlike Mina, one of MM’s main characters, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to India several times. During the 90’s, when India was largely still healing from the devastating effects of the British Empire’s cruel reign, going there was neither the romanticized nor poverty-porn experience we’d come to associate with Exotic India, and while I felt connected to my supposed “homeland” though I was here in America, it was very easy to feel like the outsider I was once I was actually there.

In America, I felt most comfortable with other girls of color, and one of my best friends was (and still is!) the daughter of an immigrant from Nigeria, and I’ve recently realized how much of the “second-generation” experience we shared together. However, underneath these fun cultural exchanges and communities of support were also racist sentiments, which went mostly unaddressed in any significant way.

Sadly, whether the stereotyping and subtle fear of other cultures and colors was (a) the product of hatred deliberately spread and managed by the British Empire in an attempt to prevent Indian people from rising together to defeat them, (b) beliefs they heard at home in India, (c) paranoia they felt as strangers in a new country, or (d) naivete in the face of caricatures they saw on TV and heard in a language they didn’t fully understand, some of our parents’ private conversations about politics or religion sometimes carried tinges of racism that were never mentioned outside the home. Once my fellow second-gens started going to college, we realized that many Hindu parents raised their kids with almost the same set of rules: never score less than a 99 on any test, never forget the name of a relative (especially one in India), and never bring home a romantic partner – oh, and also, never, never come home if you are discovered with one who is White, Black, or Muslim. They eventually caved on the White thing, but the doors to the others remained firmly shut.

Radharani Ray’s article describes the kind of racism we saw within the Indian community and other immigrant groups. For one, colorism runs deep in Indian culture, as it does in most non-white ones. Women cover their faces and stay out of the sun in order to avoid becoming dark, store shelves are stacked full of skin lightening products, and families hope and pray for fair-skinned children and grandchildren, as dark skin can sometimes ruin job and marriage prospects. This fear of The Dark — perhaps another damaging effect of Imperialist propaganda meant to demean and divide native citizens — might have influenced the way some Indian immigrants interacted with (or avoided) other people of color.

At other times, these tensions more resembled classism, one serving as a coded cover for the other. Some immigrants from India came from middle-class or wealthy families and never told their loved ones back home that they worked part-time in restaurants or big box stores to supplement their meagre student allowances; other ones scrimped and saved to collect the funds to finally come to America, but once they invested what little they had in founding small business and motels, they moved up the class chain and sent as much money as they could back home. In time, like the Indians who fled Uganda, some Indian immigrants in America faced resentment from other non-white groups that were still struggling hard to achieve their American dreams, and some of those successful immigrants felt uncomfortable speaking out against racism for fear of alienating white people who they now worked with and for – they didn’t want to lose the newfound American-ness they worked so hard to develop, and they didn’t want to lose the security of the paychecks they worked so hard to earn after climbing out of abject poverty without running water or lights at home. At times, they falsely believed that their financial success was proof of their superiority over others. generally, whenever different non-white races collided, they seemed to silently acknowledge the cutthroat competition they were all lodged in, trying to climb closest to “White” or “Success,” which was still largely defined as “White” in the 90’s.

The conflicts in Mississippi Masala are reflective of this not-so-subtle “Fine, I’m not winning, but I’m not losing as badly as you are” attitude. Who’s always suing whom, who is racist despite being only a couple of shades lighter than the other, who can’t be trusted — these are questions that swirl around in the film’s dialogues, and the conclusion seems to be that a genuine connection is what truly defines a relationship between two people or a person and a place.

Mississippi Masala – Racial Tensions

Mira and Demetrius fall in love because they shared senses of humor, interests, similar relationships with their families, and desires to find something bigger than themselves and/or Mississippi. Kum-Kum Bhavnani notes bell hooks’s and Anuradha Dingwaney’s criticisms of the film, which focus on its oversimplification of the race issue: “love conquers all” is an empty cry when followed by a reminder of the bloody lynchings and the savage institution of slavery which occurred in Mississippi and abroad as a result of racist beliefs and practices. This movie makes an unrevolutionary, mostly sentimental statement. But the narratives of Mississippi Masala’s Jai and Mina show, however, that racial identity is ambiguous, since Jai says that despite his Indian birth he feels most at home in Uganda, and Mina reminds her parents that she is not Indian but  American, and class and race aren’t supposed to matter in America (Ray 171-2). When her mother explains that she and Mina’s dad are supposed to look out for their daughter, she adds a question loaded with fear a few immigrants felt about trusting “others” in a strange country away from the careful eyes of extended family and people with seemingly similar values: “if we don’t, who will?”

Mississippi Masala – Mina’s Complex Identity

Br

Bringing America, India, and Uganda together highlights the reality Paul Gilroy brought attention to in Black Atlantic: that non-white cultures have always been tied together and existed in both situational and organic hybridity. The issue of assimilation, though, remained.  The 90’s was a decade of figuring out where these lines and boundaries between our separate worlds exist, and how, or if, they should be broken down or replaced with new ones. When I started going to school in Columbus with other Indian-American kids, I watched some of them keep the “Indian” part of “Indian-American” under wraps with ethnically ambiguous names like Neil, Nina, Jay. Over the years, we gradually became more confident sharing the other half of our identities with our classmates, but oddly enough, though we hung out often outside of school, we lived fairly separate lives at school so as not to seem like we were deliberately clumping together.

Meanwhile, in the early 2000’s, Bobby Jindal’s brief success in post-Katrina New Orleans seemed like evidence of this romantic notion of assimilation, but a closer look at his personal history reveals another reality that’s just as complex as the first: “Bobby” was born Piyush Jindal before he officially changed his name to match the youngest Brady boy (no, really), converted from Hinduism to Catholicism, and said, when he and his wife were asked if they kept up with any Indian traditions in their home, some version of “No, we’ve been raised as Americans. We do American things like other Americans who love America like we do since we’re all Americans.” I have vivid memories around that same time of attending a small rally for another Indian-American political candidate who claimed that even though he looked different, he was just as Southern as anyone else in that room on Georgia Tech campus; he even had a coon dog and a white wife. (Surprise!)

So, assimilate or separate? Play the game or create our own new games?

Mississippi Masala was less an answer to those questions and more a presentation of those questions on both smaller and larger scales (a small town in Mississippi, a small town in Uganda, and both cities sort of transferred onto those transparency sheets our teachers still used back then and laid on top of each other to show how those cities fit into the larger diaspora) and for its viewers’ consideration. In the 90’s, viewers of color saw themselves featured centrally in a film, and some white viewers saw Mina and other Indian faces for the first time, at least outside of a restaurant, a motel, or The Simpsons.

Thanks to Mira Nair, Americans, new and old, had at least some alternatives to Apu.

Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

Bejarano, Christina, Gary Segura. “What Goes Around, Comes Around: Race, Blowback, and the Louisiana Elections of 2002 and 2003.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 328-37.

Bhavani, Kum-Kum. “Organic Hybridity or Commodification of Hybridity? Comments on Mississippi Masala. Meridians, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000, pp. 187-203.

 Desai, Gaurav. “Oceans Connect: The Indian Ocean and African Identities.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 3, 2010, pp. 713-20.

Ray, Radharani. “Interrogating Race in Mississippi Masala.” Race, Gender, & Class. vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, pp. 155-75.

Taylor, Ian. “India’s Rise in Africa.” International Affairs, vol. 88, no. 4, 2012, pp. 779-98.

 

Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

The 90s Kente Aesthetic

Image from http://www.projectbly.com/destinations/kumasi/meet

The type of cloth we know as “Kente” originated in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Kente was/is mainly created by the Asante and the Ewe peoples, descending from the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai from before the 15th century. These empires were located in the general area from the West African coast to as far north as Mali, and as far west as Chad. According to historian Herbert M. Cole, author of Icons: Ideals and Power in African Art (Smithsonian Institution publication), the term Kente may be a corruption of the Fanti word for “basket” – alluding to the hand-weaving process. Cole goes on to explain that only males create the long strips, on an intricate loom. Each design has a distinct name, with proverbs associated with particular patterns – wearing particular colors and shapes sends specific messages you want viewers to understand. Among the Asante and Ewe, kente was often associated with and reserved for chieftains and royal figures – fabric trades with Europeans provided materials for locals to rework into traditional designs. Unlike the 1980s and 90s, kente wasn’t originally sewn into garments for everyday wear (Cole 1990). This historical perspective gives greater context to the recent boom in kente cloth wear, and the newer ideas associated with these designs.

I can’t think of the 1990s without thinking of Kente. I remember being 6-7 years old and going to an independent school called Lotus Academy in Philadelphia. In our yearly closing graduation, students would wear kente sashes, kufis, bow ties and skirts for girls. We would march in the auditorium to Freedom Songs, chants of encouragements originally sung during the Civil Rights Movement. For us, and our parents, the colorful print cloth represented our link to the Motherland, to Africa: ideas of glory, achievement, kings and queens, and societal stability before enslavement/colonization. Wearing kente symbolized that we were continuations of these ideas, the charge that we could reinvent and achieve greatness as our ancestors did. This expression really took hold in popular culture, particularly with the continued rise of several elements:

…hip hop, with recording artists like Queen Latifah, Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt n Pepa (those kente hats!), other artists and fans who sported Cross Colours garb…

…the highlighting and celebration of black college campus culture, with kente prints as iconic motifs for newly-launched Black Studies program materials, “Class of 199_” sashes for African American Studies majors, and the like. With this imagery in academia, Black students tied this tradition to the charge to represent one’s family, community and ancestry – to learn about their past to create new solutions for the modern era.

…African motifs in television and mass media: Michael Jackson dons kente and stands with chiefs in Cote D’Ivoire in 1992. In 1998, President Bill and Hillary Clinton display their kente print during their Ghana visit. Black sitcoms, performances and Kwanzaa specials frequently featured characters who were up on the latest trends, wearing dashikis, kufis, lappas (waistwraps) and headwraps.

…Craft activity books for Black children: With Black history at the fore of many grassroots published workbooks, handouts, coloring books and illustrated stories for children, Kente symbolizes variety and diversity within the Black family and community. This larger theme is evident in a recent Ladybug magazine entry: an arts and crafts project of picture frame decoration. Colors and shapes in Kente are used to prompt young readers to think about the unity in difference amongst their own family members (Kapp 2007). Kente Colors, written by Debbi Chocolate and illustrated by John Ward, introduces small children to their basic colors – matched with poetry and elaborate illustrations of West African life scenes and kente-weaving (Chocolate 1997).

…African inspirations in high fashion and streetwear magazines – where it was often called “ethnic print” or “mustard” cloth. Adidas came out with a brand of kente cloth sneakers – to match the widespread popularity of “conscious” Black History t-shirts and sweaters. For high fashion tastes, prints were incorporated into elaborate dress patterns, tuxedoes, blazers and hats. In a 1990 edition of Black Collegian, Julia Wilson presents a spread featuring hot, new gear on the market. In her section “ Looking Good: Back-To-School with Ethnic Pride”, she notes the following:

“Historians have documented African culture in fashion from the Ashanti to the Zulu peoples. This gives all of us descendants a renewed sense of self in historical terms and inspirational knowledge of where creation began in the first place. From the mustard colored kente cloth being copied today by leading designers to braided and dreadlocked hairstyles, African people have – since the beginning of time – been at the center and forefront of fashion styles – passing along their zest for life through their creations.” (Wilson 1990)

Building on this quote, further interesting positions on this topic are presented by Cole, who posits that:

“..African Americans are now designing cloths, creating outfits, and marketing fashions that owe much to Africa, yet are not, in fact, African. The sensibilities in the Kente adaptations are modern and American-African-American. Surely it is appropriate for Americans whose ancestors lived in Africa, some in Ghana and Togo, to modify and celebrate a powerful African artistic tradition.” (Cole 1990)

Reflections on the popularity of kente raise a need for further analysis. A few questions surface with regards to this phenomenon in the 1990s. What can we learn about instances of cultural and symbolic appropriation with regards to African Americans adoption and revitalization of kente’s use? Is appropriation a valid term to even apply, given a broader question of identity – what is African culture? Who can access it? Can there even be a sole authentic African culture, or correct, authentic cultural elements? I couldn’t possibly answer these questions with this entry. However, I hope this discussion continues with folks to add their insight from both history and personal experience. Kweku Vassall

 

Works Cited

Chocolate, D. (1996). Kente Colors. New York, NY: Walker and Company.

Cole, Herbert. M. (1990). Kente: A Meaningful Tradition in Cloth. American Visions, 5(5).

Kapp, Jody. (2007). Kente Cloth Frame. Ladybug (Magazine), 17(7), 37.

Wilson, Julia. A. (1990). Looking Good: Back-To-School With Ethnic Pride. Black Collegian, 21(1), 24.