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.