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'Everybody Wants a Piece of Africa Now' : Culture: Kente, a cloth rich in color and tradition, weaves its way into wardrobes of African-Americans. 'It makes me feel stronger,' one wearer says.

October 27, 1991|DONNETTE DUNBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might have seen it as a bright accessory donned by Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall or Jesse Jackson. Or you may have seen someone wearing it on the street, at a party, in church, at college graduation: in a bow tie, a cummerbund, a scarf, a skirt--even in shoes.

No matter who is wearing it--no matter what the garment--kente cloth is one of the most striking images to emerge from the growing Afrocentric movement. The brilliantly colored material that originated in Ghana and started to crop up in the United States in the late 1980s is appearing with greater frequency in urban areas.

Many African-Americans wear kente as part of an attempt to embrace African culture. Actress Marla Gibbs, star of the canceled sitcom "227," says that whenever she wears kente, she feels "spiritually connected with Africa."

For other African-Americans, kente is a fashionable way to make a political statement. For still others, it just makes for a beautiful piece of clothing.

"It makes me feel stronger," says Rosie Lee Hooks, who recently wore an elegant kente scarf at play in downtown Los Angeles. "I've been wearing kente for 20 years. When I went to Ghana and saw it and realized that my people's history has been written in these cloths, I felt that I needed to get one."

Tightly woven on narrow looms with colorful threads, kente originated centuries ago in Ghana with the Ashantis, who still wear it, toga-style, during royal and religious ceremonies. (Kente means "basket.")

Each piece is made of hundreds of smaller blocks sewn together in quilt-like fashion, so texture, color and design vary. Kente worn by the tribal chieftains is the most intricate. Typically, the older the cloth, the more valuable it is.

"It's part of a larger movement, a new generation that has discovered an appreciation of African culture--its music and art," says Abena Busia, an associate English professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was born in Ghana. Much of the cloth is made in red, green and gold, colors that came out of the Pan African movement in the 1950s.

Many high school and college students wear strips of kente around their necks during graduation ceremonies. At prominent black colleges such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse, Hampton and Spellman in Atlanta, kente--in the form of scarves, hats and book bags--has become commonplace.

Cal State Northridge students have been wearing the cloth sporadically since the early '70s, says Margaret J. Brown, 53, coordinator of the university's black graduation ceremonies. She says wearing kente stoles at graduation has become a tradition.

Kente is making an appearance at Sunday church services too. Walk into the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and you will see kente stoles draped on the shoulders of its ministers.

"It's the second stage of the 1960s civil rights movement," says Cecil L. Murray, pastor of FAME. "But kente goes deeper this time, deeper than the slogans, the Afro. It's our new awakening."

FAME church members also wear the cloth.

Kente is the official uniform of the 500 members of the Richard Allen Men's Society, a community service group under the auspices of FAME, who wear the ties and cummerbunds on the first Sunday of every month. The tradition started three years ago, says Mark E. Whitlock, 37, president of the society.

"As long as there is Africa, there will be kente," he says. "It's not just fashion."

Many African-Africans are passionate about kente's African connection, and others hail the fabric for its beauty and complexity. (The September issue of Essence magazine featured a fall fashion spread that focused on kente.)

"It's a technical and accomplished weave," says Doran Ross, deputy director of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

A traditional kente is made up of squares about 3 inches wide. Each square of silk involves intricate geometric designs, and many Ashanti people believe the patterns contain proverbs with specific meanings. "Some patterns refer to the person who created them and others to proverbs," Ross says.

The hand-woven cloth is imported from Ghana and costs about $10 a yard in the United States. However, it is woven into 10- to 12-yard pieces and cannot be cut.

Kente print costs less and is manufactured in the Ivory Coast and Senegal. It is made from cotton and has no geometric designs, just similar colors. The cost for a single strip is $7 a yard.

For some African-Americans, garments made from kente allow them to make a cultural statement--fashionably.

"It allows them to make a solidarity statement without feeling political pressure," says Busia. In the '60s, wearing dashikis and an Afro was "a sign of rebellion," she says. "Now, (kente) is not. They can wear kente as a statement of pride without feeling like an outcast."

Retailers say kente will not go the way of dashikis, which disappeared after a few years, because of its uniqueness and versatility.

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