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Unraveling Culture: Is it OK for Black Americans to Wear Traditionally African Clothing

Is wrapping ourselves in African prints and designs an appropriate way to reclaim our heritage - or is it simply more American appropriation? Delving into the African/ African-American divide over 'authentic' fashion.

The desire to connect to those around us is staunch, matched only by our instinct to survive. The food, language and traditions that we share are what creates a people, a distinct little subset of humanity. It's no wonder that few things tend to piss black people off more than to watch pieces of our culture get kidnapped, given a haircut and called by a new name while we protest, often futilely.

Cultural misappropriation. It's certainly nothing new, and perhaps because of it, we've dug our heels in deeper, trying desperately to catch our toes on a fragmentary root. The resurgence of natural hairdos, the black fist emoji and hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic are all small ways in which we've tried, in recent years, to fight the power and reclaim our identity.

Our dress and adornments have evolved, too.

Surely you've seen the seashell earrings and African-print dresses and skirts – those in particular are visually stunning with their vibrant colors and intricate designs. They make you think of Africa, of blackness. A beautiful trend, for sure, but … hold up. We African-Americans, the ones who acknowledge southern slaves as ancestors, are, in fact, American, even if our anger sometimes prevents us from fully embracing an identity associated with a country that hasn't always embraced us.

We've got the blood of the motherland coursing through our veins, but also the grease from cheeseburgers and the beat of pop songs. Culture is a shared set of ideas and experiences, and while we share ancestry with native Africans, the experience is significantly different. It makes one wonder if the donning of kente and other traditionally African prints and designs is appropriate – or is it appropriation? In an effort to fight oppression, have we become part of the problem? Are we flirting with hypocrisy here?

London-based freelance writer and journalist Zipporah Gene made up her mind when, in her 2015 online article, she flat-out accused black Americans of misappropriating African culture. Gene, who is not a native-born African, demanded that unless we're from Africa, we cease and desist, writing specifically, "If you're not from an African tribe, please leave off wearing the tribal marks. Otherwise you're participating in the very thing you vehemently speak out against." Adding, "You take a cultural dress, mark or trait, with all its religious and historical connotations, dilute it and bring it out for occasions when you want to look 'trendy.'"

It's doubtful that Gene was prepared for how quickly the majority of readers would form an angry mob in search of blood. One commenter wrote, in part, "Look here, we have enough problems as black people. Of all the problems we have, you sat down and thought and this was your contribution to us as a people? Who sent you?? STOP dividing us! … What kind of divisive devilish behavior is this?"

Gene's piece was problematic for a number of reasons, but she raised points valid enough to at least warrant discussion instead of outright dismissal and accusations of satanism. Many African-Americans are wearing these clothes, adornments and markings as a way to reaffirm their identities – and in a frantic and heartfelt effort to connect to a past that has been violently stripped away. Yes, unfortunately, there also exist trend sniffers who are feigning interest in African cultures merely to pop off their Snapchat stories. But maybe that's OK, too.

Charlene Dunbar has a perspective privileged by a multi-leveled vantage point. Dunbar came from Liberia to the United States permanently when she was 11 years old, before Africa was as trendy as it is today.

"I grew up in high school here in the States, and it wasn't cool to be African back then. I always tell people, 'It was not the hip thing to be.' You got all these sideway jokes about, 'Did you swim here?' and 'African booty scratcher,' and that was from the white people and the black people," Dunbar says..

Now, she lives in Atlanta and owns and operates Suakoko Betty, designing African-inspired clothing with a contemporary flair for a mostly American customer base. She says, "It's great, but it's kind of funny that now the tide has shifted and a lot of African-Americans are proud and associating."

On whether she thinks this newfound interest is authentic, Dunbar says she does think that some are just "riding the wave." But she says her customers, in particular, have expressed a genuine desire to embrace their heritage, which she credits with a recent boom in the styles; that, and a greater number of first-generation Africans in the States.

"We've come up feeling that stronger connection with home," Dunbar says. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, the United States' African immigrant population has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, when we were home to only 80,000 foreign-born Africans. Compare that to 2.1 million in 2015. The wormhole through which African influence travels is real and not merely a grasping of idealistic straws.

Still, if you're not actually African, could it be considered offensive to wear African clothes? Well, sure, some could and will find it disagreeable – and under those circumstances, those causing pain never have authority over the hurt. But the general consensus seems to suggest that the brothers and sisters of the African diaspora – no matter where they were born – are just that: family. Still, that doesn't and shouldn't mean an ignorant free-for-all. If your goal is to honor, then it follows that respect and some level of appreciation should be the first step.

Dunbar says she thinks African-Americans have the tendency to "cherry pick" what they like – "pluck the pretty fabric out" or claim the desirable parts. But when faced with questions of what we're doing to benefit the land from which our ancestors hail, the answers don't flow as easily as chants of "black power."

"It's more than just a dress; more than just a blouse. It's a statement about identity," Dunbar says. "Now, where I get irritated (laughs) is when people don't really understand much about Africa. They can't tell me more than one country. It's like, 'Do you speak Swahili?' And everything is Mandingo."

She encourages us to take the time to educate ourselves about the continent, its countries and customs – at least a little. She doesn't expect that you become an African cultural historian, but "know your Libya from your Liberia." Command a basic understanding to give the clothes the proper respect.

She says she can appreciate "when people come at it from that place … 'I honor it, I respect it and I want to learn more. 'Tell me about your personal story' versus kind of, 'Let me just grab this kente bikini and whatever.'"

Elisha Renne, professor emerita of anthropology and of Afroamerican and African studies at University of Michigan, agrees that, "It'd be nice if there were some sort of education." She says, though, that lack of knowledge about what we're buying is not exclusive to African-American communities – that's a universal American ignorance. "The irony is that those prints that they're wearing … those things initially came from Indonesia," Renne, who studies African textiles and veiling, says. They were brought to West Africa by traders and Indonesian soldiers from Bali. Batik fabrics were reproduced by the British then resold to Africans.

"This has been a discussion in our history. What do we call these things? Are they African? Are they Indonesian? Are they British?" she says. "Art historians, when they're talking about these prints, they call them African prints, because there was a demand for certain types of designs, a demand for certain colors, and the traders had to meet those demands. So in a way, Africans – and it was mostly women then – were sort of deciding what they wanted and they were sort of designing in a way."

Renne says it's the societal need for these prints and how we fold them into our everyday lives that matters more than where they're from. Black Americans are "making it into their own way of thinking about Africa, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."

Dunbar adds, "I think the more people wear it, the more they get drawn in. The superficial taste leads people to dig deeper. That's a long way from 'you're an African booty scratcher' and 'I don't want jack to do with Africa.' To me, that's progress, and it's a good thing."

Like racism, true cultural misappropriation can only exist in an atmosphere of imbalanced power. Can we be ignorant? Sure. Can we offend? Probably. What African-Americans can't do in respect to African culture is claim it as property and convince the world that it was ours in the first place. More troubling would be the fact that, well, it kind of was. As Dunbar says, "You can always come home. At the end of the day, it's your continent as much as it is mine." 

 

TEXTILE CONTEXT

A closer look at some African fabrics that have resurfaced in American fashion.

Akwete cloth

 

The Igbo people of Akewete in southeastern Nigeria weave this fabric using sisal hemp, raffia and spun cotton. The coarse raffia is used for masquerades and, in the past, for warriors' head gear – and the hemp to make towels, ropes and handbags.

Aso oke fabric

This cloth is hand loomed by the Yoruba men in west Nigeria and used to make Agbada (men's gowns), iro (women's wraps) and fila (hats for men).

Barkcloth

Once common in Africa, Asia, Indonesia and the Pacific, this material is made from the inner bark of Moraceae, a type of flowering plant. Strips are soaked and beaten into sheets that are then transformed into different products.

Chitenge

It's a fabric similar to a sarong and usually worn by women in East, West and Central Africa. They wrap it around their chests or waists, over their heads – and even use it as a baby sling.

Kanga

This fabric is mostly worn by women – sometimes men – in the African Great Lakes region. The printed cotton fabric is about 3-by-5 feet and typically features a border around a distinct center image.

Kente cloth

The Akan people of South Ghana craft this silk-and-cotton fabric that is comprised of interwoven strips. Once considered sacred and worn only by kings during important times, its use has become more widespread.

Mudcloth

This handmade Malian cotton fabric is traditionally dyed with fermented mud. While historically important, it's recently become an outright symbol of Malian cultural identity.

Shweshe

It's sometimes called the denim of South Africa for its longevity and everyday use. The cotton fabric was originally dyed indigo but is now manufactured in a variety of colors and decorated with intricate geometric prints.

Ukara

The Ekpe people originally wove this fabric, usually dyed blue and covered in nsibidi – a system of symbols native to what is now southeastern Nigeria. Common depictions include trees, lovers, metal rods, masks, hands in friendship, war, feathers, stars and moons.

Sources: Brand South Africa, Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society, UNESCO, Printing Contemporary Handwoven Fabrics in Southwestern Nigeria, The Art of African Textiles, Vanguard News, Wikipedia

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