This spring thousands of college students will march across commencement stages to receive their degrees. Many of these students will do so while wearing a Kente cloth stole. This annual college ritual of marking oneself with a visible sign of Africa is a practice that literally weaves together the wisdom of Africa before the Middle Passage with the persistent struggle to (re)attain knowledge of oneself that defines Black experience in the Diaspora. But just how did this West African cloth become a hallmark of the Black American collegiate experience?
The Kente center of the world is the village of Bonwire, Ghana. According to Asante mythology, it was here that great trickster Ananse the Spider, ever skillful and cunning, spun a web of intricate detail in the jungle. When Nana Koragu and Nana Ameyaw, brothers and weavers by trade, came upon Ananse’s web, its immaculate beauty enchanted them. After studying Anansi’s handiwork, the pair returned to the village and began to weave Kente.
Historical documentation indicates textile production among the Akan and Ewe peoples began as early as 1000 B.C. Kente cloth as we know it today with its rich bold colors emerged among the Asante during the seventeenth century A.D., as Chief Oti Akenten (from whose name Kente derives – “basket” in Twi) established trade routes from the Middle and Far East bringing into the Asante Empire a variety of foodstuffs, gems, dyes, leather goods, and silk fabric. Chief Akenten commissioned the new cloth to be spun for royal ritual attire. Men traditionally wear Kente wrapped over their shoulders in the style of a Roman toga while women wear it in two pieces, an ankle-length dress and a shawl that could double as a baby sling.
Kente is a meaningful sartorial device, as every aspect of its aesthetic design is intended as communication. The colors of the cloth each hold symbolism: gold = status/serenity, yellow = fertility, green = renewal, blue = pure spirit/harmony, red = passion, black = union with ancestors/spiritual awareness. Kente cloth sheets are assembled out of sewing together long strips or bands of fabric, each 6”-10” wide. Each one of these bands are themselves composed of panels of alternating designs. Each weaver creates this patchwork appearance through a complex interplay of the warp (the threads pulled left to right during weaving) and weft (threads oriented up and down).
These warp and weft motifs form a repertoire of craft work, as Asante weavers give each one a name that indicates clan, social status, or sexuality, such as AberewaBene meaning “a wise old man symbolized wisdom and maturity.” Other Kente design names form proverbs reflecting the Asante ethos and worldview. Owu nhye da (“Death has no fixed date”) is said to encourage people to right living, as death may come unexpectedly and allow no time for penitence. Nkum me fie na nkosu me aboten (“Don’t kill my house and then mourn for me in public”) cautions against the two-faced and duplicitous impulse of human nature. Richly expressive and personalized Kente meanings emerge out of clever combinations of colors with various warp and weft designs. Kente cloth materialized the spoken rhetoric of proverbs and circulated them among the Asante as sartorial text/iles.
Kente appeared on the radar of most African-Americans in 1958 when Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of independent Ghana, wore the cloth to meet with President Eisenhower at the White House. Coinciding with the Civil Rights and African Decolonization Movements, Black Americans associated Kente cloth with Black politics and the dignity of the African heritage. By the early 1970s, the predominant garment featuring Kente in the United States was the dashiki, a long tunic-type shirt that grew increasingly popular and commodified by the fashion industry. Kente’s appeal within Black Power waned, with Fred Hampton and other Panthers leaders deriding those who wore them. Nevertheless, Kente cloth and dashikis remained staples of urban Black life and received a new layer of significance when adopted by the Hip Hop community in the 1980s.
Another important moment in Kente fashion history occurred at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Recognizing the need to honor the particular historical and personal struggle of Black students to complete a baccalaureate degree, Dr. Franklin Simpson, Director of Affirmative Action and Jerome “Skip” Hutson, Director of Minority Affairs, met with with two English professors, Drs. Christian Awuyah and C. James Trotman. Together the four came up with the idea of a Kente Commencement Ceremony, and on May 15, 1993, thirty graduates attended that first ever event called A Family Affair. To date, nearly two thousand graduates of West Chester University have donned Kente stoles, including this author. The practice has since spread to hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities, making the sun-drenched splashes and bursts of Kente print a ubiquitous sight of any commencement ceremony today.
When Black students wear Kente stoles as a sign of their successful matriculation through higher education, they transform their bodies into living, breathing proverbs. Whether graduating from an HBCU or an PWI, each journey to commencement courses down a road hewn open through the labors of Charlotte Forten Grimké, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and the entire cloud of Diasporic witnesses who birthed Black Studies out of their “(at least) “500-year conversation, in myriad languages and cultural expressions…over the meaning of loss and displacement.”
To the class of 2017, I extend my deepest congratulations. Our world has never more needed thoughtful and engaged members of our communities than it does today. Fortunately, principles of right living already exist to direct your path, as the Kente stole you don around your shoulders testifies to the ancient wisdom of Africa and the “dream and the hope of the slave.” The Asante stylized their values and ethics through the poetics of Kente. Kente’s Diasporic genealogy weaves a pattern of African knowledge and pride across the Middle Passage and onto the capped and gowned bodies of Black American graduates. Happy is the one who walks in the way of the ancestors.
What does your Kente say?