In celebration of Black History Month, through the month of February All the Pretty Birds will be sharing stories and inspiration of black people’s relationship to fashion around the world, in an effort to inform and unify our community.
I admit: I am very fortunate. As a scholar of art history, I have been able to travel extensively, and as an African American, my extended visits to west, north and Southern African countries have deeply informed my world view and fostered a greater sense of self. After spending over a year in Ghana recently, I returned back to the US with an entire wardrobe composed of traditional and contemporary African silhouettes constructed mainly from textiles made in Ghana, Togo, Mali, and Nigeria.
I am the son of a seamstress. Though it was her hobby, my mother had sewing the skills of a French couturier. She could just look at me and measure how much weight I’ve gained or lost, and she had no problem boldly telling me how my bodily changes had affected the fit and design of my clothing. When I was kid, my mom spent her weekends shopping for fabric. My siblings hated the reoccurring excursion to stores like Vogue Fabrics in Chicago, the warehouse-sized fabric retailer that often sold the remaining remnants from well-known designer’s cutting rooms. My mother’s discriminating hunt for exquisite cloth would begin, her glasses resting on her nose and me by her side. I watched her closely as salespeople showed her the new arrivals that never seemed good enough for the project she had in mind. By the age of ten, I was trusted to find bolts of fabric that my mom may have overlooked, and together we would escape into the world of silks, lace, woolens, fine cottons, and endless patterns and colors.
So, you can imagine the look of surprise on the women’s faces who worked in the textile markets in Ghana. They were in awe of how I enjoyed looking at their fabrics. A man sewing in west Africa is quite common, and tailors are respected and celebrated, but I told the sales women that I do not sew, I just know fabric. A brightly-dressed octogenarian with coffee bean-colored skin and pewter gray hair handed me a long staff, and said to the eager saleswomen, “Let the American pick out what he wants, and leave him alone.” The long staff was used to point and pull down fabrics that had been stacked extremely high in the market, The younger woman giggled as I bypassed hundreds of prints and textures, shaking my head at everything that would not have met mothers approval. That is when the elder woman, named Estherm said, “You, come with me.” I followed Esther, who seemed to have the energy of 20 year old, deeper in the winding rows of one of the largest markets in West Africa. We stopped in a shop that was canopied, creating much need shade from the equatorial sun of the afternoon. A few younger women greeted “Auntie Esther”, and I was asked to have a seat. The younger ladies brought out stacks of folded fabric and smiled at me as my eyes danced with excitement. Auntie Esther open each piece of fabric, allowing me to examine every fiber. I viewed Ankara (Dutch wax prints), handwoven Kente clothe, Mud clothe Kuba clothe and many others. “Where in Ghana are you from?” Auntie asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t taken a DNA test,” I said.
“But where is your grandmother from?”
“Mississippi,” I said quickly, hoping she would understand the vagueness of my African ancestry.
“And where was her mother from?”
“Louisiana!” I responded louder than I should have.
She shook her head in frustration. “Where is your African grandmother from!” She asked raising the her volume to match mine.
“I DON’T KNOW! SHE WAS A SLAVE!!”
The peaceful, and cool shop that was deep in the market suddenly became thick, awkward and hot, as silence filled the spaces where polite smiles once were. Aunt Esther looked at me keenly as a deep sadness influenced her expression. She forced a smile and signaled to the workers to bring out more fabric. This time she told me what different prints mean, she explained to me how the Dutch brought the print making process over a century ago and how the local people started to design and make the fabric their own. She explained the process of batik fabric, saying that it started in Africa. She took on a more serious tone when she explained what certain symbols called Adinkra, an ancient writing of the Akan tribe that is ubiquitous in Ghana. Later she told me how traditionally Kente clothe was made by men only and typically only worn for special occasions. The cloth often tells a story within the pattern, stories of great kings, and children fables are often depicted within the fibers. She went on to tell me which colors were used for funerals, times of mourning, times of birth and celebration. Hours had passed under Auntie Esther’s canopy, and my selection pile grew larger and larger, and we had only begun to look at locally made laces and embroidery. She looked closely at the glass beads I wore, made by a Ghanaian jeweler, and found more printed fabrics that would complement it. Most importantly, she told me that nothing she sold was made in China, an important aspect since many traditional textiles are being made cheaply in the fast fashion market.
The sun was going down and Auntie Esther offered me food, which I gladly accepted (Ghanaian Jollof rice is delicious!). As I looked at the fabric that I picked for myself, I was overwhelmed by the size of the piles. Auntie Esther distracted me, and said, “Many people don’t want to know about the cloth like you do. Most people just come in and take a small piece to make a skirt that looks African. Even our own people do not know the stories like we they used to, they do not where the cloth like we used to.”
For a moment, I thought that maybe I was in a sophisticated sales scheme, targeted to take advantage of the gullible African American tourist, desperate to connect to his roots. Auntie singled to the young women, and they began wrapping my fabrics in plastic bags neatly and quickly. Two of the three piles were wrapped and Auntie Esther told the young girl, “he will only pay for these two, the last will be a gift from us.” The last pile was the most expensive, it contained lace, embroidery and three types of Kente.
“Oh Auntie, I should pay, please!” I said.
“The next time someone asks you where your African grandmother is from, tell them she is from Ghana, tell them that she wove cloth, and she sold it for her business. Tell them that this is where you are from, and this is why you like fabric. Do you understand?”
“Yes please,” I responded as I heard Ghanaians respond to those who they respected.
Auntie Esther’s act of kindness and benevolence served me in several ways. For the first time, I received an education about traditional African clothing, for she knew about customs and aesthetic practices from all over Africa. Secondly, she allowed me to reclaim what history had stolen from me. She empowered me to come home to the U.S. with fabric that I would gift to my mother, fabric that she cherished more than any piece she may have purchased on our weekend excursions.
The concept of cultural appropriation has critically ignited the worlds of fashion and beauty. Everything from hairstyles, jewelry (placement), body painting, scarring, manicures, textiles, silhouettes, religious iconography and the list goes on, has been brought to a question. History tells us that clothing that may have been used traditionally in certain spaces by certain people, often is ridiculed when seen in context, but celebrated once commercially exploited. For many years pejorative views of so-called ethnic aesthetics dominated the psyche of the Western mind. It is also important to examine how objectifying, rarifying, sexualizing, or any other means of othering has been placed upon non-Western aesthetics, especially African modes of beauty.
The African Diaspora has been reaching back to the Continent since its inception. Worship practices, drumming, pottery, textiles, music, poetry, agricultural development, etc., are tangible retentions from Africa that have shaped additional tribes. Tribes that may have never lived in Africa, but tribes nonetheless. Blacks in the Americas have been fascinated with Africa since the early 20th century, and though many of us have never made it back, the spirit of our ancestors influences our cultural productions.