Thousands of college students will march across commencement stages this spring to receive their college degrees. Many of these students will do so while wearing a Kente cloth stole.
But just how did this West African cloth become a hallmark of the Black American collegiate experience?
A web of intricate detail
The village of Bonwire in Ghana is the Kente center of the world. According to Asante mythology, it was here that great trickster Anansi the Spider, ever skillful and cunning, spun a web of intricate detail in the jungle. When Nana Kodagu 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.
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 the Far East bringing into the Asante Empire a variety of foodstuffs, gems, dyes, leather goods, and silk fabric.
Royal ritual attire
Chief Akenten commissioned the new cloth to be spun for royal ceremony 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.
Association with black politics
This cloth appeared on the radar of most blacks 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, along 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.
Successful matriculation through higher education
When African American students wear Kente stoles as a sign of their successful entry through higher education, they transform their bodies into a living, breathing proverbs. Whether graduating from an HBCU or a 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.