Kente – a royal cloth from Ghana in West Africa
Kente is a Ghanaian textile, made of interwoven silk and cotton cloth strips.
Originally, the use of Kente was reserved for Asante royalty and limited to special social and sacred functions. Even as production has increased and Kente has become more accessible to those outside the royal court, it continues to be associated with wealth, high social status, and cultural sophistication.
Historically, the cloth was worn by the Ashanti and Ewe (modern Ghana) royalty and made in the Akan Land, such as the Ashanti Kingdom.
Historians maintain that Kente cloth grew out of various weaving traditions that existed in West Africa prior to the formation of the Asante Kingdom. These techniques were appropriated through vast trade networks, as were materials such as French and Italian silk, which became increasingly desired in the 18th century and were combined with cotton and wool to make Kente.
Kente cloth is also worn by the Ewe people, who were under the rule of the Asante kingdom in the late 18th century. It is believed that the Ewe, who had a previous tradition of horizontal loom weaving, adopted the style of kente cloth production from the Asante—with some important differences. Since the Ewe were not centralized, Kente was not limited to use by royalty, though the cloth was still associated with prestige and special occasions.
A greater variety in the patterns and functions exist in Ewe kente, and the symbolism of the patterns often has more to do with daily life than with social standing or wealth.
Patterns each have a name, as does each cloth in its entirety.
However, the popularity of this cloth spread across borders, and Kente is synonymous with special occasions.
The word Kente (“KEN-tay”) means a basket in the Akan and Ashanti languages. The cloth gets this name because of the weaving method and the patterns; it resembles a basket.
Kente is more than just a cloth. It is an iconic visual representation of the history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, religious belief, social values, and political thought of West Africa. Kente is exported as one of the key symbols of African heritage and pride in African ancestry throughout the diaspora. In spite of the proliferation of both the hand-woven and machine-printed kente, the design is still regarded as a symbol of social prestige, nobility, and cultural sophistication.
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.”
Among the Asante (or Ashanti) people of Ghana, West Africa, a popular legend relates how two young men—Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku Ameyaw—learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving its web. One night, the two went out into the forest to check their traps, and they were amazed by a beautiful spider’s web whose many unique designs sparkled in the moonlight. The spider, named Ananse, offered to show the men how to weave such designs in exchange for a few favors. After completing the favors and learning how to weave the designs with a single thread, the men returned home to Bonwire, and their discovery was soon reported to Asantehene Osei Tutu, first ruler of the Asante kingdom. The asantehene adopted their creation, named kente, as a royal cloth reserved for special occasions, and Bonwire became the leading kente weaving center for the asantehene and his court.
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).