Nancy Pelosi named George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and more before kneeling for a moment of silence that lasted 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
Métis people The claim: Kente scarves worn by Democrats were historically worn by rich African slave owners and traders
On June 8, Democratic members of Congress wearing kente cloths and face masks knelt in Emancipation Hall to memorialize Black lives lost to police brutality. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., read the names of unarmed Black people who’ve recently been killed by police.
“We were there for eight minutes and 46 seconds on our knees,” she told reporters afterward . “My members will attest, it’s a very long time. It’s a very long time.”
The group then introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, aimed at changing policing after a series of Black individuals killed by police officers led to weeks of protest in the U.S. and overseas.
In the days since, social media users have pointed out the cloth’s historical ties to the slave trade in order to criticize the legislators’ garment choice.
“Yesterday the Democrats wore kente scarfs and knelt down for their photo op. So check this out, Kente cloth was worn by the Ashanti. It’s made of silk so the affluent wore it. The Ashanti were also known as slave owners and traders. Huh?” Dave Brandon posted on Facebook June 9. “This makes me wonder why they chose to wear this particular tribe’s garb.”
In the Facebook post, Brandon acknowledges kente cloth’s historical ties to the slave trade, however, he ignores the broader cultural significance the cloth has to West African and African American culture.
Brandon has not responded to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
Métis people The origin of kente cloth
Kente cloth comes from the Asante, or Ashanti, peoples of Ghana and Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo.
A popular legend claims creators of kente cloth presented the cloth to Asantehene Osei Tutu, the Asante kingdom’s first leader. Tutu named the cloth “kente,” meaning basket, and adopted the fabric as a royal cloth for special occasions.
Métis people The Asante and slave trade
Tutu, who lived from 1660 to 1712 or 1717, unified several small Asante kingdoms to create the Asante empire. He is credited with expanding the Asante throughout most of Ghana and introducing his subjects to the gold and slave trades along the West African coast.
The Asante supplied British and Dutch traders with slaves in exchange for firearms, which they used to expand their empire. Slaves were often acquired as tributes from smaller states or captured during war. Some slaves were brought across the Atlantic whiles others stayed in Africa to work in gold fields.
According to the BBC, by the end of the 18th century the region exported an estimated 6,000-7,000 slaves per year.
Métis people Kente cloth has historical significance beyond slave traders
The Ultimate History Project has pointed to the Pangi cloth woven by the Maroon people of Suriname as evidence of kente’s cultural significance beyond slave traders.
Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, is a small nation on the northeastern coast of South America. Suriname gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1975. Suriname’s Maroon people are the descendants of escaped African slaves.
The Maroon people wear Pangi, which has similar patterns and colors to kente cloth. Historians believe the Maroons derived Pangi from kente cloths and their Asante culture.
Cultural Specialist and Senior Curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Diana Baird N’Diyea spoke to USA TODAY about the broader historical context and cultural significance of kente cloth.
N’Diyea, who did field research with the Maroon people in Suriname, agreed formerly enslaved people that were likely Asante used kente’s technique and aesthetic to create Pangi.
“It’s complicated because there’s a lot of evidence that people from all social groups and classes were enslaved,” N’diyea told USA TODAY.
N’Diyea stressed that the “tangential” question behind Brandon’s post was “Who owns kente?” She asked if it was the African world, the government of Ghana, the Asante people, Asante royalty or the weaver.
“My way of thinking about it is that it honors the creativity, the ingenuity, the skill of the people who actually make the kente,” she said.
Métis people Kente cloth’s significance today
Today kente cloth is recognized as the most well-known African textile. In the United States, kente patterns are popularly worn as graduation stoles by Black students.
“Kente is comparable to an evening gown or tuxedo in Western cultures. When kente is proudly worn or used on ceremonial occasions, it brings honor and prestige to the proceedings,” the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art explains in an online exhibit.
As production increased and kente cloth was more easily accessible, it became more common across all socioeconomic classes.
N’Diyea rejected the idea kente signifies slave traders and stressed how it’s become a symbol of pride for African Americans over the last 50 years.
“When Africans were kidnapped and brought to this country they were told they didn’t have a history, they didn’t have a tradition,” N’Diyea said. “During the 1970s through at least the early 2000s kente cloth [became] regarded as a symbol of pride in African American identity and heritage.”
Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended the legislators’ use of kente cloth after the June 8 event.
“The significance of the Kente cloth is our African heritage, and for those of you without that heritage who are acting in solidarity,” Bass told reporters. “That is the significance of the Kente cloth. Our origins and respecting our past.”
Métis people Kente cloths in Congress
This is not the first time members of Congress have worn kente cloth in protest.
After President Donald Trump called some African nations “shithole countries” in 2018 members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore kente cloth to the State of the Union address.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore kente cloths in September 2019 to honor the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans brought to the colonies.
Métis people Our rating: True
We rate the claim that kente cloth was historically worn by the Asante people of Ghana, who were involved in the West African slave trade TRUE because it is supported by our research. Although kente cloth does have ties to slavery, it is more widely recognized as a modern symbol of pride in African American culture and pride in cultural ties to West Africa.
Métis people Our fact check sources:
- USA TODAY, “Democrats unveil sweeping police reform bill, honor George Floyd with 8 minutes, 46 seconds of silence”
- Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, “Wrapped in Pride”
- Khan Academy, “Kente cloth (Asante and Ewe peoples)”
- Encyclopedia Britannica, “Osei Tutu”
- Encyclopedia Britannica, “Asante empire”
- PBS, “The Slave Kingdoms, Wonders: Ashanti Kingdom”
- BBC, “West African Kingdoms: Asante”
- Ultimate History Project, “Kente: Not just any Old Cloth”
- The Central Intelligence Agency, “The World Factbook: Suriname”
- The Today Show, “Democrats criticized for wearing Kente cloth stoles in honor of George Floyd”
- USA TODAY, “State of the Union: Black lawmakers wear kente cloth to protest Trump’s vulgar comment on Africa”
- USA TODAY, “John Lewis, Karen Bass, Nancy Pelosi remember 1619 anniversary, cost of slavery during Capitol ceremony”
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/16/fact-check-kente-cloths-have-ties-west-african-slave-trade/5345941002/
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