The Kente Cloth Of Africa Is Fabric Of Cultural Pride

Posted: May 05, 1989

Fourteen-year-old Shelly Benton stood carefully erect yesterday morning as Tahira Amatullah draped a length of brilliantly colored, intricately woven fabric on his lanky frame. He turned slowly as she twisted and gathered it around his waist and over his shoulder.

When Amatullah finished, the youth threw back his shoulders, folded his arms across his chest and looked proudly, if a bit nervously, at his McMichael School classmates. There stood not a typical eighth grader but a spiritual heir to those who first wore the "kente" cloth centuries ago - the kings of the Ashante nation of Ghana, in West Africa.

As smiles and a couple of frankly envious glances passed among the 35 students, Amatullah told them, "This, too, is your culture, and something to be very proud of."

The teenager's transformation was part of Amatullah's program on the history and construction of "kente" cloth (pronounced KIN-tay), which has been adopted as the symbol of the city's third annual Africamericas Festival. Her presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Mantua branch, at 34th Street and Haverford Avenue, was just the first of four scheduled during the celebration, which began Wednesday and will continue through May 14.

At 11:30 a.m. today, Amatullah will appear at the Cobbs Creek branch library, 59th Street and Baltimore Avenue. On Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., she will speak at the Northwest Regional Library, Chelten Avenue and Greene Street, and on Wednesday at 1:30 at the Logan branch, Old York Road and Wagner Avenue.

During the festival, workers are wearing ties, drapes, shawls and headpieces of kente cloth, which is composed of finely detailed, hand-woven fabric strips. Tomorrow, a float featuring the material will be part of the Africamericas parade on Broad Street.

Over the years, the fabric once reserved for use by Ashante royalty and village chiefs has maintained its distinction but also has become more available to the masses in Africa.

Since 1984, when the Ashante king visited the United States and modeled attire made of the cloth, Americans' ownership of kente has risen dramatically. Evidence abounds, even in the world of entertainment.

"Have you seen the video of (female rappers) Salt-N-Pepa wearing hats like these?" Amatullah asked the McMichael students as she held a vivid sample aloft. The class nodded enthusiastically. "Well, then you've seen kente, even though theirs are not the original, but silkscreened prints."

Love of kente extends beyond rappers. Bill Cosby wears kente-like bow ties on his show. Another TV star, Avery Brooks of ABC's A Man Called Hawk, regularly adds kente to his dashing leather costumes. The character Dap, portrayed by Larry Fishburne, in Spike Lee's film School Daze wrapped kente around his shoulders.

Philadelphians sport handkerchiefs, shawls, head wraps, belts and hats - some trimmed in leather - as everyday garb. As a symbol of their cultural past and to add richness to a ritual, some Philadelphians and others nationwide are using kente cloth in wedding ceremonies, dressing attendants in matching tie and cummerbund sets.

Others have brought kente into their homes in the form of place mats, tablecloths, bookmarks or simply as fabric hung on a wall or draped over a sofa, according to Harriet Schiffer, one of several distributors who sell the fabric in the Philadelphia area.

"The people who buy this cloth are those who really know its worth, who are really aware of what it means, and the work that goes into it," said Benjamin Norkin, controller of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum and manager of its gift shop.

While the cloth usually comes in bright combinations of oranges, reds, greens and blues, many other hues are available. Amatullah's samples covered a table. Among them was a black, gold and silver banner inscribed "Best Wishes and Good Luck from Ghana" and destined for display on Sunday at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Originally made only of silk, the fabric now is available in cotton and rayon, along with synthetic metallic threads. Versions in cheaper fabrics also are for sale at much lower prices. The Afro-American Museum gift shop, for example, sells a 72-inch-long fabric strip for $19.

The 180-inch-long silk man's wrap that Amatullah used on Shelly would cost $850. Schiffer's matching sets of ties, cummerbund and handkerchiefs of rayon are $100, while a single belt-size strip ranges from $20 to $40, depending on the intricacy of the design.

Amatullah illustrated the discussion with books showing a map of West Africa, people wearing kente cloth, the carved wooden stools used only by royalty and a weaver at work seated inside, not in front, of a loom quite different from the more familiar English style.

Kente comes in four-inch strips woven in distinctive patterns using stripes and sometimes other symbols and assuming a Jacquard-like design. The strips are sewn together in varying lengths to make garments.

In Ghana, only men weave kente cloth, learning the art at the age of 7, Amatullah said. The process, in which stringlike fibers as fine as sewing thread are used, can take up to three months for a 108-inch piece. A queen's headdress, which she draped on 13-year-old Tanya Mosley, costs $50 a strip.

Yesterday's audience gasped at the labor and the prices involved. Why, one youth asked, is kente is so popular these days?

"I think it's because people in the '60s who were seeking ways to identify with their African heritage are now adults," she said, "and have found kente a beautiful way to do that. This cloth can be handed down from generation to generastion as part of a family heritage, one we are proud of."

Another factor is the "internationalism of the city, which has always been connected to the homeland," said Rowena Stewart, director of the Afro- American Museum. "Philadelphia was and is one of the most active cities in the anti-apartheid movement. Philadelphians have always been international in their thinking, and the kente cloth's popularity is natural to them."

Amatullah's involvement came in the '60s as well, when, as a 17-year-old, she was fascinated by a photograph of kente cloth and became determined to learn more about it.

"To take little scraps of nothing and make it into something so intricate and designed so beautifully, and then to make that into clothing - it was just wonderful," she said.

She later learned weaving, although not the kente process, and on a visit to Ghana met a weaver with whom she struck a bargain to distribute the fabric, beginning in 1987. She has sold kente to educators, politicians and prominent local and Hollywood entertainers, including Roger C. Mosley of TV's Magnum, P.I.

Her presentation definitely struck a chord with Shelly Benton. After he sat down, the robe still wrapped around him, he asked Amatullah, "Can I wear the king's hat, too?"

She gladly obliged.

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