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 leadersderiding 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.”