The Flattening of the Diaspora in Pan-African Consumption Markets

Originally published for Sun Song.

Every spring, Black students at predominantly white universities (PWIs) across the United States participate in Black Commencement, an event dedicated to celebrating the shared experience of successfully navigating their respective institutions. Often the ceremony is highlighted by a “donning of the kente,” where the soon-to-be graduates are presented with ceremonial stoles, often ornamented with lettering of their choice, be it Greek-organization or social club, to proudly decorate themselves with during the experience they will share at the university-wide commencement.

More often than not, the kente on the stoles is not authentic; kente being a rather dense and heavy fabric laboriously hand-woven by the Akan peoples of Ghana. Instead, the stoles feature mass-produced kente-like prints, and while an African-named vendor may sell the kente stoles, a cursory look at the lining will confirm that it is in fact “Made in China.” 

Nevertheless, this phenomenon is not unique to the celebratory kente stole. In the post-colonial era, consumption of “African” wares and content has frequently mutated into an investment into an aesthetic rather than a verified artifact indigenous to a community or culture, a predicament that has cascaded overtime on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Africana-as-commodity is much easier to market and distill than the unique labors of localized people – an unfortunate byproduct of the acquisitive industrialized capitalist era where profits trump legacy. The impacts of the marketization of identity are most apparent by the significant exports that arose; and what is highlighted when we discuss “African identity” and the attempts to signal our affiliation with Africana can be tracked by the expansion of the intercontinental fabric market (and subsequent transformation of attire) over the course of the 20th Century. The most profitable trades – in this case, textiles – have a direct impact on shaping the narrative of one of the most revisited questions across the Black Diaspora: “how can I connect better to Africa?”

In general, when people speak of wanting authentic “African prints” they’re frequently referring to Ankara, which is in actuality a Dutch invention – a repurposing of the Indonesian “batik” method that was originally intended for the Javan markets but more readily adopted by elite West  Africans. To this day, the oldest and largest company producing Ankara fabric, Vlisco, is headquartered in the Netherlands, despite purporting itself as the “originator of African wax” with flagship stores in the elite urban enclaves of Accra, Lagos, and Johannesburg. As highlighted by Tunde Akinwumi in his research paper The African Print Hoax, “what is obtainable in the contemporary time as African print is nothing but a wholesale copy of Indonesian batik style.”

No matter the deceptive origin, however, the marginally tweaked fabrics and patterns provided a level of homogeneity to an entire region within the vast continent of Africa, that is in fact home to dozens of ethnicities, languages, and lived experiences. African prints provide a more natural market sell then the adire of Nigeria or Ashanti adinkra. The business has expanded rapidly – the industry went from purely selling textiles by the yard to repurposing into remade fashion wares, such as hats, bathing suits, and purses – and Vlisco quickly began to face competition not only from textile companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, but also “counterfeit” materials coming in from Chinese traders, which undercut the market due to the significantly lower manufacturing price point. There is an inescapable irony to there being an imitation market for a fabric industry constructed out of a manufactured reality – the term “African wax” itself is just as fraudulent as the Asian production factories that emerged to meet the increased product demand. This accelerated industry growth, however, created a window for expansion, leading to the increased export of the textiles to the United States – in tandem with increased immigration from West Africa to the United States.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated national immigration quotas, which allowed for an influx of West Africans searching for a new labor market in urban hubs such as Harlem, New York City, the peak of which took place in the 80s and 90s. This migration, however, came with a flattening of a demographic; communities weren’t Fulani, or Hausa, or Wolof, or Soninke – they were merely African, and ultimately established trading networks that were cross-tribal and cross-national from the regions they considered their original homelands. Senegalese vendors would make connections with Ivorian manufacturers and vice versa – a circumstance ameliorated by the fact that these textile markets were all producing the same amorphous Ankara, authenticated by the presence of an African face, but not inherently native to one location. As the Chinese and Taiwanese production markets undercut the more onerous costs and tariffs of imports of African textile companies, immigrant vendors traded in those relationships as well, buying into the idea of profiting off of Africana-as-commodity vs. standing by Africana-as-identity: the performance of a uniform, homogeneous African identity generated capital in ways that stratifying the distinctions would not. Today, one can enter the storied “Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market” in what was formerly known as the “Little Senegal” enclave of Central Harlem (although not nearly as Senegalese anymore, courtesy of aggressive gentrification), and find a vendor proudly selling “authentic African clothes and fabrics” despite the textile facility being based in China, enjoying the higher margins at $7 a yard as opposed to a price nearly double that which would be required of West African textile operations.

This rapid commodification arose in tandem with the rise of Afro-centric hip-hop in Black American culture. The late 80s and early 90s saw the explosion of the “Native Tongues” era – De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah – who all sought to represent Africana not purely in their lyrics but in their presentation. The dashiki – a West African Hausa export – made its reappearance in music videos and films such as Poetic Justice as a continued symbol of Panafricanism and black liberation, and with these trends came the heavy investment in the loud Ankara prints in the West. Regardless of the faux affiliation with African tribal legacy, the fashion served as an external symbol of kinship with the greater diaspora – a commodity that superseded any expectations of authenticity, the impacts of which continued to reverberate as hip-hop expanded into a global enterprise and capitalist machine. Dashiki production quickly escalated – not as an outgrowth of Hausa or Islamic Africana identity, but as a trend affiliated with the worldwide phenomenon of hip-hop, and the Asian markets rapidly integrated these styles into the ever-expanding repertoire of “Africana” textiles and fashions. Now, continent-wide, you can see people donning dashikis, not as a representation of cultural affinity, but as a tangible association to hip-hop culture.

Over the last two decades, the expansion of the Ankara aesthetic in West Africa and into the West has turned into a boomerang effect into the rest of the continent –  bold Ankara print outfits can be found from South Africa to Mozambique to Tunisia, highlighted in fashion blogs and magazines as “the best of African style,” despite the absence of African origination. The African owned textile factories themselves have severely decreased production by figures reported by The Financial Times of as much as 75 percent in Nigeria, due to the inability to maintain scalability and profitability in competition with Asian manufacturers. Yet the consumption of the fabric is steadily increasing – as the years proceed, new African or “African-inspired” designers have continued to utilize the Ankara, kente, and dashiki as distinct components of marketable fashion, regardless of the authenticity or origin of the style of production: just this past weekend, Black Panther premiered to the general Western public and thousands, if not millions of Black people throughout the diaspora proudly displayed their “royal attire” to celebrate the advent of the fictional nation of Wakanda to the big screen. There’s also the “kentekini,” which made waves as a modern twist on “African fashion” in 2017. In 2013, Michelle Obama infamously donned two separate Ankara dresses, which quickly circulated throughout the West African blogosphere; and most controversially, Stella McCartney previewed her “African inspired” Spring 2018 line, laden with white models parading Ankara prints, to significant pushback from the African diaspora for erasure.

The Stella McCartney fiasco brought to a head the longstanding problem: can we now say that Ankara is officially “African” despite it not being our own creation? Is the fact that the Ankara print is commonly associated with “authentic African fashion” enough to claim any other use of it as appropriation? It would seem that for now, Africana-as-commodity has successfully superseded any required discussions of authenticity or identity. We are defending our public face, our homogenous market, a kinship created out of capitalism and white supremacy, while the localities suffer; because whether it is sported by a self-professed Afropolitan, Pan-African, or Anglo-Saxon, the textile profits are almost certainly coming from Asia and not West Africa.

Ankara and “kente” and “dashiki” in all of its iterations and mutations have been shared throughout social media to a litany of view, likes, and retweets. I cannot pretend that it isn’t a joy to see Black people showcasing our affinity for colors and patterns, in all of our vibrancy and vitality. However, the Africana-as-commodity vs. Africana-as-identity debate remains: is it more important to signal kinship to the African identity, regardless of true origin, manufacturing, and branding as opposed to genuinely drawing out authentic African production? Should we feel uncomfortable donning kente that is not being created in the authentic Akan weaving style while wistfully fantasizing about an African land that is free from the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery? I don’t deem to have the answer, but I can only hope that we continue to use this global cultural touchpoint to further the discourse about the ethics of such a critical intersection of identity and capitalism, and strive to understand what we are really seeking when we associate these Chinese productions as our connection to the Motherland.

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