Misguided 'Authenticity.' (Traditional African Culture commercialized)(From the Publisher)(Column)

By Jenkins, Timothy L. | American Visions, April-May 1995 | Go to article overview
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Misguided 'Authenticity.' (Traditional African Culture commercialized)(From the Publisher)(Column)


Jenkins, Timothy L., American Visions


It would doubtlessly come as a culture shock to many of those self-vaunted wearers of kente cloth that their would-be expressions of heritage are frequently of more material benefit to Asia and Amsterdam than to their African motherland. indeed, it is an offense redoubled that the indiscriminate appetite for kente-like patterns has itself served to hasten the demise of the African cottage industry trading in such preciously hand-woven goods.

This was not just because the demand had begun to noticeably exceed the supply, but also because the middlemen understood all too well the lack of sophistication among their parvenu buyers. Accordingly, as kente-related products have soared into a major market, those who kept their fingers on the pulse of the African-American consumers soon learned that they neither understood nor seemed to care much that the hats, wraps, handbags and now umbrellas ostensibly worn to boast African roots had labels reading "Made in Taiwan."

Not only was pricing more important than quality and authenticity for such enthusiasts, but the age-old sacred meanings and symbolisms of indigenous culture reflected in such products were oftentimes both figuratively and literally stood on their heads. I am humorously reminded here of a doctoral robe proudly worn by a noted nouveauxchic clergyperson proudly ablaze with a kente strip of Ashanti royal stools inadvertently displayed upside down, in a fashion unintentionally symbolic of death among indigenous Akan and Ewe peoples, The spectacle of it all carried my mind back to Sterling A. Brown's satirical poem, "Sporting Beasley," on gauche forms of "puttin' on the dog" in the name of sophistication.

But in a larger sense, it is perhaps no laughing matter that so many aspects of our cultural patrimony fall prey to such caricature, exploitation and distortion.

Already, mud cloth, the bold but somber patterned funeral textile of West Africa, has found its way into bathing suits in much the same way that spirituals, such as "Jacob's Ladder" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," were in another era desecrated as drinking songs. I am seeing the same marketplace subordination of cultural concepts like Kwanzaa celebrations, black family reunions, and ancestral rites of passage into merchandising opportunities for every group of tradesmen, except those for whom they were originally created and dedicated.

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