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Congress's kente cloth spectacle was a mess of contradictions

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina listen to questions from reporters on Monday. In their eagerness to display dazzling empathy and solidarity, congressional Democrats only muddied the current conversation about race. Credit: AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

Bless their hearts, but the congressional Democrats made a mess of things when they announced their new police reform legislation Monday. Officially, it was called the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 and includes banning chokeholds of the sort that resulted in the death of George Floyd (in whose memory they knelt), as well as establishing a national database that tracks police misconduct.

More likely it will be known as the Kente Cloth Bill.

The legislators draped themselves in kente cloth stoles for the public spectacle of presenting their reform handiwork to their constituents — and to the cameras. The sight of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.); Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and others draped in African regalia was a wee bit of a distraction from the subject at hand.

Fashion has the ability to speak volumes about one's intent. And in this case, the message was both self-conscious and artless. In their eagerness to display dazzling empathy and solidarity, they only muddied the current conversation about race.

A brief history of kente cloth would emphasize that it is the pride of Ghana, where it originated, and it is typically worn on special occasions, in part because the fabric, which is woven, is both time-consuming and expensive to make. The multicolored strips have been embraced by many African Americans as an expression of their culture, regardless of whether their roots lie in Ghana or elsewhere on the African continent. Black graduates, for example, often accessorize their academic robes with kente cloth stoles in honor of their heritage.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus regularly make use of kente cloth stoles. They've worn them at the State of the Union to display solidarity and as a silent rebuke to President Donald Trump for his racial and xenophobic antagonism, notably when he leveled a vulgar broadside against African nations in general. They wore kente cloth when they paid their respects to their colleague Rep. Elijah Cummings when he laid in state at the Capitol.

Even with the best of intentions, a lot of Americans have trouble keeping their African countries and their unique histories straight. But Ghana, in West Africa, stands out, most recently for its Year of Return tourism campaign, which marked the 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. The initiative encouraged African Americans to visit and invest in the country.

Ghana and its kente cloth loom large in the African-American imagination, far more so than the traditional textiles or crafts of other African countries. The brightly-colored, woven fabric has become shorthand for black cultural awareness; it symbolizes history and of being connected to a past that has been stolen. And, to some degree, kente cloth acknowledges the African diaspora — that blackness is global and that black struggle is not limited to the United States.

That's an important block of knowledge but it was off-message for Monday's moment, which was about introducing specific legislation aimed at curtailing police violence and misconduct. It wasn't "black" legislation. No one, whatever their race or ethnicity, should want inhumane cops roaming through their city. The legislation wasn't a gift to black people; it was a debt this country owes itself.

The kente stoles emphasized cultural history. But the protests have been focused on forcing people to reckon with the political, societal backstory that's responsible for a policing system that's racially biased and imbued with outsize power and responsibility. Those things are connected to cultural literacy, but they aren't the same.

The stoles read as a vague and confused declaration by legislators that they stood together out of respect for the African-ness of their fellow citizens. What they needed to emphasize with their stagecraft is that this is a particularly American issue — a defect woven into our own country's fabric.

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post's fashion critic.