Congressional Democrats wore stoles made of Kente cloth during a moment of silence for George Floyd, drawing criticism from observers who felt they made the traditional African textile into a political prop.
About two dozen Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall as a tribute to Floyd on Monday. Most of them were seen wearing Kente cloths during the moment of silence as well as during a subsequent news conference.
The wearing of the Kente cloths drew criticism from a University of Oxford researcher who saw the move as performative.
“My ancestors did not invent Kente cloth for them to be worn by publicity (obsessed) politicians as ‘activism’ in 2020,” Jade Bentil, a Ghanaian-Nigerian researcher at University of Oxford, tweeted.
Kente cloth is believed to have been produced as early as 1000 B.C. among the Akan and Ewe peoples of Western African in modern-day Ghana and Togo, according to the African American Intellectual History Society.
Each color holds a special meaning. Gold symbolizes status/serenity, green means renewal, blue means pure spirit/harmony, red is passion and black is union with ancestors/spiritual awareness, the society said.
Other observers from the journalism and entertainment worlds added to Bentil’s criticism, arguing that the lawmakers were just using the cloth as a political prop.
“Standing in front of a church and holding up a bible you never read for a photo op is no different than kneeling in kente cloth you never wear for a photo op,” Charles Robinson, a sports reporter for Yahoo tweeted, referring to the now infamous moment when President Donald Trump held up a Bible at St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo-op last week.
“What if they, like, just passed some laws instead of dressing up like a Wakandan chess set?” screenwriter Eric Haywood tweeted.
Both tweets got thousands of “likes” on Twitter.
Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at the news conference unveiling new legislation — aimed at cracking down on police brutality and reforming policing in the US — that the white lawmakers were wearing the cloths in an act of solidarity.
“The significance of the Kente cloth is our African heritage,” Bass said. “And for those of you without that heritage, we’re acting in solidarity. That is the significance of the Kente cloth — our origins and respecting our pasts.”
The Democratic lawmakers did have their defenders, including one prominent civil rights activist who said people should focus on the police reform bill that the lawmakers brought forth.
“Not a huge fan of the Kente cloth, but it was a show of solidarity from more seasoned folks, so I get it. I just hope we don’t miss what happened after the performative part, which is that legislation is being introduced. Keep this same energy for the Rand Pauls who will vote No,” tweeted April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
The legislation includes a ban on chokeholds and a creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry. It also incentivizes states and localities to mandate racial bias training and teach officers about their “duty to intervene,” among other things.
The legislation is the most expansive effort in recent years to reform policing policy across the nation at a federal level, but it is expected to face strong resistance from Republicans, police unions and local officials who don’t want Washington intervening in their policy making.