The announcement did not warrant such a visual stunt, but the Democratic Party, the party of optics and gesture, apparently could not resist. On Monday, members of Congress introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, news that was bulldozed by the pageant antics accompanying it. Swathed in identical kente stoles, the lawmakers, intent on conveying solidarity with their constituents, only made themselves models of obtuseness.
Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Steny Hoyer wore their stoles over dark suits, as did Senator Kamala Harris. On House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who chose to wear bright red, evidently to coördinate with the rhombuses of green and blue in the cloth, the fabric swung, giving her an inappropriate swagger. There is no event that is too sombre to extinguish the need for style, which we should never dismiss as a frivolity; clothing can communicate dissent or alliance, belonging and political belief. All politics rests on an aspect of performance. But the sight of the mantles literally dragging on the floor—as members of Congress stood up after kneeling for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, assuming a pose that mirrored that of Derek Chauvin, the cop who, with his knee, pressed on the neck of George Floyd, killing him—felt not just misguided but like an outright mockery. The need to deliver a photo op overcame consideration of what the resulting pictures would communicate.
Why kente? The textile has long been used in ways distant from its original context, collecting meanings both specific and vague. Kente is indigenous to the Asante kingdom, in what is now Ghana. Skilled artisans have been weaving the cloth for hundreds of years; its intricate pattern, a geometry of quadrangles and golden expanse, is extremely difficult to fabricate. In Ghana, kente is prized as a link between ancestry and the present, a totem of tradition. In America, kente is a magnet for a broad and diffuse desire for “Africanness,” the yearning to participate in the black diaspora. It is an organization of thread expected to resolve the primal problem of our black Americans’ continental orphanage. The kente stole, in particular, is most often associated with the academy. Every spring, black graduates walk down grassy knolls draped in the finery.
Interestingly, authentic kente is endangered. Scroll through Alibaba.com and you’ll find thousands of examples of “African” wax-print fabrics, bootlegs of kente primarily manufactured in China. The piracy results in a kind of sartorial tragedy, or an imperialist comedy; in Harlem, you might encounter a young black person unaware that her garment is not only fake but a farce. The stoles worn by members of Congress looked, to my eye, authentically woven, but the impression of guilelessness was still overwhelming. It was primarily the white members of Congress who were ridiculed. An image of Pelosi and Schumer—the former with her hands on her hips in a can-do stance, the latter folding his arms disapprovingly—made them look like ready-made, absurdist hotep memes. A photo that captured Senator Cory Booker stoleless made him seem the exemplar of common sense. (In fact, he wore one, too.)
Fashion is statecraft, and liberal politicians in general love the accessory or the flourish that can be extrapolated to signify seductive class solidarity. Before, it was the rolled-up sleeve, deployed most fluidly by the everyman Barack Obama, as he embraced the throng; in the time of the pandemic, it’s the mask, worn to signal, in contrast to Trump, a public servant’s humility. Still, it is essential to note that the idea for Monday’s kente cloth came from the Congressional Black Caucus, according to its leader, Karen Bass. Members of the C.B.C. wore stoles in silent disapproval of Trump at his State of the Union address in 2018. “The significance of the kente cloth is our African heritage, and for those of you without that heritage who are acting in solidarity,” Bass said on Monday. What was projected was limp domestic diplomacy, akin to historical images of white political leaders preening in the exotic “garb” of people living in countries that they are exploiting. Inadvertently, the cloth emphasized the sense that black Americans are foreigners in their own land.
The uniform signified, according to Bass, “our origins and respecting our past.” It signalled Afrocentricity, yes, but also, more crucially for Democratic leaders, a political consensus. This myth of the black monolith is essential to the tenets of the modern Democratic Party. Internal divisions within the race are not tolerated; they must be drowned out with bright colors. That is why we so often refer to a bloc called the “black community.” But, in recent weeks, the gulf between black liberals and black leftists has become ragingly visible. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration commissioned a mural spanning the two blocks leading to Lafayette Square, which reads, in massive yellow letters, “Black Lives Matter”; just days later, activists painted an addendum: Defund the Police. Increasingly, we are hearing such calls to defund, if not wholly abolish, police forces across the United States. The theatrics of Monday happened to underscore the problem with the reformist legislation contained in the Justice in Policing Act, which, like the kente stoles themselves, is largely symbolic. Included are provisions to end racial profiling and to ban chokeholds—never mind that the N.Y.P.D., for example, banned chokeholds years before one of its officers killed Eric Garner by placing him in one. The impunity woven into the fabric of the nature of American policing has proved impervious to reform.
We have a reliance in this country on asymmetrical displays that allow us to dwell in, and never penetrate beyond, the level of the cultural. I am thinking of the galvanic white pantsuit, and of the hot-pink knitted pussyhat. I am thinking of the canonization of certain moments of pacification: Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered by Dylann Roof; Bill Clinton, while leading an Administration that codified mass incarceration, being sanctified for knowing how to play the saxophone so well. And now these stoles, which I know many found to be powerful and, worse, legitimizing.