Category Archives: Festivals & Traditions

African by Any Other Name? A Note on Origins

Over the past few days, one of my facebook friends has been delving into the study of African textile arts, after years of loving, wearing, and creating the beautiful headwraps used by African and Islamic women throughout the world. Zarinah also teaches women how to create the incredible cloth crowns, a modern Michigan Johnny Appleseed, enthusiastically sowing the seeds of this ever-changing and beautiful women’s art.


Women praise-singers, La Lutte, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

On reading a well-researched article by Julia Felsenthal on Slate, The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints, Zarinah was crushed. What? All those lovely African printed fabrics are not really African? Instead, they are Indonesian! Or are they? Perhaps they are Dutch? Or Anglo-Indian? Or Chinese? Or all of the above, and more?


At the Mayor’s election party, in the suburbs of Dakar, 2009

It is exactly that multiplex, tangled, snarled, inter-woven history that makes these cloths such an apropos metaphor for artist Yinka Shonibare.


As Duryodhana says of Kano in the Mahabharata: “Birth is obscure, and men are like rivers, whose origins are often unknown.”

How can we, in the United States, speak of origins, we whose ancestors all but eliminated the original custodians of this land? We whose antecedents tore millions of Africans from their homes, insisting they “forget” their origins? We who laugh and sneer at  people desperately seeking to come here to work without forgetting their families, their homelands, their origins? We who refuse to study “history” and who prize today’s three-letter text message over dusty old books or sitting at an elder’s knee? We who would rather spend $10,000 on Disneyland than on a trip to Morocco or Nigeria or Mexico or France? We who refuse to memorize ancient poetry, or learn even one other language? We who have no idea that the very chocolate and tomatoes and corn and potatoes we eat were planted, developed, and named by the earliest Americans thousands of years ago?

Does that history make cornbread, hoe cakes, or spoon bread any less traditional Black Southern food?  Does that mean the fresh-roasted ears of corn I buy in the markets of Cotonou are not “African”? Since Coca-Cola has (or used to have) kola nuts in it, does that make it “African”?


Coca-Cola sign, Ile de Goree (Dakar, Senegal), 2009


Selling kola nuts in Dakar, 2009

Perhaps kente cloth itself is not “African,” since cotton (named from an Arabic word) was first cultivated in India (although most kente today is made of European-manufactured rayon). The bright-colored silk in older kentes was unraveled from cloth imported from China since about 1500 CE (original kente was only white and indigo blue). As for looms, a “loom” can be as simple as a tree-branch to hold tight the warp threads, with the other end tied at a person’s waist (a simple backstrap loom). We have several drawings of both horizontal and vertical looms from ancient Egypt, the earliest, from the tomb of Chnem-Hotep, is dated about 4500 BCE. But we have no idea if either horizontal or vertical looms were invented once (it’s unknown where) or in many places and times.


Drawing of Egyptian (KMT) loom from tomb of Chnem-hotep


Model weaving studio, tomb of Meketre, ancient Egypt (KMT), 1975 BCE

So, is cotton African? Are looms African? The idea to dye with indigo & other natural plant and mineral colors? Certainly modern aniline dyes and rayon are manufactured, not “traditional.” But, ironically, the word aniline, coined in 1843 by a German chemist to name the chemical base used to manufacture artificial dyes, is a loan word from Portuguese anil for the indigo-bearing shrub, from the Arabic word an-nil (indigo), taken from the Persian nili, and ultimately from the Sanskrit  nili, indigo, and nilah, dark blue.


Selling hand-dyed indigo cloth in the HLM market, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

So does that make kente cloth not “African”? All humans are ultimately African, and it is inherently human to travel far distances to find new things, to learn from each other, to pass on wisdom, knowledge, and skills not only within our own families and communities, but all over.  In brief, over my lifetime, I have learned not to romanticize “origins,” especially since that quest often implies a search for something that is aboriginal, unsullied, pure and pristine but also primitive, archaic, or undeveloped. Instead, I revel in untangling and following, at least for a while, the amazing pathways people, ideas, and things take as we re-create ourselves, our ideas, and our societies over and over.


On Death and Dying

Jack O'Lantern, 2008


Written October 22, 2011

For the past week, I have been teaching a unit on festivals of death: beginning with Hallowe’en, that strange mash-up of the ancient cross-European Celtic Samhain farmers’ new year/harvest festival with odds and ends of other harvest festivals like the Roman Pomona and the perhaps universal practices of small-scale personal divination (fortune-telling), global masking and role-reversal traditions. And, most of all, our intense need to remember, honor, and call on our dead ancestors for

Sincerely dead!

their ongoing advice, protection, and love, without, of course, having them return as ghouls, since they are, as the people of Oz declared of their wicked witch, “ Morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead . . . and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead. ”

Oh, and, lest we forget the water we swim in—this strange amalgam of global and local Hallowe’en heritage come to us all tied up in a package of opportunistic capitalist marketing of everything scary, or playful, or merely  orange and black, from jelly beans to kitchen towels.

This week, the class will explore a few of the world’s many festivals of death: the Mexican Dias de los Muertos, the Haitian Ghede festival, the Nigerian Yoruba Egungun ancestor masquerades, and the northern Michigan Odawa ghost suppers.


Kanaval, Jacmel, Haiti, 2012


Now, amidst this focus on the annual death of our brief summer luxuriance, and the forever deaths of humans, friend and foe, came a death. A death of a man not so very close to me individually or personally, but close to many people who have been close to my husband and me for the past 15 years.

So, yesterday and today, I have been participating in our own received rituals of death: the funeral home rites, church services, graveside prayers, and communal feast—all in honor of a gentle man, an ordinary man, a man like my own dead mother and father, an ordinary man and woman. A man who lived, worked, loved, and died, doing his school lessons and his work, caring for his wife and children, loving his homeland, loving his coffee, his cigarettes, his music, his dancing, his impassioned political discourses, doing the best he could.


I have cried a lot this past week, and I think: I am crying for my own losses. For my father’s joyful intelligence, his self-absorbed internal conversations, our comradely swims and sails, our shared tasks and disputations, walks up and down hills, into woods and quarries, through cemeteries. For my mother’s shrewd, sharp sarcasm, barely suppressed, her quick wit, her wise words, her quiet queenly sedentary ways, our shared coffees and teas and word games, our silently shared uncertainty about life’s truths.

Yes, I know that I am crying, too, for more losses yet to come: the day I bury my brothers, my husband, my friends. And so I talk with my husband about this: don’t bury me—burn my bones into ashes, and scatter them where you will. Or grant my body to a medical school. Or, if you cannot, if you must bury me, bury me in a simple pine box, and give a big party, in a big empty space, so everyone can dance.

golden grove unleaving


In my own internal conversations, I hear Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words repeated over and over throughout these past days, words penned in Lancashire in 1880, 131 years ago, but published in 1918, the year my father was born:


Spring and Fall

to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leaves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! as the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you will weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It is the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Tamboula Afro-Haitian Dance Company

This afternoon, as we left the post-funereal communal meal, one of my favorite dance partners took my hand, and said, “We must dance.”

This is the wisdom of Haitian men and women.

We dance while we are here.

We dance.


Martha Graham

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through another medium and will be lost. The world will never have it.” —Martha Graham.