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In this essay, I will be discussing the ideas that are central to the critical thinking on dress associated with the African diaspora. Through a series of case studies in the UK, USA, and Africa the terms of style, fashion, dress, and black are considered with regard to the specific use, past or present connections, and contemporary relevance. The key theme of this essay is to expand on how multi-faceted links projected from clothed black bodies are to be expected in diasporic practices.

As a young black person who is from an Afro-Caribbean background, being in the fashion industry, this topic relates to me on a personal level. The way that black people use apparel in personal representations of “self” may be different depending upon where they are from and their perspective. An example of this is Afrocentric fashion and western fashion, both appropriate much from oppositional fashion expressions. For Afrocentrists, Afrocentric dress is the norm, consequently, Western dress is “ethic”, African and black identities are expressed by the wearing of African-inspired dress such as the dashiki, kanga, and caftans. All of these items are cultural products of the black diaspora.

In the 1970s Afro-Caribbean identity became historically available to the great majority of Jamaican people, at home and aboard. Jamaicans discovered themselves to be black and the sons and daughters of slavery. They discovered it through the impact of the popular life of post-colonial revolutions, the civil rights struggles, the culture of Rastafarianism, and the music of reggae. While Africa was a case of the unspoken, Europe was a case of an endlessly speaking and “endlessly speaking us”. It is about exclusion, expropriation, and imposition. With the European presence, it introduced the question of power – it interrupts the innocence of the whole discourse of ‘difference’ in the Caribbean. Visual representation has positioned the black subject within its dominant regimes of representation. “The ambivalent identifications of the racist world…the ‘otherness’ of the self inscribed in the perverse palimpsest of colonial indemnity.” (H. Bhaba, 1984) The dialogue of power and resistance of refusal and recognition, with and against the European presence is almost as complex as the dialogue with Africa. In terms of popular cultural life, it is nowhere to be found in its pure state, it has always been fused, and syncretized with other cultural elements.

None of the people who now occupy the islands originally ‘belonged’ there. There can be a few political statements that so eloquently testify to the complexities entailed in the process of trying to represent a diverse people with a diverse history through a single, hegemonic ‘identity’. The ‘New World’ presence is therefore itself the beginning of diaspora, of diversity, hybridity, and difference what makes Afro-Caribbean people already people of the diaspora. As well as the diaspora experience as he intends here defined, not by essence or purity but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity, by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through difference.

Today, increasing numbers of people are living outside of their ancestral homelands. Many immigrants fear that their children will assimilate into their new home and lose their connection to their cultural identity. How do people learn the history of their group and culture when that group is spread around the world?

Living in a new era of mass migration, economic reasons for migration decisions are strongly emphasized. However, the social problem in the USA and Europe shows that migration is not only an economic issue but also a social and cultural one. According to Frantz Fanon (1963), national culture can be defined as follows: “ A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.

Afrofuturism is a cultural and aesthetic movement within the African Diaspora that draws on the present and historical experiences of Black people and reimagines a future filtered through a Black cultural lens. There has been a growing number of fashion creatives and enthusiasts throughout the African Diaspora who is adopting this aesthetic in order to celebrate Black culture and identity. However, the role of Africa in Afrofuturism continues to be debated as many believe the term to be inherently centered on Black American experiences and cultures and not necessarily on the African experience. The purpose of this research is to explore the connection between Afrofuturism, fashion, and cultural identity in the African Diaspora.

Key ideas

Stuart Hall was a cultural theorist and professor teacher and he dealt with politics, Cultural Identity and Diaspora was written by Hall. According to Hall, there are two different ways of thinking about cultural identity; one is shared culture, shared history, and holding common ancestry. “One people, oneness” Black diaspora must discover, excavate, bring to light and express through cinematic representations of his identity. The second way is recognizing both similarities and differences in cultural identity. The questions are “what we really are and what we have become”. Cultural identity is a matter of becoming as well as of ‘being. They have histories, they have come from somewhere but they have transformations. Westerners made them see and experience their ‘other’. The traumatic character of ‘the colonial experience. Identity is not a fixed essence, it has history and past which speaks to us. As well as being constructed through memory and narrative.

By diaspora, we can understand the traumatic character of the colonial experience. He applies the theory of Derrida to understand the difficulty of black people to imitate the western style. Hall defines differences as the meaning of a word that is never finished or completed but keeps on moving to encompass other, additional or supplementary meanings.

Fanon defines colonization as “colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. Common colonization and production of identity are not grounded. Africa is seen as the mother of the different civilizations and it is the center. According to Fanon cultural identity has its history but no longer addresses a simple past. There is a connection like the relationship of a mother and child, Caribbean identity is framed by two axes; similarity and continuity. Originally and metaphorically diasporic people are playing which is a cultural play.

The repositioning of the Caribbean cultural identities in relation to at least three presences: ‘Presence Africanne’: the origin of the displayed African identities, the origin of Africa is no longer there. Hall pleads for restoration, it is the difference between Africa and Europe. “Where Africa was the case of the unspoken, European was a case of that which is endlessly speaking” European is the dominant regime of representations towards the black.

‘Presence Europeanne’: exclusion, imposition, and expropriation, they have to face the dominating European presence. The new world is the third term which is the fatal encounter that was staged between Africa and the West.

‘Presence Americaine’: continues to have its silence, its suppressions, diasporic are those who are producing and reproducing themselves through transformation and differences. ‘Uniqueness’ of Caribbean, the mixes of colors, pigmentation, and also the blends of taste.

In the new emerging cinemas of the Caribbean islands, we must bring together a new relationship of the past and a new cultural identity. The modern black cinemas are recognizing and reflecting the differences in histories of themselves and constructing the points of identification of their cultural identities.

Stuart Hall’s Postcolonial Identity Theory

The first approach of Hall’s conceptual idea positions cultural identity as a collective culture, or in his words, “a sort of collective ‘one true self,” based on the shared experiences, histories, and ancestry of a group of people. This sense of shared “oneness,” grounded in the past, according to Hall, underlies any superficial andor imposed ideas of differences within the group and is cited as the catalyst for several post-colonial social movements such as Pan-Africanism and the Black Power movements.

The second definition of cultural identity moves past the similarities and shared “oneness” of identity and realizes the critical points of differences beyond “who we really are” to understand the historical implications of “what we have become.” Hall characterizes this state of “becoming” and “being” as representative of past, present, and future experiences that reveal the “ruptures” and “discontinuities” of these ‘shared’ identities.

When Hall’s first definition of cultural identity is applied from an Afrofuturistic perspective, the collective “oneness” of culture assumes that Afrofuturism transcends any differences in interpretation among the people of the African Diaspora due to a shared sense of ethnic or racial identity. In this point of view, Afrofuturism is rooted in the stereotypical and vague understanding of “African” culture. This position also rejects any notions of tension between the people of the African Diaspora living in Africa, the Americas, or the Caribbean in favor of a mutual relationship situated in Pan-African ideologies. Expressed through fashion, this could also mean the mutual appropriation of “African” iconography, materials, and symbolisms; for example, African print clothing, or Egyptian- inspired jewelry.

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In contrast, Hall’s second definition of cultural identity applied in the perspective of Afrofuturism highlights the differences in identity-based on a shared but divergent historical past. Variances in cultural practices, the understanding of racial constructs such as Blackness as well as issues such as mediated or misrepresented stereotypes between the people of the African Diaspora may well become salient points of differences. This definition of cultural identity will likely result in very different approaches to Afrofuturistic sartorial expression.

Homi K Bhabha was born in 1949 in Mumbai, India to a Parsi family. He graduated with a BA in 1970 at the University of Bombay and achieved an M.A in English Literature. He is one of the most influential academic figures in post-colonial studies and has contributed to a number of related theories including:

  • Hybridity
  • Mimicry
  • Difference
  • Ambivalence

The second reading that I found interesting was from Homi Bhabha called Hybridity and Identity. According to Bhabha, culture is made up of perceptions that oppose another culture. Colonized people experience discomfort because they have two or more cultural identities (that of the colonizer and that which they or their ancestors were born into). Homi Bhabha criticizes cultural diversity, which categorizes and compares cultures and urges people to instead strive for cultural difference, which is a process of identification that does not rely on the perception of people in power.

Postcolonial is defined in The Empire Writes Back (1989) as “all the cultures affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day”. The postcolonial study is concerned with the works produced by the colonizer and the colonized. The postcolonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial power. Additionally, postcolonial criticism questions the role of Western literature and Western history as the dominant spheres of knowledge.

The construction of the other

The other is always represented as something that is fixed. This ‘fixity’ ensures the difference between the colonizer and the colonized. This is actually a paradox, despite the obvious nature of the other, the stereotypes need to be constantly repeated. As a result, they are ambivalent.

Ambivalence is this double-conscious hovering between submission and acceptance of authority. The group of people undergoes cultural hybridity, resulting in the colonizers not having total authority since the colonized people are ambivalent towards their influences and authority. The group will only accept the Bible as an authority that is mediated by their own values. An example of how ambivalence comes out of colonization resulting in an obscured view of colonialist authority, ambivalence leads to mimicry.

Mimicry is when colonized people imitate the culture of the oppressor. Stems from the opposers’ desire to have a recognizable “other”. “The colonists’ desire is inverted as the colonial appropriation now produces a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence: a gaze from the other is the counterpart to the colonizer’s gaze that marginalized individuals and breaks the unity of man’s being through which he had extended his sovereignty. Thus, the observer becomes the observed and ‘partial’ representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity.” (H.Bhabha The location of culture, London 1994)

Bhabha describes the third space as a space that is created when two or more cultures interact. He says it “challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the original past, kept alive in the national tradition of the people”.

Fashion and Identity

Sociologists state that large societies are usually made up of smaller cultures, referred to as subcultures. Subcultures establish themselves as oppositional forces to dominant cultures. African-American culture and fashion practices are examples of a subculture outside of the dominant culture of American society. On the contrary, if what Davis (1992) states about fashion being a “visual metaphor” for identity, then this shows a complex point of view when discussed in relation to people of African descent.

West African cultural aesthetics have been shown to have the heaviest influence on African American dress from slavery, through the emancipation and civil rights era, and even through present times. African fashion reflects the complex histories of European colonialism on the continent, and the modern effects of globalization while the fashion of the modern African diaspora indicates tensions between a new culture and keeping ancestral cultures.

African fashion may not mean revolutionizing current aesthetics but may show an approach towards complementing than drawing away from old and current traditions. The sentiments towards the culture are from having pride in cultural symbols and artifacts. This has been evident in the aesthetic of fashion designers such as Suakoko Betty. (see figure 1).

Diasporic African Afrofuturistic Fashion

A dashiki is a colorful garment that covers the top half of the body. The dashiki found a market in America during the Black cultural and political struggles in the 1960s. The dashiki rebelled against men’s fashions of that time: brightly colored instead of drab, loose instead of tight, worn outside the pants instead of tucked in. It could be worn definitely on occasions that normally would call for a coat and tie. The dashiki was worn as a way to protest society’s disrespect for African Americans. It was a symbol of affirmation, it stood for “black is beautiful,” and signaled a return to African roots, and insistence on full rights in American society. (see figure 2).

The Diasporic African look was an exploration of the past, present, and future traditions of West African fashion culture. The use of the Baule cloth was just as much a celebration of the traditional West African weaving heritage and a glimpse into a future where Diasporic Africans can openly celebrate their heritage in a seamless blend of African and Western cultures.

African American Afrofuturistic Fashion

With the centrality of African culture and aesthetics in both African American fashion and Afrofuturistic expressions, Africa becomes a natural source of inspiration for Afrofuturistic fashion. This freedom to explore identities of the past and present while employing creative improvisation through a futuristic lens may encourage a bold and at times eclectic compilation of visual Afrofuturistic aesthetics. The design represents this collaboration of past, present, and future African, Euro-American, and African American fashion aesthetics via a very colorful and fun top. The colors represent a variation of the pan-African colors – red, green, yellow, and black. The coat aims to honor African American fashion traditions of the past whilst celebrating current African print fashion aesthetics popular in Africa and throughout the Diaspora.

The look serves multiple functions of bridging the gap between the human and the spiritual(see figures 4 and 5) while acknowledging their ancestral ties to Africa and the global African diaspora. It also tackles sustainability and futurism through the creative integration of African print scrap fabric pieces into knitted fabric. As a result, the coat in particular becomes a distinct futuristic representation of Black Diasporic culture and African American tradition.

To conclude, African’s perceptions of Afrofuturism as similar to their African American counterparts were influenced by issues relating to their countries of birth. But they also were sensitive to issues relating to issues involving being African. These issues were racial prejudice, Western influence on culture, and the devaluation of traditions. The importance of technology in shaping an Afrofuturistic Africa was also emphasized. The theme that was the most important in Afrofuturistic fashion expressions among this group was culture.

Similarly, the role of the global Diaspora as a symbol of African unity and the way in which the Diaspora was positioned as having a common interest toward advancement and liberation was quite pan-African in its ideological perspective. But as much as participants expressed a Diaspora-wide “common interest”, it was not about forming one unified identity. Rather, recognizing what Hall called, the points of differences of “becoming” and “being” differentiated by unique Black experiences. The expression of cultural identities and cultural productions developed as a result is seen as worthy of being celebrated. In addition, there is still that common sense of grounding in ancestral heritage that inextricably links the past, present, and future cultural identities of the Diaspora.

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