Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wearing Kente Cloth Stoles During Graduation Ceremonies

Edited by Azizi Powell

Update: November 10, 2018

This is Part I in a four part pancocojams series about kente cloth.

In the United States, Ghana's and the Ivory Coast's traditional kente cloth is the most widely known of all African fabrics. Since at least the 1970s, for many African Americans, kente cloth has become a symbol of pride in our African heritage. Extending that connection, in the United States kente cloth designs have been used as a symbol of African American cultural expressions and achievement, including graduation from middle schools, high schools, and universities.

This post provides information and examples of the African American custom of graduates wearing a kente cloth stole over their robes during graduation ceremonies.

Click these links for three other posts in this series about contemporary customs of wearing kente cloth:
Part II: for the 2014 pancocojams post entitled "Kente Cloth Worn By American Gospel Choirs.

Part III:

Part IV: Kente cloth parties worldwide (videos)

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are featured in these videos and to the publishers of these videos on YouTube. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

Since at least the mid to late 1970s, many African American graduates -particularly university graduates- wear a kente cloth stole over their graduation robes. The kente cloth stole represents the graduates' pride in their African heritage, and their pride in their accomplishment of graduating. If they are members of a historically Black Greek lettered fraternity or sorority, the stole will be in the two colors of their organization.

Here are excerpts from two articles about the custom of Black students wearing kente cloth stoles during graduation:

'Everybody Wants a Piece of Africa Now' : Culture: Kente, a cloth rich in color and tradition, weaves its way into wardrobes of African-Americans. 'It makes me feel stronger,' one wearer says.

"You might have seen it as a bright accessory donned by Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall or Jesse Jackson. Or you may have seen someone wearing it on the street, at a party, in church, at college graduation: in a bow tie, a cummerbund, a scarf, a skirt--even in shoes.

No matter who is wearing it--no matter what the garment--kente cloth is one of the most striking images to emerge from the growing Afrocentric movement. The brilliantly colored material that originated in Ghana and started to crop up in the United States in the late 1980s is appearing with greater frequency in urban areas…

Tightly woven on narrow looms with colorful threads, kente originated centuries ago in Ghana with the Ashantis, who still wear it, toga-style, during royal and religious ceremonies. (Kente means "basket.")...

"It's part of a larger movement, a new generation that has discovered an appreciation of African culture--its music and art," says Abena Busia, an associate English professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was born in Ghana. Much of the cloth is made in red, green and gold, colors that came out of the Pan African movement in the 1950s.

Many high school and college students wear strips of kente around their necks during graduation ceremonies. At prominent black colleges such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse, Hampton and Spellman in Atlanta, kente--in the form of scarves, hats and book bags--has become commonplace.

Cal State Northridge students have been wearing the cloth sporadically since the early '70s, says Margaret J. Brown, 53, coordinator of the university's black graduation ceremonies. She says wearing kente stoles at graduation has become a tradition.

Kente is making an appearance at Sunday church services too. Walk into the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and you will see kente stoles draped on the shoulders of its ministers.”...

Annual Donning of the Kente
Graduation Ceremony
"The origins of Kente cloth date back to 12th century Africa, in the country of Ghana. The cloth was worn by Kings, Queens, and important figures of state in Ghanaian society, during ceremonial events and special occasions. In a total cultural context, Kente is more important than just a cloth. It is a visual representation of history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct, religious beliefs, political thought, and aesthetic principles. Today as African-Americans wear Kente cloth, they do so for inspiration, to honor, to celebrate, to connect, and to reflect on our collective heritage and communal struggles and successes.

The first "Donning of the Kente Ceremony" was held at Virginia Tech on the eve of spring commencement in 1995, as an African-American celebration of achievement sponsored by Virginia Tech's Black Organizations Council. Ronald Giddings was the founder of the "Donning of the Kente Ceremony" at Virginia Tech. It is a unique way to honor and recognize African-American graduates"...
Some community, churches, student organizations (including historically Black Greek lettered fraternities and sororities) sponsor annual African American ceremonies for graduates. These ceremonies aren't meant to take the place of the students' official commencement ceremony. Most graduates who choose to participate in those ceremonies wear a kente cloth stole over their graduation robe.

Particularly on the high school level, there has been administrative opposition to Black students in the United States wearing kente cloth stoles during their graduation ceremonies. For news articles about this opposition, click and

These examples are presented in chronological order, with the oldest dated examples given first.

UPDATE: March 18, 2016: The video that was previously given as Example #4 has now been marked private and has been replaces with another video.

Example #1: Syracuse University 2011 BLACK GRADUATION

Eeshe White, Uploaded on May 15, 2011

Example #2: J.P. @ the Univ. of Washington Black Graduation Ceremony

DJJPGUNNz, Uploaded on Jun 14, 2011

What a night of jubilation, creativity & music. Of course, my son tries to steal the show as he places the ceremonial Kente Cloth around my neck. (Why did I give him permission to do it? God, what a ham!) My mom was very proud that night. My wife, Victoria, was a trooper throughout this whole journey.
[Revised May 15, 2018]
The earliest date that I've found for a separate Black graduation cultural ceremony in the United States is 1987 (from information on the California State University, Long given as Example #5 in this closely related pancocojams post: Eight Videos Of Black Graduation Cultural Ceremonies Throughout The United States).

If you know of earlier graduation ceremonies for Black university students and/or pre-university level Black students, please share information in the comment section below.

The custom of holding a Black cultural graduation ceremony appears to have become more widespread in the United States since 2012. It's optional for Black graduating students to attend Black cultural graduation ceremonies and these ceremonies are usually held in addition to the official school's or university 's official graduation ceremony.

The custom of Black graduates in the United States wearing a kente cloth stole (or more than one kente cloth stoles) appears to have begun in the mid 1990s. That custom is now very widespread among African Americans.

I don't believe that the custom of placing a ceremonial kente cloth around the neck of a graduating student at the commencement program is widespread. It's my experience that graduating students either purchase their stole themselves or some group or individual purchases the stole for them and gives it to them to wear prior to the beginning of the graduation program.
Example #3: Fresno County 2012 African American Graduation

LeachMedia Published on May 23, 2012

2012 Fresno County African American Graduation ceremony held at Fresno Memorial Auditorium. Hosted by San Joaquin Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
[Fresno County California] This appears to me to be a celebration for pre-university age students apart from their actual graduation ceremony.

Example #4: 2012 UCLA African American Student Graduation Procession

jwnealy3 Published on Jun 17, 2012
The beginning of the African American graduation ceremony, lead by traditional African dancers.
This is probably an optional ceremony that African American graduates might participate in apart from their official graduation ceremony.

[Added June 7, 2016]
Example #5: Donovan Livingston's Harvard Graduate School of Education Student Speech

HarvardEducation, Published on May 25, 2016
May 25, 2016 Convocation Speech. Full remarks transcribed here:

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  1. Here's a comment that I added to another pancocojams post on kente cloth "Kente Cloth Worn By American Gospel Choirs":

    [A quote regarding the tensions between Ghanaians and African Americans regarding Americans' use of kente cloth]

    "In the United States kente cloth has become an important symbol of identification with Africa. Kente is often used during African American graduations and other ceremonies honoring people for their accomplishments. Some Ghanaians feel that African American uses of kente cloth have become more commercial than celebratory, reducing the cloth to a generic symbol of anything African. It is important, then, to remember the complicated message in each cloth's design and that kente comes from a specific country (Ghana) with its own particular history."
    That paper provides historical information about how the first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, wore a kente cloth wrap to the United Nations, thus introducing much of the world to that fabric.

    I would go even farther than that passage and reiterate what I wrote in this post that to many African Americans and other Americans kente cloth has become a short-hand symbol of African American culture, and not necessarily a symbol of African culture, let alone Akan culture in Ghana and Ewe culture in the Ivory Coast.

    I can understand how that can be problematic. Yet, for African Americans identifying with kente cloth is also a plus. But African Americans and other Americans have a very surface approach to kente cloth and other African cultural indices such as traditional African dancing and African drums. We have to stop being surface about African culture and delve deeper into what we admire about those cultures. We should learn more about those traditions, and honor the African originators, and the African caretakers of those cultural traditions.

    It's partly for those reasons that this blog exist.

  2. Hat tip Denise Oliver Velez for mentioning another pancocojams post about kente cloth in her dailykos dairy: Denise Oliver Velez, 2016/06/05

    Just one correction- I'm a she and not a he.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I went to a PWI and we had a Donning of Kente ceremony that was sponsored by the Black Caucus. It was very meaningful and memorable. Watching the videos on this post brought back memories.

  4. You're welcome, Kente Stole.

    Thanks for your comment.

    For the record, I'm assuming that "PWI" means predominately White institution (a university/college where the majority of students are White).

    I'm also assuming that "the Black Caucus" was (is) the name of that university's Black student organization.