‘Dead White People’s Clothes’

How the used clothes you send to Africa are killing the local textile industries.

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There are no easy answers. But what many don’t understand is that African textiles are much more than an assemblage of brightly colored cloth. Many of the designs have names, usually in the form of an aphorism. And they contain stories, folklore which is sometimes literally written into the cloth. Africans use fabric in much the same way that the Western world uses newspapers and magazines to commemorate, document and celebrate events, accomplishments and individuals.  

When Barack Obama was elected as America’s first black president, Africans all throughout the continent sewed their pride into their cloth. When Miriam Makeba died, she was honored the same way. In traditional engagement ceremonies, fabric is a requisite part of the dowry that a male suitor presents to the woman’s family. Fabric is handed down from one generation to another. I inherited a number of my grandmother’s outfits. I will pass them on, along with the history and culture they carry, to my daughter. Because of what I’ve seen first-hand, I believe that donating used clothing to charities which then export them to Africa will ultimately result in the death of such traditions and legacies—which is why I won’t do it. 

Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is the editor of The Black Body, a collection of personal essays, which will be published this September by Seven Stories Press. 

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