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Fabricating Archives of African History

When most people think of archives where historians work, they imagine rooms filled with rows of boxes bulging with documents, photographs and newspapers. While these archives remain central to historians, textiles constitute another vital and important archive for historians of Africa. Each cloth, each item of clothing and the composite ways in which African men and women dress their bodies reveal important dimensions of Africa’s cultural, economic, social and political histories. Students in the seminar – Dress, Cloth and Identity in Africa and the Diaspora (HIST 2452) – have spent this semester exploring the different histories that can be traced through an analysis of how textiles are produced, traded, used and worn.

In examining production, we considered the availability of materials (cotton, silk, tree bark, wool), as well as the gender and social relations of production in order to understand the tasks that free and enslaved men and women contributed to the process. We followed the intersecting trade routes that linked rural villages, urban spaces and international ports and through which African textiles moved across the continent and across oceans. Those trade networks simultaneously met African demand for textiles produced in other places and made Africa a central part of the global economy from which capitalism emerged. Tracing production over time also captured the changes introduced by colonialism and neoliberalism on regional and household economies.

Textiles, clothing and dress also allowed us to explore cultural and social histories of communities and individuals. In 19th century Zanzibar, an island off the East Coast of Africa, the abolition of slavery in the 1890s allowed formerly enslaved women to cover their heads, thus marking their freedom and their standing as good Muslims. African dress also opened a pathway into old and new histories of African diasporas. Stoles made of Ghanaian-inspired kente cloth became an important way for African Americans to mark and celebrate their connection to Africa. For recent African migrants however, the connection created by wearing traditional dress or using hand-woven cloth reinforced their membership in specific national and cultural communities, not a generic Africa.

Thus, the threads of textiles hold multiple histories of the ancient and recent past while collecting the histories of our present. The items in this exhibit provide just a small sample of the many histories woven into the fabrics of our lives.