It’s often said that the stories of history are written by the victors. But if this is true, what happens to the stories of the downtrodden? And how can they ever hope to aspire for something better, if they are never told the stories of their own glorious past?
As a designer, I’m often asked about the inspiration behind the clothes that I create. And when I tell people “I’m working to redress the long-lingering effects of colonialism through clothing,” they are often taken aback. But then, if they’re lucky, they get to meet Naima, and they immediately understand why I, as her father, would do anything to set the world right for her.
A few years ago, my partner and I were blessed with a daughter. She is fiercely intelligent, endlessly curious and heart-achingly beautiful. At the age of four, it has already become exceedingly clear that she is going to go on to do wonderful things with her life. And yet, some time ago, she walked into our bedroom and stood in front of the mirror. She was wearing a gold scarf over her head, and it was dangling down the length of her back. She looked at her reflection and she said to me, “Daddy, I don’t want to have an afro anymore. I want my hair to be long and beautiful…like Goldilocks and Rapunzel’s.”
For a moment, I said nothing. Then I repeated her words to myself. “I don’t like my hair. I want to look like someone else.” Those words tasted like a familiar poison. It was a poison that every person of African descent is familiar with. And it was a poison that my four-year old daughter was being made to drink much too soon.
That world famous hemlock; known more commonly under its generic name: “Self-Doubt”.
Insecurity flourishes in the absence of a strong cultural narrative that inspires confidence. When we tell stories of Africans and we describe them, without nuance, as starving, corrupt, and bereft of all sophistication--we not only do a disservice to those millions of people that have become caricatures under the weight of our stereotypes, we also do a disservice to the generations that will come after us.
Those children, like my daughter, who might shrink away from their own identities because they don’t see themselves represented in the narrow descriptions of what our society considers beautiful. Those immigrants, like myself, who might allow their own names to be mangled and truncated, so that they too can easily assimilate into Western culture without suffering ridicule. And those visitors, like many of you, who have been robbed of the beauty and complexity that the Sub-Saharan continent has to offer. For many years, the writers of history have claimed that there is nothing to see in Africa except elephants, lions and half-naked men holding spears.
But there are other stories. As a designer, I’ve devoted my life to showing that elegance is not a trait that is exclusive to the Western world. My work is intended to serve as a reminder: to children like my daughter. To travelers like myself. And to visitors like you. A reminder that we too are descended from gifted craftsmen, from talented artisans, from brilliant authors and from culinary geniuses. We too have much to contribute. My work is a reminder that after centuries of being pushed into the shadows of history, the time of Africa has finally come.