The Search for Identity
“I was born in America—a country that since its inception, has had to reconcile the institution of slavery with its foundational myth of being the ‘land of the free.’ We have all heard of the founding fathers, American exceptionalism, and the American dream. The myth thrives until today. Growing up in a segregated America, it is needless to say that none of those myths applied to me. Those myths either defined me as a second-class citizen or simply excluded me altogether. And if myths provide us with the foundational tale about who we are, then I—and millions like me—were simply nobodies.
But in the 60s, something began to happen, a movement began to emerge—people were no longer satisfied with the status quo. Charismatic leaders began to appear. These included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, and Stokely Carmichael—new ideas were circulating. You have to imagine that in those days there was no internet, and no cell phones, but somehow everyone could feel that something was happening. It was in the air. People began to feel differently about themselves and they began to dress differently too.
As Miuccia Prada famously said, ‘Fashion is instant language.’ What we wear on the outside, is a window into who we are inside. And the message was loud and clear: I’m Black and I’m proud!
People on the street began wearing African fabrics and picked-out Afros. This was in stark contrast to the way I had been taught to present myself as a child. Before this movement, we had all been taught to make ourselves invisible—blend in with the landscape of white America, as much as we could. If I remember correctly, it was the penny loafer, white socks, and pleated skirts. But now change was everywhere.
We were becoming more Afrocentric and so was our clothing. We discovered pride in being associated with Africa. The Dashikis and change of hairstyles were defiant, bold symbols. The times were both electrifying and turbulent. It was a celebration, albeit a short-lived one. Because once Martin, Malcolm, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, and others were tragically killed, the movement died with them.
It was in the midst of that chaos that I decided to pack my bags and go to Europe. I was desperate to get out of America. I was desperate for change. Fortunately, I gained admission to the Kunst Akademie in Düsseldorf, West Germany.
My experiences in Europe during those times challenged old norms. For the first time in my life, the world around me was not reduced to black or white. I met Germans, Italians, French, English, Turkish, and Africans from across the continent. I met Ghanaians, Nigerians, Liberians, Kenyans, and South Africans who I discovered had even more textured identities than myself. They were Ashanti, Ga, Igbo, Yoruba, Maasai, and Xhosa.
For the first time in my life, I understood that human beings were not a collection of races organized in some color-coded hierarchy, but rather human beings distinguished by their cultures and ethnicities.”