The nation saw the fashion statement made by first lady Melania Trump with her white pantsuit during last week’s State of the Union address.
But the one made by members of the Congressional Black Caucus was bolder.
They chose to add a dash of traditional African attire by wearing kente cloth during the speech as a sign of unity against President Donald Trump.
“It’s no secret that the Congressional Black Caucus has been appalled by the rhetoric and policies of President Trump,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., who chaired the group from 2015 to 2017 and represents Durham in the 1st District.
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“But we wanted to go there and listen very carefully,” he continued. “And then the question became ‘Can we do something extraordinary to show solidarity?’ And we came up with the idea of wearing some form of traditional African kente cloth, whether it be a tie or a scarf or a sash. We would wear it and it would be very visible.”
In Ghana where kente cloth originated in the late 1600s, it was a royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and was considered the cloth of kings. Over time, its use spread.
“We just thought it would be appropriate,” Butterfield said. “And we came to that conclusion after the president disparaged the countries in Africa by calling them ‘shithole countries.’ We were offended and quite frankly angered by his statement.”
Leading into the speech, some caucus members felt not showing up or showing up and walking out was the appropriate response to Trump’s vilifying people of color. But showing up wearing a touch of African attire made an even louder statement.
Most members sat together during the speech, a rarity for the event unless a lot of pre-planning occurs. Butterfield said the caucus got seats together with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“We were very proud to be able to stand together and to show solidarity,” he said.
Butterfield said many members fielded questions from their colleagues about the kente cloth.
“Even some Republicans wanted to know what the kente cloth was, and we took a few moments to briefly explain,” he said.
The protest reached beyond the caucus as two other other House members, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, wore kente cloth sashes in solidarity.
Butterfield said the ambassador to the U.S. from Ghana, Barfuor Adjei-Barwuah, also attended the speech and spent time with the caucus.
“He was very pleased because kente cloth originated in Ghana,” Butterfield said. “I spoke with him and he was pleased with how we used the kente cloth as a means of protest.
The caucus has 49 members, which includes 48 Democrats and 1 Republican – Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah. There are 47 members in the U.S. House and two in the Senate.