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TO JAN. 2, 2000.
Muhammad Ali rose his fist in it. W.E.B. Du Bois accepted an honorary degree in it. And Bill Clinton just shouldn’t have gone there. The traditional kente cloth of Ghana that gifts wearers with pride and dignity under the right circumstances has run an unpredictable course. During his leadership, Kwame Nkrumah macked it at every formal event. Wearing the hand-woven fabric of the Ewe and Asante people with shoulders squared and back straightened, Nkrumah quickly made the late-17th-century textile a symbol of unity for his country and the rest of the African diaspora. And by the ’50s, the geometrical warps and colorful contours had traveled out of the palaces of queen mothers and paramount chiefs into the dizzying displacement of an American landscape. In 1991, it became the hottest-selling fabric, used for everything from sorority sashes to totebags to graduation stoles to umbrellas. You were lucky to find some authentic kente without a label that reads: “Made in Taiwan.” Yet for many African-Americans, the demand to reestablish a broken connection with the motherland and replace the stigma of slavery with fresh images of royalty outlives the immediate need for the real thing. “Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity” follows the never-ending maze of kente cloth from its beginnings to the present and examines how it continues to shape black self-consciousness. At the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW. Free. (202) 357-4600. (Ayesha Morris)