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African attire isn’t “proper” attire?

Despite African and African-inspired attire being all the rage and trending internationally, Africans in America can still be refused entry to nightclubs because of their attire. “Isn’t African dress equal in all respects to European dress?,” asks one writer.

I’ve worn tailored West African clothing exclusively for twenty years—no jeans, no slacks, no tennis or button-front shirts. My outfits range casual to formal, in traditional to contemporary African styles. Being an “African-American”—I prefer African-in-America, Diasporan African or American(ized) African—I’m often asked, “Why do you dress like that?” (The questions come from people of all stripes in America, black, white, young, old, American, African in America; I’ll touch on this in part 2). The long answer is a fervent proclamation delineating my sociopolitical ideology. The short answer is, “I look good in it.”

At a time when African and African-inspired fashions are trending, I’m refused entry into a Washington, DC nightclub for wearing West African apparel. I’d been turned away from nightclubs years ago, appertaining to elements of my attire, but never regarding my entire ensemble.

“This is what rich people wear in Africa!“
In Dallas, Texas, 1996, I’m twice interrogated over aspects of my outfit before finally being allowed to enter one of two different nightclubs (where everyone’s Black, including the bouncers). On the first occasion the gatekeeper halts me for wearing open-toed sandals. I inform him of the price of my stylish mules ($125), their similarity to what female patrons are wearing and that I’m an out-of-towner with limited wardrobe options. Reluctantly, he grants me entrance.

On the second outing I’m told I can’t enter because policy states I must wear a collared shirt—I’m wearing silk-like fabric with intricate embroidery. Understandably, the rule addresses those wearing t-shirts, but “you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

DC Saturdays at Air: The author with friend out on the night in Washington, DC, in 2003
DC Saturdays at Air: The author with friend out on the night in Washington, DC, in 2003

It’s 2012 and I’ve lived in downtown Washington, DC, for twenty-two years. I’m still wearing stylish West African clothing and designer footwear. My female companion and I decide to go clubbing Thursday evening, May 12th. She’s a visiting Nigerian national from a prominent family and it’s her final night in the city. My two closest Nigerian friends will join us—a prominent physician and a successful entrepreneur. Both are US citizens. My companion and I arrive at The Park at Fourteenth (920 14th Street, NW; a Black club, although the guys at the door are of Middle Eastern or Indian heritage) and my entrepreneur friend is inside procuring a table. My companion presents her Nigerian government-issued identification to the young sentinel who says, “I’ve never seen this before,” and summons the manager. We giggle at his naïveté—her identification requires the manager’s authorisation in an “international city,” filled with “foreigners?” Clearly, we’re both beyond any age restriction, but he’s just doing his job.

While we await approval, my entrepreneur friend exits the club and we explain the situation—he’s amused. Finally, an executive dispatch determines her identification to be legitimate. Traversing the velvet ropes, an arm impedes my forward progress. The young sentinel informs me that I can’t enter because of my outfit. I’m draped in variegated Batik—long-sleeved, knee-length, tree-button placket shirt, matching pants and fila (Yoruba men’s cap, for anyone wondering). On my feet are $200 designer loafers—no sandals.

Disbelieving, I question, “My clothes; why?” Another adolescent watchman launches a prepared speech pontificating on the club being a “private establishment” with a “business casual” dress code and the “right to refuse . . .” Outraged, I insist on seeing the manager, immediately. Waiting, we see throngs of young women enter and exit the club in tiny, tight dresses and steep stacked stilettos—the kaleidoscope of hair weave and breasts cleavage is even more piteous. The most popular article of clothing is jeans and an extremely tall man exits the club wearing shorts. “Business casual?“ Finally, a woman appears and repeats the prefabricated “business casual” dress code nonsense (She’s White, but speaks with a “Black girl with attitude” voice). Everyone verbally engages and a West African brother-man passerby loudly advises, “This is what rich people wear in Africa!“

Disgusted, we depart for another popular nightspot and are warmly welcomed. My physician friend meets us and we recount our ordeal—his eyes widen in amazement.

A recent shot of Asar in Lagos
A recent shot of Asar in Lagos

Black folk maintaining racial stereotypes
Born in in the United States, I’m a descendant of enslaved West Africans. What happened at The Park at Fourteenth is an assault upon my African cultural heritage. Washington, DC—centre of the world’s political universe—boasts of diversity and liberalism, and is the capital of a nation that pontificates on democracy, freedom, equality, justice and its strength in the amalgamation of peoples. To the contrary, the policies and practices of The Park at Fourteenth convey to African peoples that the city of Washington and the nation it represents are racists, hypocritical and rude.

To be fair, what happened at The Park at Fourteenth could be an isolated incident—Not! “Business casual . . .” For 20 years, wearing West African clothing, I’ve endured innumerable similar affronts. “Business casual . . . “ Does an English styled lounge suit or French cut jacket and trousers with a pretty ribbon (neck-tie) tightly fastened around my throat, make me more intelligent, more productive or more “professional?” Isn’t African dress equal in all respects to European dress—Why not? Western “business” attire is just another aspect of European capitalist perpetuation of its cultural and political domination—it makes white folk feel comfortable.

“Business casual . . .” Be assured, the doors are open for Black folk maintaining racial stereotypes by dressing “hoochie mama” style or “thugged-out” in sagging crotch jeans and exposed underwear. However, if you’re proudly robed in tailored West African garb—unapologetically Black/African–The Park Entrance is “Clothed.”

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