NORTH LAWNDALE — February may be over, but Black History Month lives on for many of the more seasoned residents of North Lawndale.
In celebration of the rich African culture that connects most of the people of North Lawndale as descendants of slaves, seniors in the neighborhood put on a fashion show and walked the runway wearing traditional West African clothing.
The show was hosted by the Senior Day Services program of Lawndale Christian Health Center, 3745 W. Ogden Ave.
Seniors and nursing staff came decked out in their dashikis and rocking their best kente cloths for the Honoring Our Heritage Fashion Show. At the show, traditional fashion was a medium for diving into the cultural histories that many families had forgotten after generations of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow and assimilation.
“I really think that it’s a beautiful thing that the culture of the African program can be carried on,” said Oralee Downing, a senior who walked in the show. “And it lets the young people coming after us to know what it’s about. A lot of young people don’t know anything about Black history. … that’s how they lose their culture.”
Staff member RaQuira Welch spoke at the fashion show to highlight the unique cultural moment in the United States where for the first time, Black people’s traditional clothing and hairstyles are being accepted into the mainstream after historically being banned or deemed unprofessional.
Before the seniors hit the runway, staff screened Hair Love, the Academy Award-winning short animated film celebrating the shared experience of black people when it comes to accepting their kinky, wooly, curly crowns that are sometimes difficult to manage yet always and beautiful.
Welch said that more than anybody, older generations had to struggle to be accepted and to accept themselves in order to carve a pathway for Black youth to carry their heritage with pride.
“We honor our culture,” Welch said to the seniors at the show. “I honor you as my elder. As people who have been through way more that I could ever imagine — segregation and slavery.”
The seniors walking in the show wore intricately detailed African clothing woven with ornate patterns and colors that are worn to different aspects of traditional African life and honor particular cultural virtues and histories.
According to Welch, the kente cloth itself was a symbol of royalty worn by kings and queens of the Akan ethic group in Ghana before the European colonization of Africa.
“This African attire is much more than just trendy fashion. It has a meaning behind it. Africans use these colors to express themselves,” she said.
Square patterns on the cloth represent the earth, femininity and fertility, while cross patterns symbolize the spirit and the breath of life. Purple represents femininity and sweetness, yellow symbolized growth, prosperity, health and the harvest, blue represents wisdom and patience and green represents the earth, the land and renewal.
“Gold is for richness,” said Deborah Cavanero about her attire, which also bore a black pattern to represent strength, age, maturity and spirituality. “It’s a beautiful color, black and gold.”
Cavanero said the fashion show and the Senior Day Services program have been excellent motivators for her to be engaged in the community. Like many older adults, Cavanero battled depression and anxiety, but she said reconnecting with her cultural roots is a powerful way to heal strengthen her mental health.
“You have to have real good self-esteem to really deal with it. And you’ve got to know where you come from. You’ve got to know our background so you can teach your kids our background for them to carry on to the next generation,” she said.
Show organizer Kumesha Henderson said strutting down the runway was a great way to empower seniors.
“Their age is not a limit,” Henderson said. “They can do whatever they want. Just because they’re older doesn’t mean their life stops, they should still be part of something.”
Downing said staying active and social keeps her feeling better each day. And though she has arthritis in her leg, she wouldn’t let it keep her from representing her African pride on the runway.
“I may not be able to dance but I’m going to walk down the aisle and participate,” she said. “This is a beautiful outlet for me.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.