Is Nothing Sacred?
Yesterday, while standing in Cooper Square, I spotted a white woman flouncing around in a three-quarter-length cropped white jacket emblazoned with gye nyame symbols (pictured above). While sari-inspired frocks are now pervasive, it's very rare to see an affluent woman sporting anything remotely Africanesque. I could go so far as to say it's quite ridiculous, in fact, so I had to get her story.
I ran up alongside her and said how beautiful her jacket was, asked where could I get one. She said it was the handiwork of Iranian-born Manhattan dressmaker and costumer Albert Sakhai. He has a by-appointment-only little shop on West 19th Street where he helps clients realize their fashion potential.
Sakhai prefers to work from "dreams" rather than from actual pictures. She said, "I just tell him what I want, we figure it out together, and he makes it for me." What she described is easy and economical enough on the continent, but here in New York, it's an upper-class fantasy. "Isn't this cloth beautiful?" she added, looking to me for validation. "Yes, it's lovely," I replied, smiling. I stopped short of asking if she knew what the symbol meant.
Ever since I was five-years-old, at least, I've had a deep respect and understanding of gye nyame. Father Kofi, my home priest in Albany, was a Ghanaian. I remember, as a little girl, looking up at him wearing the most beautiful robe of flowing kente -- and in the very center, over his heart, was a gold embroidered gye nyame symbol. He asked me if I knew what it meant, I said no, and he said, "Gye nyame means 'who is greater than God?', that is, God is the supreme being." I was amazed that one little symbol could mean so much.
I was horrified to see this white woman, completely ignorant of the symbol's significance, walking around like she was justified and right when she was just wrong. It is such a privilege to be able to buy up everyone else's culture with impunity.
You look around Accra and every hair salon, corner market, and tire shop has some reference to God in its title because their faith is a living, breathing thing. There, as in so many other places, people may not have enough money, but they have abundant faith. But Sakhai went ahead and commodified that too! Will have to make an appointment and meet this man. Ask him why he did that, if he understands what it means. Or maybe I'm overreacting. I just can't help but think some things should be kept sacred...
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