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My First Insight into World History through Cloth !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, Catherine McKinley’s “Indigo” is another one of those books that could go grossly overlooked because it’s informative. Truly her search for indigo revealed the severe tie between cloth and world history everywhere.

A reader will get much more than the story of indigo in the world of textiles. In this narrative ethnography, full of desire and color, the reader will be introduced to the Nigerian medical doctor who discovers a cure for AIDS but then just a few pages later the reader gets folded back into cloth while learning that the Netherlands was the fourth-largest, slave-trading nation whose Dutch textiles made up 57 percent of the goods exchanged for human lives during their slave trade. Cloth constituted more than 50 percent of European exports to West Africa on a whole by the late 1600s—so that we see the incredible importance of cloth to West Africans that they would exchange lives for it. Concurrently, abolitionists over in America were staging boycotts of indigo and all of this information goes very well towards feeding the reader with the zeitgeist of the times.

Cloth takes on its own persona in “Indigo.” McKinley makes cloth come alive as she explores its processes and its history in pre-colonial Africa as well. She effectively runs through the various types of cloth that were exchanged from East to West and North to South. Everyone around the world loved cloth in all its colors and textures. She also succinctly points out on a general note that the making of the ‘beauty’ during colonialism is also the making of the crisis that consumed many West African countries post-colonialism.

Every bit of indigo McKinley can find not only furthers her Fulbright research but furthers her insatiable desire to ‘feel’ the history of the people when it is not readily communicable from its owners. She believes in understanding by osmosis so that when she lacks the information to steer her in the right direction for more culture, rather than assuming there is no more knowledge to be gotten, her self-determination, sheer faith, and belief in the power of cloth pushes her straight through to the places she needs to go and the people she needs to meet over and over again throughout her West African journey.

The textile cultures McKinley discovers have been in West Africa for a very long time and as the needs of a global economy loom, she explains how that has necessitated that many West Africans start to place the pursuit of financial gain over the maintenance of laborious yet ancient and rare textile traditions. These cloth traditions do more than impart beauty but also translate generational heritage as indigo has been included in dowries passed down from mother to daughter and the symbolism embedded in the cloth itself expresses the various cultural values from ethnicity to ethnicity and country to country that she explores.

Negroland

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Margo Jefferson’s world is a world of pictures, sounds, and smells. So, I don’t get a true sense of what actually happened in her life. Her memoir often reads as several essays instead of chapters, many of which you cannot tell where her voice is. Many plays, books, movies, and major works of art are shared which allows her to reflect herself in them. She is not able to do it on her own. And, I find it puzzling that neither her father’s nor her own childhood pictures match their skin colors as adults.

She speaks of hair perms, hair dying, and skin bleaching, but does not tell us if she has used any of those things. There are only clues. Hard to tell, but her Negroland, past and present, is a place where no Negroes are actually allowed unless they embrace Eurocentric values. These values are shown in good and bad ways while truly curly hair (referred to as nappy/kinky), wide noses, full lips, large backsides, and all ways of being Black, down to ways of laughing, etc. are only referred to in a negative light. Jefferson does not seem to be trying to fix anything and present the right values or embrace Blackness. Jefferson wrote this book to exonerate herself.

This book is the beginning of some kind of recovery from all she experiences growing up. You get glimpses of her childhood, glimpses of herself as an older adult, and all that lie in between is referred to very quickly as suicidal. Her tangents leave me without a story I can easily share although I now have plenty of references to other books and poems she so often quotes to reflect her mental state. I can see a soul there, but it’s hiding behind so many images that she was pretty much forced to use in order to define herself growing up.

She says she at times (or maybe all the time, this is unclear) has problems having “plural relations” with all Negroes—an ‘us’ or a ‘we’—I think because she must believe in the stereotypes and thinks she and her upbringing is a rarity. She seems to be saying that few Blacks in America, let alone any cultures from any African countries, could possibly have the great characteristics she touts, which are mostly aligned, in this book, to White people as a whole. Black people as a whole? Hmmm, she’s clearly not so fond of that. There are just way too many voices coming from Jefferson in this book and by the end I really have no idea which one she wants to be hers. She is conflicted. The description of her family is given only here and there, in contradictory pictures, in a few moments of dialogue, and in the last 20 pages of her book. I enjoyed some parts, but as a whole, realize that she was very afraid to write this book.