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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.



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.

Things Are Still Falling Apart

I walk into Starbucks to find the safest thing to keep me awake. I ask for a small because I’m unfamiliar with the lingo. English is the least powerful. Then, the next sizes progress to Spanish. And finally, if you are trying to stay up for 7 days straight, you will need to brandish Italian.

“Short?” was not a question the cashier even bothered to confirm my request for a ‘small’ with and the cappuccino they tried to fill me up with did not even fill up the cup.

“$4.01, please.”

I stand waiting in a second line and have to wonder why, with that all too familiar question, why the person behind me gets their drink before me. Being upset is not something I ever want to be. But, it’s welling up inside of me. She even has the server inscribe a ‘Mrs.’ with her last name while I only give my first. Is she better than me?

Is this a form of subtle communication meant to make me go mad? Did I do something wrong? Is it what I am wearing? Is it my hair? How do orders change just like that? And, why does it make me upset?

“It doesn’t matter,” I pretend to feel even inside the safe walls of my mind. I don’t share even a visual grievance. I actually force myself to smile, but I’m kidding myself.

As my anger gives into subtle disappointment, my bowed head is quickly saved by the message it is then able to perceive. Beneath me is the New York Times and filling it’s front frame is the picture of a Nigerian grandmother who looks not much older than me, if that, telling the world how she was forced to take classes in suicide bombings to strengthen the power of Boko Haram.

For me, Boko Haram has no face as didn’t al-Qaeda—their center of organization in Afghanistan has no shortage of local East Asian faces. Can these faces be called Arabs even if they too happen to have a Muslim faith like al-Qaeda? Are we confusing ethnicity with race with religion again? The ethnicities of Boko Haram’s members, are they even the same as the ethnicities of the people they kidnap, rape, and kill?

As did al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, Boko Haram is also giving all of Nigeria a bad name and with a little more than half the total population of the U.S.A. and 1/10th the size of America’s land, Nigeria is the 7th largest nation in the world. Nigeria speaks more languages in one city than all of the U.S. combined.

I don’t assume that Chiraq in Illinois reflects what must be happening somewhere in Kansas next door. But, still, people assume this about what is happening in the very northern part of Nigeria with what must be existing in the rest of the country. It’s going to take over Cameroon perhaps. Chad and Niger are in danger, too. Really?

Where do we focus? Where does the bad part start and end? How do we know who is good and who is bad? Where do we not dare go on holiday? Brussels and France aren’t options anymore. Violent things are happening there, too. Are we paranoid? Are our jumped-to conclusions actually fanning the confusion?

“Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe wrote and titled his famous novel. I would have to agree. It seems that the Holy War provoked by British missionaries in Nigeria in his book is now being provoked by Boko Haram in Nigeria in real life. And, so I have to ask myself in an as absurb a thought as possible in order to see clearly the dilemma—“Whose beliefs are right?” Everyone assumes that theirs is such.

In Achebe’s book, you are given both sides and you also see the absurdities of both as well as the things each side does that could make sense.

Where is the enemy coming from? How do we stop them? Why do they think they are right and that others are completely out of their minds? Some people know the “missionary position” to have been introduced by missionaries. Some people know the croissant to have been invented the day after the French won victory over the overpowering Moors—the crescent shape of the pastry representing the crescent shape of the Islamic symbol to be devoured daily as constant reminder of their conquest. Just, who are all of these religious people claiming to be first in line? Are they like you and me?

And then, when I think about the lady who got her fix before me in line and my consistent anger at such affronts, I realize that I do not know her and she does not know me at all. How I can I assume that my rules apply everywhere I go? Yet, how can I not if I believe they are universally good? And, what am I really supposed to do about it? Kill everyone who disagrees with me? And, is this a lesson, justice, or just hate? All of our differences, what are we really supposed to do about them when we don’t even know each other? Tell me, who is the most right? Who is the best? Who gets served first in line?

Peace Corps Worldwide’s Review of Raven Moore’s Padre!


Review of Raven Moore’s (Cote d’Ivoire 2000-02) Padre!
Permission to repost from Peace Corps Worldwide site under Peace Corps Writers section.
Posted by John Coyne on Sunday, July 6th 2014
Padre!: A Place Whose Rules Rearrange Your Own
By Raven Moore (Cote d’Ivoire 2000-02)
Books by Raven, $19.99 (paper); $9.99 (Kindle)
338 pages

Reviewed by Deidre Swesnik (Mali 1996-98)

“The Ivoirien children who you see me living with on the cover of this book are poor, but poverty is not a permanent condition, nor does it have a recognizable face. Color was and is not often the reason for our mistreatment of one another. The Egyptians, the Moors, the Mongolians, the Romans, the Jews, the British, the Ottomans, the Dutch, the Americans, the Mandinka, the Mayans, and more; the list of conquerors is as diverse as those conquered. Ivoiriens in the Ivory Coast – La Cote d’Ivoire as it is called in West Africa – have it badly, but I’m not here to make you feel sorry for Ivoiriens. Feel sorry for me that it took me so long to figure out why I came here in the first place.”

So begins (well, it’s on page two) Raven Moore’s book about her Peace Corps experience in the Ivory Coast. This paragraph is a great window into what the whole book is about. Some is about race, some is about the conditions in the Ivory Coast, but most is her personal impressions of what is going on and what is happening to her along the way.

Moore does a lot of soul-searching in this book, much of it hilarious. She is “Black” in America but she is usually not seen as “black” in the Ivory Coast. In fact, she is often called “La Blanche,” the white woman, by Ivoiriens. This is a bit of a shock to someone who has come to Africa hoping to find a connection, only to feel like an outsider. (In a funny and ironic twist, even when she meets Ivoiriens who are as light-skinned as she or even lighter, Moore is still referred to as the white woman.)

In some ways, Moore goes through what many of us probably have, thinking we were going to be somewhere familiar or somewhere we viewed as home, only to feel like an outsider. In other ways, her experience is a funny, touching, honest portrayal of race in Africa and in America, and one person’s investigation into what race really means. She investigates race as a construct but also as an identity. She draws connections between Ivoiriens and African Americans, recognizing idioms, expressions, and even sometimes cultural similarities. At other times she sees major differences, and sometimes just settles in and observes.

While we all as Peace Corps Volunteers are part of a cadre of other PCVs, we ultimately have individual experiences and have to figure out a lot of things for ourselves. Moore goes through a few months’ training at the beginning of the book, but soon understands that she has a lot more to learn about the Ivory Coast and her village. Latrines, bucket baths, and no electricity may be the biggest shocks to the system upon arrival, but they soon pale in comparison to understanding a whole new culture and figuring out her role in it.

Moore is supposed to be a health volunteer educating her community about AIDS. How do you talk such an intimate topic when you barely speak the language? Not to mention the fact that you are supposed to talk about sex and how to put on a condom with people you are just meeting? Who could be expected to do that?

Moore does a great job of telling her story in chronological order and not giving away ahead of time some of the crazy things that happen to her, like encounters with snakes and her creepy assigned supervisor. We walk with Moore through her experience, putting together the pieces of the puzzle as they come. We start to see the whole picture slowly but holes remain – like when she doesn’t find out until late in her service that there was actually another volunteer there before she was and the strange things that volunteer supposedly did. She even finds out a major component of how her village politics work on her last day in town.

It seems to me that the two years of Peace Corps are like growing up. You start out stumbling around and talking like a baby. By month six, you are like a snobby adolescent who thinks she knows everything, feels like no one understands her, and is SO ready to go home. By the first year, you are like a twenty-something – slightly cocky but productive and feeling like you have it figured out but really want to make a difference. By the end of two years, you grow up and realize how little you actually knew all along.

Moore takes us through her personal journey and seems to think she has it all figured out by the end of the book. Maybe it’s that she has come to terms with the fact that there are things she doesn’t understand and probably never will. And maybe that’s ok too. She built some wonderful relationships during her service, but unfortunately many of them are drawn into question by the end for one reason or another.

Wondering what the title “Padre” is all about, especially since she is in a French-speaking country? Well, in the book it’s actually “Pahdre” and it’s one of the many names she’s given. You’ll have to read the book – and think really hard – to find out what it means.

Personal aside: This book was especially interesting for me to read because Ms. Moore and I are close in age and served in West Africa around the same time. I am very curious to know how things may or may not be different now. Both Ivory Coast and Mali have gone through significant internal strife since we served, not to mention cell phones.


Deidre Swesnik laughed for a lot of her two years in Peace Corps Mali and still does so uproariously with her RPCV friends at home in Washington, DC. DeeDee is the Director of Public Policy and Communications at the National Fair Housing Alliance, loves to edit and read, and is terrified of writing anything longer than two pages.