Happy Independence Day, Dear Reader!
You may be thinking that this newsletter is a whole month early, because Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. The Independence Day referred to here is one that, although having been a tradition for over 150 years, is recently gaining more widespread recognition and being celebrated as a National Holiday: Juneteenth. The day is also known as Freedom Day or African-Americans’ Independence Day, a June 19th celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Americans are a people nurtured from infancy on the aspirational words of the Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance that speak of equality, liberty, happiness, and justice. So, it is natural to celebrate the end of the brutal and crippling institution of slavery in this country, a practice that for over 400 years physically and emotionally shackled the enslaved and spiritually caged their captors in a prison of false superiority, bigotry, and greed. But even as it is an aspirational holiday, Harvard historian Jarvis Givens maintains that it is also a reminder of the work we need to do: “Juneteenth continues to be important, not just because it marks the end of slavery, but because it becomes a ritualized, political holiday that tells and retells the story of Black people’s ongoing struggle in a nation that’s so invested in forgetting.”
The celebration of Juneteenth is particularly poignant to fiber artists who love to work with textiles. Earlier this week at Fiber Arts Collective, as we tidied bolts of fabric on the shelves, we reflected on the fact that, during the transatlantic slave trade, approximately two yards of cloth could be traded for a human life. So, it is with humility that we observe the end of a system that equated a human being’s life with the yardage needed for a pair of pants or a long-sleeved shirt.
In the United States, Eliza Lucas is widely credited with starting the successful indigo dye industry in this country. In truth, it was her slaves who were the successful cultivators, slaves who brought to the United States age-old experience with indigo cultivation and harvesting. For a time, the coveted indigo dye raised by the enslaved was more profitable than sugar and cotton. When money lost its value during the Revolution, cakes of indigo were known to replace dollars as currency. The American indigo market dried up after the Revolution, so Britain moved its production to India, where sharecroppers were forced to grow the crop for hardly any money—yet another form of enslavement. To dive deeper into the history of indigo and textiles, consider reading Catherine McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World, available in the Fiber Arts Collective’s Lois Ericson Design and Inspiration Library.
Lovers of fine fabrics and fashion will resonate with the Juneteenth practice of donning comfortable, beautiful clothing, which was denied to enslaved Africans. In “The Fashion Significance of Juneteenth,” Bridget Todd explains: “Clothing is an often overlooked aspect of the slave trade. Slaveowners in states like Virginia were required by law to provide clothing for their slaves, but they did so without consideration for comfort. Slave codes dictated what enslaved people could and couldn’t wear. For instance, some laws prohibited slaves from wearing anything that might be perceived as too fancy for them. The Negro Law of South Carolina prevented slaves who weren’t liveries from “wearing anything finer, or of greater value than negro cloth.” In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist activist and writer who escaped slavery, recalls: “I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.”
The current relevance of Juneteenth continues for anyone who enjoys wearing clothing today. Folded into the celebration of the end of the formal system of slavery in the United States is a reminder that slavery continues in the form of exploitation of farmers, textile, and garment workers around the world. These are most often people of color who work under low-paying, dangerous conditions to grow, harvest, dye, weave and sew for today’s fashion industry. People, the planet, and world economy suffer, as highlighted by Fashion Revolution’s campaign: #IMadeYourFabric.
As artists, we have the power to shed light on these practices through our creations, and more importantly, to encourage their interruption. We can be the protagonists who envision and illustrate alternative ways of living together on our planet, who help each other transform our existence into one that embraces and works for everyone. We can weave new patterns of community life enriched by the contributions of all of us. During Juneteenth, while observing the end of institutional slavery, we must fortify our efforts to build new institutions that value liberty and deliver justice for ALL.
We leave you with these gems to commemorate this holiday:
Heroine Rosa Parks was not only a seamstress—she also quilted. Read an article about her here, and come to the Fiber Arts Collective to read an interview with Rosa Parks about quilting in the book entitled “African American Quiltmaking in Michigan”. A review of this enlightening book is found in the next section of this newsletter.
“When I pick up a piece of fabric, a needle, and thread, I am reminded of how stories and histories are revealed in cloth and clothing. Techniques traditionally considered women’s work including sewing and needlework are the foundation of my practice. Excluded, under-told and forgotten stories combined with a passion for making and materials merge and unfold as new storylines. The narratives that inspire and inform my making are those of the African Diaspora, her-stories and the experiences of the disenfranchised. Often reflections based on personal experience, my work is an ongoing examination of who I am, where I fit and how I choose to participate in the historical narrative.
I see cloth and clothing as a visual language. As I explore this language I try to discover a vocabulary that speaks of the extraordinary within these ordinary materials, uncovering stories through color, texture, pattern and form. I use these elements to embed my work with meaning and to create textile objects that engage viewers on both an aesthetic and emotional level. I am liberated when I stitch and I strive to liberate my subjects and those viewing my work through respect and contemplation.”
“My name is Jonathan M. Square. I am a writer and historian specializing in fashion and visual culture of the African Diaspora. I have PhD in history from New York University, a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and B.A. from Cornell University. Last academic year, I taught in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania. I am currently a faculty member in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature at Harvard University.
My current book project — tentatively titled “Sartorial Resistance and the Politics of Redress in the Black Atlantic”— frames sartorial agency among enslaved peoples as a form of resistance and places sumptuary laws within the context of the development of Atlantic capitalism from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In particular, I am interested in how people of African descent have engaged the nascent fashion system to not only critique and counter ideologies that cast them as inferior, but also to stake a claim in larger political struggles for freedom and equity. I deconstruct the etymology of “text” and “textiles”; when enslaved peoples did not have direct access to revolutionary “texts,” they often used “textiles.” In this way, dress and adornment served as a form of radical self-determination, just as much as texts.”
Book of the Month in Celebration of Juneteenth:
African American Quiltmaking in Michigan
Amazing books keep being donated to the Fiber Arts Collective Library. This month we are highlighting one on African American Quiltmaking in Michigan. The book from the Michigan State University Press is a collection of essays and personal stories with beautiful full color plates of some extraordinary quilts that accompanied an exhibition of the same name in 1997.
The book’s essays examine the history and meaning of quilting in the individual artist’s lives and within the contexts of community and family. African American Quiltmaking in Michigan is the first book on the quiltmaking traditions of African Americans in Michigan. With 4-color printing throughout, with over 100 illustrations, it brings together many images in the exploration of African American quilting. In addition, the interviews examine quiltmaking as a form women have used to contribute to the historic meaning of the African American family and community. It is a wonderful companion book to any study of the Gees Bend Quilts.
The last great wave of African-American migration to the Great Lakes region occurred during the period of World War II and the migrants came mainly from the Carolinas and the Deep South states of Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. These new migrants brought with them a wide variety of social, political, religious, and cultural organizations and traditions new to the region thus enriching the already diverse character of the communities in which they settled.
The Michigan State University Museum’s collection of African-American quilts grew out of an effort begun in 1985 to aggressively collect information on African-American quilting history in the state. Working with local organizations in communities of predominantly black populations or historically important black settlements, museum staff held a series of African-American Community Quilt Discovery Days. The African-American Quilt Discovery Days successfully identified many quilts and quilters. As examples, the work of more than thirty quilters was recorded at the first event, and at a Quilt Discovery Day in Detroit, Rosa Parks brought her and her mother’s quilts in to be registered.
The MSU Museum staff led a major documentation project that resulted in the exhibition “African-American Quilting in Michigan”, the publication African American Quiltmaking in Michigan, and the development of an important collection of over 35 quilts as well as documentary materials related to African-American quilting in the state.
The documentation project and the collection of quilts reveals a wide range of individual styles and traditions of quilting designs, construction techniques, and uses within Michigan’s African-American communities. This breadth provided an opportunity to examine major controversies in African-American quilt scholarship — the issues of African survivals in African-American material culture and whether or not there exists a “typical African-American” quilt. Most studies of African-American quilting or what Cuesta Benberry refers to as “ethnic quilting,” have been based on quilts and quilters with strong ties to Southern, rural communities, the areas of the country where the majority of the African slave populations originally existed and where their descendants still live. It is not surprising then, that so many quilts containing the characteristics of African textiles are found in this region. The Michigan data included “typical African-American” quilts, generally made by women who had been born and raised in the South and who migrated north and/or who kept in close contact with relatives who lived in the South. However, research also documented quilts reflecting many other traditions rooted in a variety of other experiences, including urban, Northern, multi-ethnic, occupational, and African. Thus the collection does not reflect a “typical African-American” quilt type, but a diversity of styles, pattern names, techniques, and uses found within the Michigan African-American experience.
Take a moment to come in and browse the Fiber Art Collective’s Lois Ericson Design and Inspiration Resource Library https://fiberartscollective.com/resources/ and check out this book as well as the many other unique and informative books residing there.