What if I told you that there is a thread between 19th century slavery abolitionists that is loosening across time and space? Anna Murray Douglass and Sojourner Truth and the work of modern scholars, activists and artists working to abolish the prison’s industrial complex? While the political connections may be obvious and the social, economic, and environmental aspects of both struggles have been set out in previous blog posts in this series, I am speaking of a literal thread – the material of the craft.
Although the dominant representation of the relationship between enslaved Africans and cotton is the agricultural labor of the field, there was a subset of cotton labor that took place in the cloth house. The Homespun movement is largely attributed to Anglo-American women who exercised their patriotism during the American Revolution (1775-1783) by rejecting imported British materials and clothing by returning to traditional methods of weaving and spinning their own textiles. What is cut out of this story, and subsequently difficult to research, is the way in which the work of the enslaved made this appreciation of housewares possible. What I do know is that some enslaved blacks, often described as elderly, disabled, and otherwise unsuitable for agricultural work, have been forced into the industrial jobs of spinning cotton, weaving fabrics, and making clothes.
One notable formerly enslaved proto-black feminist abolitionist who worked fiber and cloth is Sojourner Truth. Truth was born in Ulster County, New York (known for its wool production) around 1790 and is believed to have been forcibly used to spin wool at the age of 13 after it was purchased by John J. Dumont of New Paltz. Dumont promised Truth her freedom under New York State law that sought to end slavery in the state on July 4, 1827, but ultimately failed to keep his promise. In response to this betrayal, the record shows that Truth pledged to work for Dumont through the summer of 1826 while planning her own self-manumission. She made up her mind to do her duty by spinning about a hundred pounds of wool into self-spun yarn. Historian Nell Painter speculates that it probably took her 6 months to do this. After emancipating herself and her young daughter, Truth established herself as an abolitionist public speaker and religious prophet dedicated to the work of black liberation in New York City and beyond.
While we speak her name most often in relation to the controversial declaration, “Am I not a woman?”, Her abolitionist cultural production was not limited to the things she said (which were often recorded and disseminated by white abolitionists). In fact, Truth produced alteration material for a wide range of media. In 1843, she is believed to have moved to Florence, Massachusetts, to participate in a utopian freedom experiment called The Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NEI). There she conspired and worked with a community of abolitionists who “was dedicated to the equality of race, gender and economy and was organized around a community-run silk factory. “This silk mill employed and housed formerly enslaved blacks who were classified as fugitive by law. It promoted the abolition work by offering them education related to manual and manual skills. A combination of investments that Truth called the irrevocable “greatness of mind”.
Inspired and supported by her work with the NEI, Truth became a popular anti-slavery spokesperson in the period just before and during the Civil War. On her trip she sold “Carte de Visites” (imagine a cross between a business card and a postcard) which contained staged photos of her and often the text “I am selling the shade to support the substance”. The truth was remarkably intentional as it presented itself. In the digital reproductions of these photographs, she appears as a worthy elderly stateswoman populated by objects that mark the importance of her belief, her weakened femininity, and her domestic skills. In almost every photo I’ve seen, knitting needles are either in her hands or nearby, and a single thread of yarn is unwound and limp on her lap.
The most popular conversations about the craft traditions of enslaved and newly emancipated black people focus on the textile genius of quilting. Black quilters like the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and Rosie Lee Tompkins from rural Arkansas have broken the distinction between decorative and functional design and crafted masterful designs from everyday materials (often using homemade fabric!). During my childhood Black History Month class, I vividly remember being taught about the messages of freedom and symbols encoded in quilts on the walls and in the windows of abolitionists. In the southern black communities, black women did the work of highly qualified house engineers. They were mothers, midwives, daughters, field workers, textile workers and freedom farmers. From enslavement to freedom, they have done the work that not only enabled the most basic elements of survival (food, clothing, shelter), but also gave life its color and beauty. This also applies to the cultural workers of today’s movements for the liberation of blacks.
For example, in 2014, two St. Louis-based protesters began in Missouri who were active in the community’s response to the state-sanctioned murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson “The Yarn Mission” – a pro-black, pro-rebellion, pro-community collective committed to the liberation of blacks. Introduced by The Guardian in 2015, The Yarn Mission describes the radical power of knitting as an act that not only changes people’s perceptions of protest and brings people together for urgent discussions, but also helps relieve stress physically and somatically. The two founders of the Garnmission – Taylor Payne and CheyOnna Sewell – allow themselves as black knitters to occupy the public space in a racially stratified landscape and lead a long tradition of what I call Black feminist freedom craft.
In the field of contemporary visual arts, designer and cultural activist Xenobia Bailey picks up this thread with the hook of a crochet hook and uses her manual skills to create what she calls “FUNCTIONAL tools” to restore and promote health and well-being in America Community. During a performative lecture at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center as part of the program that accompanied Mickalene Thomas’ Femmes Noires Exhibition (which was organized by Chipo Kandake for Material life) Bailey explored a number of her inspirations and radical dreams for a future where blacks can be healthy and enjoy the beauty of all things they do. For me, she works yarn in a place that is much more real than Utopia and a thousand times more imaginative. As described by myself Supernatualist and Garbage alchemistBailey uses and galvanizes the tradition of the Afro-American handyman in the defiant aesthetic of funk. This too is the work of abolition. The risk of seeing and sweating a whole new vision of the world that expressly opposes and combats the spread of the suffering and disease of blacks.
In recent months, the concepts of “abolition”, “abolishing the prison industrial complex” and calling for “defusing the police” have spread in the mainstream media with a frequency that many black activists and organizers have hoped for but which they could not have foreseen. As I have observed on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, these words and ideas evoke a range of emotional responses in public – thrill, pride, fear, fear, and skepticism, to name a few.
In a recent interview on DemocracyNow! offered the scientist and activist Angela Davis The:
“Abolition is not primarily a negative strategy, it is not primarily a question of dismantling and getting rid of, but rather of re-imagining yourself, of building anew …”
In a short clip of the interview, she continues to reiterate what protesters on the front lines of recent riots around the world say that the urge to “defuse” the police must go hand-in-hand with a demand to invest in black communities and give to the people even the space and resources necessary to envision and build support and security structures that are not based on punishment and violence. I believe this radical work of re-imagining and rebuilding is inherently entwined with the thread that falls on Sojourner Truth’s lap.
From this point of view, the needles and threads that are held in their hands in these 19th century images are not just tools of the craft, but symbols of a liberation ethic that dares us to actively see and to bring our hands to work, to design a new world, to sew. Secondary stitch.
For further reading
Davis, Angela. “Reflections on the Role of Black Women in the Slave Community.” The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972): 81-100.
Roast, Gladys-Marie. Sewn from the soul: slave quilts from the south of Antebellum. 2 edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. They were their property. Yale University Press, 2020.
Painter Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: One Life, One Symbol. Revised edition. Edition. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company, 1997.
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