Photo courtesy of Lawrence Jackson. Available  here  

Photo courtesy of Lawrence Jackson. Available here 

Two weekends back I was in Washington D.C. for a White House tour and to see the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was bittersweet to visit the White House right before our nation’s first African American president and his family moved out at the end of two historic terms. Visiting the White House – one formidable seat of our nations power- and then visiting a museum that profoundly and painstakingly lays out the history of Black Americans was a deeply moving experience. (Full disclosure – I am a slow and meticulous reader and only got through the bottom floor of the Museum – 1500’s to pre-civil war before we had to return to North Carolina.)  But even this small fraction of the museum was mind-altering.
At the museum, I felt the need to read every little bit of information because–in general–our public school systems acts like African American history beyond Martin Luther King and a brief bit about “the slave trade” is not a relevant part of our shared history – to say nothing of the historical contributions of women and minorities (if you stopped reading and studying after 12th grade, you could be left with the impression that only a handful of women existed in U.S. history). In the end, despite the heaviness and pain I felt for all the suffering that was inflicted on our African American brothers and sisters, I found myself extremely excited for the day when there will be a History Museum of American Women, Latino Americans and Native Americans that does similar justice to their histories. 

Photo from the Washington Post/Getty images of the African American History and Culture Museum

Photo from the Washington Post/Getty images of the African American History and Culture Museum

There is no way to do any piece of the information I learned at the Museum justice here; you must go and see it for yourself. But I will share something I took away from the visit that feels very important. It is vital right now, maybe more than ever, to be truthful about history in all its ugliness, beauty, glory and shame. In spite of the deep pain I felt knowing that men and women were terrorized into picking cotton for 12-15hr days with only 2/3 of their required calories or that slave owner literally planned on working people to death rather than making any effort to preserve life – there was some part of me that felt more whole knowing the truth. This is our shared history and it has always been there. Pushing away and shutting out this history also shuts out a part of ourselves. We cannot move forward without really examining where we’ve been, acknowledging it and understanding how it happened. The dominant culture – “white” men and woman became so greedy for the finer things in life – sugar, fancy textiles, alcohol, tobacco, etc. that they carried out or were party to serious atrocities toward their fellow human being. 

And there can be no doubt that things are better today. But we also still have a very long way to go. I have been probing parts of my daily life since this visit, wondering about where I am over-consuming and potentially hurting someone in a far off place as a result of my choices.  

Plantation scene of laborers picking cotton in Florida. 18--. Black & white photo print, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Available  here  

Plantation scene of laborers picking cotton in Florida. 18–. Black & white photo print, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Available here 

What is the relevance of all this for apparel, you might be wondering? The history of textiles in this country is the history of cotton. And the history of cotton is very, very dark. And I don’t believe in papering over that dark history and talking about the glory of textiles. And I don’t think it is necessary to. We have come from a dark past with regards to the way we treated the people upon which our financial system is built. We overworked people in inhumane conditions to fuel a greedy appetite for making money and consuming. When we acknowledge this we can turn ourselves toward a better way of doing things. And this is not to say that you should return your Christmas gifts and wear burlap sack dresses and eat beans. It is just to say that there is a better way. Value craftspeople. Value where things come from and how they are made. Try not to buy anything made by people who are making a few dollars a day while their bosses several continents over make giant bonuses and eat mountains of sushi. (I haven’t figured out a way around buying the laptop I am currently using, but one thing at a time.)
Help me reject the notion that a healthy economy means over-consuming crap made by a system that takes advantage of the poor to benefit a rich few. It may take us a while to adjust to paying a bit more for our purchases, to bring back to the U.S. the infrastructure that can support local jobs and economies, but we can’t head that direction until we acknowledge where we’ve been, where we are and where we can go.
Thank you very much for your support.
P.S. – Please note that orders for the Riding Denim placed after Saturday, December 16thwill not be shipped until January 2nd. Thank you!

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