Photo Source: Madagascan Woman
Recently, I worked on a project called “The Will to Adorn: Philadelphia Stories of Beauty and Adornment” at the Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP). It featured a screening of the award-winning documentary “Hair Stories,” (1998) by West Philadelphia filmmaker, master braider and hair sculptor, Yvette Smalls, storytelling by members of Keepers of the Culture (KOTC), Philadelphia’s Afrocentric storytelling group, and story-sharing from attendees. ”The Will to Adorn” occurred in conjunction with an effort by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a national multi-year initiative exploring how African American identities are communicated through cultural aesthetics, arts of the body, dress, and adornment.
The program at PFP looked in-depth at how people use adornment, hair, dress, style, etc. as means of self expression and community affirmation. Narrator, C Frink-Reed, KOTC’s historian and folklorist, gave an eloquent and moving tribute to master braider, Yvette Smalls. After the screening of “Hair Stories,” storyteller TAHIRA took us down memory lane, recalling the days when we sat between our Grandmothers’ knees to get our scalps ‘scratched and greased.’ Momma Sandi told the beautiful story “Royalty,” portraying Jezebel, not as a loose woman, but as one adorned with regality.
Thirsty Roots offers this abbreviated version of the black hair history timeline from the book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps.
More… Hair History
For my story, I chose to examine adornment as a form of resistance. During my research, I viewed a talk by Virginia Tech History Professor Beverly Bunch-Lyons discussing the methods and strategies black women used to resist slavery. She explains that enslaved women were expected to fashion plain white cotton into standard, identical items of clothing. Defiantly, these women added color, embroidery, and ornamentation to their clothing, headdress, and even their bodies in small acts of resistance.
West African coastal [peoples] used blue coloring extracted from Indigo.
The use of the plant’s blue dye for adornment, religious ritual, and as a symbol of political and social status occurred independently in cultures around the world.
Indigo was also used for eye shadow and as a hair dye in both the Old and New Worlds.
From The Devil’s Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery – Slavery in America, Jean M. West
I then stumbled upon an academic paper by Eliza Layne Martin, Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Indigo in the Atlantic World, detailing life on an indigo plantation as garnered from the diaries and letters of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. According to Martin, Pinckney was born to English parents on the island of Antigua, in the West Indies, in approximately 1722, and relocated to South Carolina in 1738. Pinckney assumed control of the family’s three plantations near the intersection of the Wappoo Creek and the Stono River– modern day Charleston. Eventually, she became “the first to successfully and profitably grow and process indigo in South Carolina.” Conspicuously missing from Pinckney’s Letterbook is any discussion of the labor force necessary to do the back-breaking work of cultivating indigo.
“One hundred thousand slaves, Black or mulatto, work in sugar mills, indigo and cocoa plantations, sacrificing their lives to gratify our newly acquired appetites for sugar, cocoa, coffee, and tobacco—things unknown to our ancestors.”
From this research, I crafted the story “Indigo Chile” a fictional account of a love story between a young woman born or this plantation and the nameless “negro” sent from the Indies for his expertise in cultivating the crop. Here is an excerpt:
My name Indigo chile, dey call me dat cuz of da blue stains on my fingertips.
I’m from da Pinckney plantation ‘tween Wappoo Creek and da Stono River.
I belongs to mistress Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
My momma and daddy come to dis place from Angola.
My man, he masters’ headman, cuz he know da indigo best.
He was sent here by Miss Liza’s daddy, masta Lucas, when he was Lt. Governa’ of Antigua.
Missus say she ‘spects our dresses to all be alike, but I always sew little indigo berries on the hem of my skirts…
From Indigo Chile, by Denise Valentine, Storyteller (2012)
With this story “Indigo Chile,” I try to give voice to the many nameless Africans, and the ways in which they found to resist slavery and to adorn their lives with love and beauty.
- The History of Colors in Textiles III: From Rococo to Revolution (csicolorworld.com)
Atlantic Ocean Trade: Indigo, Slavery, and Revolutions (June 2008) by Kate Long
Inspired by Indigo – Afri-love