Part II: Crafting Freedom by Ra Malika Imhotep
What if I told you there was a thread, unspooling itself across time and space, between 19th Century slavery abolitionists like Anna Murray Douglass and Sojourner Truth and the work of modern scholars, activists and artists working to abolish the prison industrial complex? While the political linkages may be obvious and the social, economic and environmental stakes of both struggles have been laid out by previous blog posts in this series, I am talking about a literal thread -- the material of 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 work that took place in the cloth house. The Homespun Movement is largely attributed to Anglo-American women who performed their patriotism during the American Revolution (1775 -1783) by refusing imported British materials and clothing by returning to traditional methods of weaving and spinning their own textiles. What gets cut from this story and is subsequently hard to research, is the way the labor of the enslaved enabled this valorization of domestic goods. What I do know is that some enslaved Black people, often described as elderly, disabled and otherwise unfit for agricultural work, were conscripted to the industrial labors of spinning cotton, weaving cloth and making clothes.
One notable formerly enslaved proto-Black feminist abolitionist who worked fibers and cloth is Sojourner Truth. Born around 1790 in Ulster County of New York State (known for its wool production), Truth is said to have been forcefully employed to spin wool at the age of 13 after being purchased by John J Dumont of New Paltz. Dumont promised Truth her freedom in accordance with New York State legislation that sought to abolish slavery in the state on July 4 of 1827, but ultimately reneged on his promise. In response to this betrayal, the record shows that Truth committed to work for Dumont through the summer of 1826 while plotting her own self-manumission. She made up her mind to fulfill her duties by spinning about a hundred pounds of wool into homespun yarn. Historian Nell Painter speculates this would have likely taken her around 6 months to accomplish. After emancipating herself and her infant daughter, Truth went on to establish herself as an abolitionist speaker and religious prophet duty-bound to the work of Black liberation in New York City and beyond.
While we most often speak her name in reference to the contested declaration “Ain’t I a Woman?,” her abolitionist cultural production was not limited to the things she said (which were often recorded and circulated by white abolitionists). In fact, Truth produced changemaking material across a broad range of mediums. In 1843, it is said that she relocated to Florence, Massachusetts to partake in a utopian freedom experiment called The Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NEI). There, she conspired and collaborated with a community of abolitionists that were “dedicated to racial, gender and economic equality and was organized around a communally operated silk factory.” This silk mill employed and housed formerly enslaved Black people who were labeled as fugitive by the law. It furthered the work of abolition by offering them education in tandem with trade and craft skills. A combination of investments that Truth described as affording her an irrevocable “largeness of spirit.”
Inspired and supported by her work with the NEI, Truth went on to become a popular anti-slavery speaker during the time just before and throughout the Civil War. As she traveled she would sell “carte de visites” (imagine a cross between a business card and a postcard) which featured staged photos of her and often the text “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Truth was remarkably intentional about the ways she represented herself. In the digital reproductions of these photographs she appears as a dignified elder stateswoman, flocked by objects that signify the importance of her faith, her wizened femininity and domestic prowess. In nearly every photo I’ve seen, there are knitting needles either in her hands or nearby and a single thread of yarn unspooled—laying slack across her lap.
Most popular conversations about the craft traditions of enslaved and newly emancipated Black people center the textile genius of quilting. Collapsing the distinctions between decorative and utilitarian design, Black quilters like the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and Rosie Lee Tompkins of rural Arkansas, crafted masterful designs out of the materials of everyday life (often making use of homespun cloth!). During the Black History Month lessons of my childhood, I vividly recall being taught about the freedom messages and symbols encoded in quilts that hung on the walls and in the windows of abolitionists. Within Southern Black communities, Black women performed the labor of highly skilled domestic engineers. They were mothers, midwives, daughters, fieldhands, textile workers and freedom builders. From enslavement on into freedom they did the work that not only enabled the most basic elements of survival (food, clothing, shelter), but also gave life its color and beauty. This too holds true for the cultural workers of today’s movements towards Black liberation.
For instance, in 2014 two St. Louis based protestors active in the community response to the state-sanctioned murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri started “The Yarn Mission”-- a pro-black, pro-rebellions, pro-community collective that knits for Black Liberation. Profiled by The Guardian in 2015, The Yarn Mission describes the radical power of knitting as an act that not only changes the popular perception of protest and brings people together to have urgent conversations but also physically and somatically helps to relieve stress. Allowing themselves as black knitters to take up public space within a racially stratified landscape, the two founders of the Yarn Mission—Taylor Payne and CheyOnna Sewell—move in a long tradition of what I term Black feminist freedom crafting.
In the realm of contemporary fine art, designer and cultural activist Xenobia Bailey grabs this thread with the hook of a crochet needle using her craft skills to design what she calls “FUNKtional tools,” to restore and promote health and well-being in the African American community. During a performative lecture at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center as part of the programming that accompanied Mickalene Thomas’ Femmes Noires exhibition (which was organized by Chipo Kandake for Material Life), Bailey explored a range of her inspirations and radical dreams for a future where Black folks can be well and relish in the beauty of all their things. To my eye, she works yarn to a place far more real than Utopia, and a thousand times more imaginative. As a self-described Supernatualist and trash alchemist, Bailey harnesses and galvanizes the tradition of the African-American Home-Maker in the defiant aesthetic of funk. This, too, is the work of abolition. Daring to see and sweat into an entirely new vision of the world that explicitly rejects and works to counter the proliferation of Black suffering and dis-ease.
In recent months the concepts of “abolition,” “abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex” alongside the demand to “defund the police” have circulated through mainstream media at a frequency many Black activists and organizers may have hoped for but could not have anticipated. As I’ve observed on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, these words and ideas evoke a range of emotional responses -- thrill, pride, anxiety, fear and skepticism, to name a few -- in the minds of the general public.
In a recent interview on DemocracyNow! scholar-activist Angela Davis offered that:
“abolition is not primarily a negative strategy, it is not primarily about dismantling and getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning, building anew...”
In a short clip of the interview, she continues to reiterate what is being said by protestors on the frontlines of the recent Uprisings sweeping across the globe, that the push to “defund the police” must move in tandem with a demand to invest in Black communities and allow the people themselves the space and resources necessary to imagine and build structures of support and safety that do not rely on punishment and violence. I believe this radical work of re-envisioning and building anew is inherently entangled with the thread falling across Sojourner Truth’s lap.
In this view, the needles and yarn held in her hands in those 19th century images are not only tools of craft, but symbols of a liberatory ethic that dares us to actively vision and put our hands to work, designing a new world, stitch-by-stitch.
For Further Reading
Davis, Angela. “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972): 81–100.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South. 2 edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. They Were Her Property. Yale University Press, 2020.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. Revised ed. edition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.