For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.
By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.
Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.
A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.
Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens. Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.
With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts. Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.
Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.
Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad. And even David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,”purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.
For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.