Ethereal Fabric: Exploring Textiles and Black Existence in America

Kara Walker, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something), 2016, Cut paper and acrylic on linen. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers

How do textiles condition Black existence in America? In 2021, Black visual artist Kiyan Williams deep-fried an American Flag—twice. When later asked in 2023 by Them magazine how it felt to fry the American Flag, Williams responded that it wasn’t meant to be “therapeutic,” rather, “it was fun. Let’s call it subversive play.”1 This radically disruptive act of frying a nylon American flag, which previously flew over the U.S. capitol building, reflects the aesthetic power that textiles have in America while simultaneously showcasing how Blackness exists outside of this textile and, perhaps, this nation.

Beyond the obvious political connotations of frying the flag, Williams drew attention to the way this American textile marks the earth. By being made from the textile fabric of nylon, a non-biodegradable synthetic polymer, Williams foregrounds the way this flag is biologically harmful to the ocean, the air, and soil. American textiles have always harmed the earth and the people who live on it. In particular, the capacious capitalist production of cotton during slavery created a country that relied on Black hands to pick an organic matter that kills the earth. Cotton cultivation degrades soil quality by exhausting and extracting soil for its nutrients. The three key fertilizers needed for cotton production, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), are the same nutrients that form soil. The production of cotton textiles harmed both Black bodies and the earth. The violent and complex relationship between earth and textiles in America has its roots in slavery, and many contemporary Black artists showcase this importance. There is a larger discussion to be had on the ecology of textiles in America during slavery, and studying artists who highlight textiles and ecology helps viewers learn this history and challenge the violent dynamics of America. While this focus on the foundation of political ecology through capitalist violence is not new, the visual ubiquity of the aesthetics of violence in early Black narratives and in contemporary Black artwork creates an important understanding of what it means to be human and to drape one’s body.2 Forcibly draping the body in textiles represents an understanding of what it means to be considered a fungible commodity by way of bodily position during the Middle Passage and on American soil. Before the enslaved person touches American soil, and before they are forcefully pushed onto the slave ship, their bodies are measured for wellness—undraped. The undraped body creates this mark of separation between human and nonhuman, and slave narratives utilize the aesthetics of violence to display both the danger of textiles and how we are able and unable to craft narratives with them. Contemporary artist Kara Walker’s work also displays dichotomy of human and nonhuman in her silhouettes that feature textiles in a violent aesthetic manner.

In a literary tradition formed by the reduction of Black lives to fungible objects, textiles, Blackness, and history are all violently intertwined. The interlinked role of textiles and Blackness in aesthetic and commodity traditions in America shapes American literary tradition. The aesthetic commodification of textiles in slave narratives, and contemporary artistic discourse on this commodification, form the central foci of this essay. From Olaudah Equiano to Kara Walker, the function of textiles to Black skin detail the importance of how our perception of Blackness is formed from the violence of textiles.

By beginning this essay with slave narratives, what we find is that Blackness is a uniform. The uniformity of Blackness begins under the violent aesthetic regulation of what textile(s) can and cannot drape the Black body. In early America, the Black body’s communal choice of what could and could not be worn was not given to them. The term “negro clothes” or “slave clothes” highlights the inability or immobility of Black agency through textiles.3 This is where the commodification of Blackness has its roots—in the textiles of the enslaved. This uniformity is also where the un/gendering of Blackness transforms into what Hortense Spillers calls “captive [flesh].”4 Black textiles demonstrate the need for cultural collective worldmaking while having their communal aesthetic negated to the individuation of fungible commodities. Because the Black body was responsible for creating textiles, by picking cotton, while also being restricted to what they can and cannot wear, the extraction of cotton and the extraction of the Black body form a tragic visual triangulation of commodity, violence, and aesthetic. Black hands pick cotton for whiteness, Black bodies get defiled by whiteness, and Blackness becomes draped by whiteness. Our contemporary understanding of the importance of the aesthetics of textiles during slavery lies in the fact that slave clothing looked different from those who possessed freedom—which is true. However, what should be closely examined is the distinction between slave monochromatic cotton textiles and what we might call polychromatic textiles of freedom. Aesthetic constructions of Black textiles in slave narratives are extensive and deserve further notice. When we study textiles, we find cotton, and if Blackness and cotton are thought of together then they both live everywhere all at once.

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1790 edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, featuring Equiano’s portrait, public domain.

The politics of apparel are unique to Blackness, in that, it is Blackness that was forced to wear textiles in opposition to white bodies. The act of dressing up involves one staring at oneself to create a certain narrative: to see yourself reflected on yourself is a cultural desire that is ubiquitous in the market of textiles and fashion. Whiteness can stare at whiteness, and whiteness can stare at Blackness, but Blackness cannot stare back. This reality is shown in detail with slave narratives, where whiteness can control the mode of expression of and for Black bodies. Olaudah Equiano begins discussing textiles early in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, 1789. Equiano writes:

As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of calico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body, somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue, which is our favorite color. It is extracted from a berry, and is brighter and richer than any I have seen in Europe. Besides this, our women of distinction wear golden ornaments; which they dispose with some profusion on their arms and legs. When our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton.5

As we see from Equiano’s attention to textiles, the act of spinning and weaving were known to Africans, so much so that Equiano recalls his younger self marveling at the older Black Africans who would weave and create these luxuries. These luxuries of textiles are noted many times throughout Equiano’s narrative, and in each mention of them, he thinks of them as functioning under the same lens of autonomy: Equiano’s idea of freedom begins in textiles. Equiano’s “nation,” his village, in what is now southern Nigeria, enjoyed these textile traditions. Equiano’s clear attention to textiles must be noted in his precision for accuracy and his detailed polychromatic aesthetic remembering regarding the naming of the specific types of cotton Africans wore in his village. Equiano presents both sexes as being draped in the same types of cotton: calico, muslin, and highland plaid. The sameness of this fabric concerning sexes must be understood differently from the sameness of the monochromatic textiles the enslaved were forced to drape themselves in, which details a process of gendering and un/gendering of Blackness. The implementation of color and brightness in this description of textiles is important because it is a tradition that will later be implemented with the enslaved Black bodies on slave plantations. The Black bodies’ position to textiles will also later change—from that of “spinning and weaving cotton” to the picking and laboring of it, and the Black bodies will no longer have access to what they can and cannot wear.

Kara Walker’s artwork combats that same polychromatic visual memory of Equiano’s narrative by way of a Black body now draped by whiteness. American slavery created a vision of Blackness that must be draped in the bare minimum to refrain from any human expression. Bare minimum here refers both to a lack of clothes and a lack of expression with clothes. Her 2017 Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something) violently presents the Black body as under assault from whiteness. Though this work is made from cut-out silhouettes, the attention to textiles in this work, and in Walker’s work more broadly, is profoundly specific and explicit. We know who is Black and who is white through the texture of the draped or undraped bodies in Walker’s artworks. Though Walker’s goal is to reduce the bodies “to the same thing,” there is a certain lavish quality that exists in the white-draped figures.6 This lavishness reflects the question of being by way of the attention to who possess access to their textiles and to their body.

While in Slaughter of the Innocents, the violence from whiteness against the Black undraped body is countered with Walker’s undraped erotic Black subject positions, several slave narratives have called attention to this notion of the undraped Black body and the poor quality of clothes, which creates the question as to how you resist the forced draping of the Black body. John Brown’s 1855 narrative Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England notes how the clothes of the enslaved were “made of the lowest quality of material, and get torn in the bush, so that the garments soon become useless, even for the purposes of the barest decency.”7 This clothing, or lack thereof, given to the enslaved was purposely designed to restrict Black individuality and autonomy by restricting the expression of textiles, which is the entryway into the expression of self. By giving the enslaved the “lowest quality of material,” slave owners enforced their idea that Blackness is separable from being. It is no coincidence many enslaved people would envision their freedom through the expression of textiles. Contemporary artists, like Kara Walker, experiment with the expression of textiles to also envision freedom through violence. In other words, the triangulation between violence, Blackness, and textiles happens simultaneously and each exist alongside the other.

For Equiano, the attention to textiles not only begins his autobiography but it also begins his vision for freedom. As Equiano thinks of his freedom from slavery, he explains that he will take “eight pounds of money for a suit of superfine clothes to dance in at [his] freedom.”8 The dichotomy between Walker’s freedom through the undraped body and Equiano’s freedom through the lavishly draped Black body both suggest the same radical denial of slave textiles. Equiano details the importance of textiles as a marker of identity and being. As Equiano discusses the Siege of Louisbourg, he accentuates the ways the admirals were draped when they boarded the ship:

When the ships were in the harbour we had the most beautiful procession on the water I ever saw. All the admirals and captains of the men of war, full dressed, and in their barges… some time after this the French governor and his lady, and other persons of note, came on board our ship to dine. On this occasion our ships were dressed with colours of all kinds… and this, with the firing of guns, formed a most grand and magnificent spectacle. (Equiano 1789, 92 and 93)

The resonance of Equiano’s attention to water usually presents itself as a form of violence that is attenuated to death, which is to say that water is always violent to him. In this moment of beauty for Equiano, however, the water presents itself as a vessel where white bodies present their glamour through the polychromatic draping of their bodies. Equiano’s attention to their textiles, particularly the distinct color of their textiles, forces him to compare his situation of being to theirs. Though the admirals Equiano refers to are English and French admirals, not American, the relationship between cotton or textiles and Blackness remains the same, especially because Britain was the greatest consumer of cotton from America. This aesthetic of violence, both through the act of them being in war and through the act of white bodies being free to drape themselves, presents textiles as social distinctions between Blackness and freedom.

This “magnificence spectacle” is only grand, then, insofar that it is inaccessible to Equiano. This inaccessibility to textiles is shown in numerous slave narratives. While I do not wish to trace Black textiles in slave narratives through a numerical approach, the fact that this connection between the enslaved and textiles can be traced in numerous slave narratives is still important to examine. Why do the enslaved discuss, in detail, what it means to drape their own body? Helen Bradley Foster’s chapter “Constructing Cloth and Clothing in the Antebellum South,” from New Raiments of Self (1997), does this analytical tracing of Black textiles in numerous slave narratives and journals. Foster finds that enslaved Black bodies found textiles important both when dressing themselves and when it came to the master dressing. Draping the Black body was not simply the master’s decision on what the slaves could and could not wear, rather, draping the Black body was law. The Negro Act of 1735 was a law created to control what Black slaves could and could not wear. This act specifically states that authorized individuals, or white people, had the right to seize goods if they were to “find any such Negro slave having or wearing any sort of garment or apparel whatsoever, finer, or of greater value than Negro cloth, blue, linen, check linen, checked cottons, or scotched plaids.”9

An example of these monochromatic slave textiles. This is a cotton petticoat worn by an enslaved seamstress in South Carolina.10

Before Equiano witnesses this Siege of Louisbourg, he briefly mentions his time in Virginia. Equiano’s understanding of textiles, and his admiration for the colors of the admirals’ textiles, stems from his understanding of Black American textiles as existing outside of this law. Though Equiano gives little to no description of textiles during his time in Virginia, we know from other slave narratives the importance of textiles, specifically cotton, and their relation to Blackness, especially in Virginia.11

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In the early nineteenth century, John Brown, an enslaved man known as “Fed,” lived on Betty Moore’s plantation in Virginia. In his 1855 memoir Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, Brown recalls that it was customary for slave children of both sexes to “grow up quite naked, until they are ten to twelve years old.”12 These Black children only put on shirts when they were in the presence of their mistress or went up to the “great house.”13 The hesitation for the enslaved to drape their Black body was due to the textiles they had to wear. These textiles were often made from plain cotton in solid monochromatic colors, usually the color of natural unbleached, white, brown, or blue. The textiles of the enslaved were often so uncomfortable that being naked was preferred by slave children.14 As Walter Johnson notes, from a young age, these children “learned to view their own bodies through two different lenses, one belonging to their masters, the other belonging to themselves.”15 This double body is shaped through double bodily display in textiles. The ubiquitous violent portrayal of textiles, or lack thereof, intertwined with Blackness marks the connection between freedom and unfreedom. These enslaved bodies were given textiles that were guaranteed to cause skin irritation. The pervasiveness of this irritation was felt by all slaves: this pervasive whiteness had such a hold on draping the Black body that it ceased to exist even in the domestic spaces of Blackness. These slave narratives produce violence through aesthetic means to show the normalization of violence against Black beings.

Black bodies were not only aware of their depictions of textiles but of the violence of what it means to not have access to your own body. That is to say, the aesthetic clothing of slaves shaped the communicative movements of slaves between Blackness and whiteness. Though Black hands picked this cotton that was to become an aesthetic beauty, the beauty of textiles symbolizes the violence of slavery for Black beings. This Black aesthetic violence begins in the textiles and begins with blood dripping onto the cotton that Black bodies produced so that white bodies could consume. Still, the enslaved created a Black aesthetic through the radical designing of the textile they were given. These Black aesthetic textiles are the first instance of not only Black autonomy and solidarity but a certain collectiveness that expressed resistance to slavery and racism itself. During the late eighteenth century onward, the enslaved began to work more with the home manufacturing of cloth. The enslaved would weave in colors, patterns, and different types of fabric into their textiles. Because they were forced to wear unbleached or solid-colored fabric, this gave the enslaved a canvas to create a wide variety of different textiles. These creations of textiles can be traced back to some slave narratives.16 A former enslaved woman, Sarah Waggoner, recalls her radical resistance to slave textiles when stating that she took a plain white dress and “went out in de woods and got walnut bark to color it brown.”17

For the enslaved, they still managed to create their own Blackness and Black beauty through Black textiles despite the thought of the slave market thrusted at them. When we talk about the politics of the slave market, or politics of slavery, textiles are not at the forefront of discussion, but conversations on the politics of slavery cannot exist without a discussion of slave fashion. There exists this triangulation happening for slavery concerning space, the enslaved, and fashion. While the slave owner used fashion to equate the dehumanizing transformation of Black draped bodies into chattel, the enslaved recognized the power of textiles as resistance. Sarah Waggoner’s significant resistance to slave textiles by rubbing the white out with the usage of earth showcases the radical resistance to commodification and whiteness through earthly matters. If textiles stem from these same earthly matters, the attention that contemporary artists, like Williams and Walker, give to textiles and Blackness creates an important discussion on how Blackness resists through the aesthetics of violence. Walker’s work is not intended to create a spectacle of violence as this risks the danger of mitigating the physically real violence that is unbounded against the Black body. Rather, we are witnesses to this violence and the resistance of being through her usage of textiles. Because the enslaved deal with textiles derived from the soil, a very violent process of agricultural creation and destruction, the way Black bodies are draped is crucial when reading the power of textiles in slave narratives and contemporary art.

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  1. Wren Sanders. “Inside Kiyan Williams’ Earthen Odes to Ancestral Power.” Them Magazine 2023.
  2. Karl Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift, or the alienation of ecology from human beings because of capitalism, hints at the issue of capitalist violence through the hegemonic control of nature. From Brett Clark, et.al. “Metabolic Rifts and the Ecological Crisis,” The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx 2018, 652.
  3. Seth Rockman. “Negro Cloth: Mastering the Market for Slave Clothing in Antebellum America.” American Capitalism: New Histories. Columbia University Press, 2018, 170.
  4. Hortense Spillers. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, 67.
  5. From Chapter I of Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, 1789.
  6. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, “Censorship and Reception,” in Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004) 117.
  7. John Brown Slave life in Georgia: a narrative of the life, sufferings, and escape of John Brown, a fugitive slave, now in England, 1855, 5.
  8. From Chapter VII of Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, 1789.
  9. Ruthann Robson. “Beyond Sumptuary: Constitutionalism, Clothes, and Bodies in Anglo-American Law, 1215-1789,” Brit. J. Am. Legal Stud. 2 (2013): 499.
  10. Created by Unidentified Woman or Women, owned by Old Slave Mart Museum, American, founded 1937. Petticoat attributed to an enslaved seamstress known as Old Aunt Sarah. ca. 1840. Artstor, public domain.
  11. Interestingly and often disregarded, is the fact that the Black enslaved bodies were the sole reason why the Scottish Osnaburg fabric sales soared from “0.5 million yards” to “2.2 million yards” as noted in Michael Andrew Žmolek’s “Capital and Industry” (Žmolek 2013, 468). Black bodies created wealth not just in America but worldwide.
  12. John Brown. Slave Life in Georgia, a Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England. Making of the Modern World, W. M. Watts, 1855, 4.
  13. Ibid.
  14. As noted in Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery when he recalls the “tortures” of the enslaved textiles. Up from Slavery. Oxford University Press, 2000, online.
  15. Walter Johnson. Soul by Soul Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Harvard University Press, 1999, 21.
  16. It can also be tragically traced back to runaway slave advertisements, which would always specifically state what the enslaved person was last wearing, and the clothes they took with them.
  17. Helen Bradley Foster. New Raiments of Self: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. Berg, 1997, 111.