Tag Archives: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Just today’s thoughts about indigo and slavery and being an American


Eliza Lucas Pinckney brooch, Charleston Museum

There are no known images of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, but here is a picture of a piece of her jewelry. It gives you a sense of the elite, wealthy class that she occupied. To put another way — this jewel-encrusted brooch gives you a sense of what slave labor could buy. So great was the hunger for the wealth produced by a bonded population in Charleston in the 1740’s, the slave traders could barely keep up with demand (they got rich, too, by the way).  In those days, as rice cultivation was in full sway and markets remained relatively favorable, Carolina was known for as a place of  ‘easy wealth’ — which is a little like Thomas Jefferson asserting that the harder he worked, the luckier he got!


photo of photo from Charleston Museum of Charleston Harbor

Yesterday, I came across a fantastic web page about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, located on the Clemson University website.  There is a picture of one of her descendants and one of her garments. The page focuses on indigo, the African contribution to the science and success of the commodity, and includes details about a few of ELP’s bondsmen that I had yet to come across.

Two of my readers recommended Patricia Klindienst’s “The Earth Knows My Name.  Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans.”  It looks fascinating, and I know from what reader Jacqui Holmes shared with me in an email yesterday, that it includes some specifics about Eliza’s experiences with indigo (none of which was news to me, however).
The other book that recently came to my attention is Andrea Feeser’s “Red, White, and Black Make Blue. Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life.”* I’ve just ordered it.

*    *    *

On another note, I did a quick run to Salem this morning. It was a good visit and traffic was a breeze driving back, but I always come home a little spent. I really ought to walk away from the screen, drink water, and sew in front of a fan for a while, but first: a mini-rant.

My sister tried to convince me that Irish immigrants had it just as bad as African slaves. (This comes up with obnoxious frequency in various online forums, too).

No, no, and No! I answered back.

My ancestors were reviled, yes, faced prejudice and economic hardship, yes… and what the English did to the Irish during the potato famine but some accounts constituted genocide. But there are so many, many differences.

Even, knowing, as I do, how terribly the Irish were treated in the mid-eighteenth century (in many cases, by the way, by the same landowners who were abusing and exploiting their bond men and women), even having read letters by Southern mistresses asserting that they’d prefer ‘a lazy Negro to a slovenly Irish girl, any day of the week’, even having read how sometimes Southern landowners employed the Irish for brutally exhausting labors specifically to avoid working AN ASSET (i.e. an African American bondsman) to death, even learning, as I did yesterday, that Catholicism was outlawed in the colony in this period.

Not the same at all.  All one has to do is go 100 years forward to recognize how race carries a stigma unknown by any white-skinned immigrant groups.

Again (again!), I named the recent Atlantic magazine article, “The Case for Reparations” (by Ta-Nehisi Coates)  (I am thinking of making my boys’ second term tuitions contingent on reading this article).  You could not possibly digest that article and believe for a second that blacks and certain white immigrant groups got the same kind or degree of raw deals.

And speaking of being descended from Irish immigrants, two of whom were not here during the 250 years of slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates specifically condemns taking the view that because our particular ancestors were not here during the ignominious slave years of American history, we are somehow exempt.  We are not exempt.  Half my family tree was probably near-to starving in County Cork in the antebellum years.  I am not exempt.  And even though my paternal great-grandfather fought for the Union, I am not exempt (or is it great-great?).

As a white American, how could I be exempt?

(I just ordered Coates’s memoir — big time spender here. ANOTHER reason to walk away from the screen).



* Book cover image used with permission of Clemson University

Blood and Indigo — the great reveal

photo of photo in the Charleston Museum

photo of photo in the Charleston Museum

“Blood and Indigo” — that’s my working title for a novel about slavery and planters taking place in the mid-eighteenth century in South Carolina.  I wasn’t planning to be so open about the project just yet (though I am now more than two years into it), but there is an indigo workshop being held in September just outside of Charleston and I’ve launched a kickstarter campaign to try and garner the cost of the class and a rental car (I have miles).

IMG_2461It would be so perfect!  I traveled to Charleston this past April, as some of you know, but was only there for a short while — I took tons of pictures and did two plantation tours and visited the Chalmers Street former slave auction site and spent two afternoons in the Charleston Museum,  but this would be fabulous — I’d get to see the area in the fall (and take tons more pictures) and the indigo!!  Well, check out Sea Island Indigo!!

IMG_2454It all started with a book by India Flint called “Eco Colour”.  In it, she devotes a page to the colonial settler, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and her work with indigo.  Next came Eliza’s letters.  Once I started asking myself, ‘what were the lives of her slaves like?’, I was off and running.

from my indigo vat, 2012

from my indigo vat, 2012

For more than two years now, I have been writing, writing, writing, and researching, researching, researching (there’s an example of great writing right there!). I have learned so much about American history that I feel like a different person than when I started out.  Reading history about the enslaved changes you. Details about the slave trade, the slave codes, the brutality, the labor practices, the attempts at rebellion, the words used by the elite to describe “their” African Americans — all change you. The most recent and best thing I have read about racism (I cannot recommend this article enough) was published in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and it’s called “The Case for Reparations”.  Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it is hard-hitting, incredibly full of examples of ongoing harm, and it will make you shake your head in sadness and wonder at what we are — we Americans, this America.

An African American crafter, as part of the weekend, will be teaching participants rag quilting and talking about Gullah culture.  I cannot say how perfect this event feels as a boost for my writing project!

paper piece revealing what must be the name of one of Eliza's sons

paper piece revealing what must be the name of one of Eliza’s sons, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Even if a donation does not make sense for you at this time, please share my excitement for this work!  And now that the cat is out of the bag, I will feel freer to discuss what I am learning here on the blog, and hope you will gladly come along for the ride.