Catherine McKinley

May 19, 2011 – Friends and family gathered to celebrate the launch of Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World by Catherine E. McKinley. The event, held at the Young Robertson Gallery, was an exquisite pairing. Indigo focuses on the historic place the dye holds in lore and cultures stemming from Africa. YRG features a variety of artifacts and artwork from various African countries and tribes.

Indigo is the story of this precious dye and its ancient heritage: its relationship to slavery as the “hidden half” of the transatlantic slave trade, its profound influence on fashion, and its spiritual significance, which is little recognized but no less alive today. It is an untold story, brimming with rich, electrifying tales of those who shaped the course of colonial history and a world economy.

On hand to celebrate was Margo Jefferson, Zenobia Bailey, Emily Raboteau, Victor LaValle, and Jacqueline Woodson to name a few. Click here to purchase the book.

Click here for photos from Catherine McKinley’s book party


Blue is one of nature’s rarest colors. Indigo, a dye obtained from the tiny leaves of small parasitic shrubs that are part of the Indigofererearsa tribe, creates the bluest o f blues. For almost five millennia, in every culture and every major religion, indigo has been one of the world’s most valued pigments. No color has been prized so highly or for so long, or been at the center of such turbulent human encounters.

In the ancient trans-Saharan trade, whose peak extended from the eighth until the late sixteenth century, camel-powered desert ships carried indigo, along with African captives, gold, salt, kola, and other sumptuary items like ivory and ostrich feathers, to Mediterranean hubs where African, Arab, Asian, and European markets converged. Throughout the Middle Ages, Italians expanded this commerce across northern Europe, where it was in great demand for textile manufacturing because of its superiority to European world in color, fastness, and fiber compatibility. For art and decorative architecture, indigo was a rare, refulgent, and costly material, used to express, as the contemporary Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi says, the “supraterrestrial . . . the path to the infinite.” This idea was echoed in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish cultures, where it was used to symbolize the ancient caliphate, the royal court, the church and mosque, the canopy of heaven, a holy person’s robes.

Indigo was used as a hair dye and an eye cosmetic in Europe; West African women rubbed it into their hair and skin, painted their bodies with it, and used it for tattooing and to enhance body cicatrization. It was burned as incense to ward off bad spirits. It was used as an antiseptic, a contraceptive, and an abortifacient; a cure for syphilis; and its root was regarded as a powerful sexual stimulant. Bodies were tattooed with it for healing purposes, particularly at the joints as relief from arthritis.

Indigo tinctures are used for eye infections and as salves for wounds. But as much as it was used for mysticism and healing and for beauty, West African women in particular wielded great social, political, and cosmological power as renowned master dyers and traders, and their indigo wealth became cornerstones of ancient empires and twentieth-century anti-colonial movements, shaping the course of history and world economics.

For Europeans in the Middle Ages, indigo, referred to by some as “blue gold,” had great value—and like chocolate and coffee and silks, it caught the imagination of connoisseurs, and merchants and colonialists, who drove a global market in search of the bluest blues. Because of the distance that had to be traveled to obtain the dyestuff , the strange and difficult alchemy necessary for its production, its power to bewitch, and its transcendent beauty, the value and demand for indigo became ungovernable.

It threatened local woad production, sparked bitter trade wars, and touched off impassioned European and North American legislation and political debate. It became known as “The Devil’s Dye.”

After the collapse of indigo profits in the United States, India’s production of indigo in the Rajshahi region was so lucrative that villagers were forced to harvest the plants by means of terror and torture. It was said that no indigo box was dispatched to England without being smeared in human blood, and resistance to that tyranny sparked a two-year peasant revolt that Gandhi joined as his first civil action. The revolt brought a final end to the mass cultivation of indigo in the colonies.

Indigo was a cornerstone of the transatlantic slave trade—one of the hidden commodities, like cotton, sugar, salt, and gold, that fueled European colonial empires and compounded the extraordinary wealth and power of African ones. It grew wild along the southern coast of the United States. In the mid-1700s, Eliza Lucas, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a South Carolina plantation owner who was trained as a botanist, was given indigo seeds and soon discovered that her slaves had skill with indigo cultivation and indigo dye production. Aware that indigo was in great demand in European textile industries, coveted by gentry, soldiers, and workers alike, and that U.S. indigo would be cheaper than imports from Africa and Asia, Lucas convinced other planters to cultivate it. She is credited with introducing a crop more profitable than rice, which, because it had properties to repel the mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever that caused the deaths of slaves—then two thirds of the population of the Carolinas—had inestimably higher returns. By the eve of the American Revolution, when cubes of indigo replaced paper currency, South Carolina planters were exporting 1.1 million pounds of indigo to Europe—nearly 30 million today.

The war would mark the beginning of the weakening of American indigo profits, also hastened by the invention of the cotton gin in 1974. The rapid industrialization of textile manufacturing that followed was spurred by that and earlier inventions like the spinning jenny and flying shuttle, water power, and Watt’s steam engine, and the introduction of nonindigo synthetic blue dyes. Indigo’s great profitability would altogether collapse by 1800, and the European hunger for indigo would turn to India, creating the conditions that led to the 1859 Indigo Revolt.

But indigo was not only the obsession of merchants and politicians and those seeking profit. The peculiar, magical alchemy of the indigo dye pot has dazzled and excited artists and scientists and thinkers alike. Sir Isaac Newton spoke of indigo as “visible yet immaterial,” the color purest in meaning, with the power to negotiate the two spheres of God and man. Goethe’s mention of it in _ e Sorrows of Young Werther incited a fashion craze, making it de rigueur for romantic young men to wear indigo coats over yellow pants in the s. It inspired paintings by Bonnard and Matisse, who were both fascinated with indigo. Matisse famously used West African textiles, in which indigo figured greatly, as backdrops to many of his most significant portraits. And indigo has provided endless inspiration to American jazz and blues and the cultures they inspired.

This is just part of its little-known legacy.

I grew up at a seeming great distance from this history and from the African world, though both would become my obsession.

Raised in Attleboro, Massachusetts, a small factory town close to Providence, Rhode Island, I was a child of the 1960s: part of the post-segregation generation, born to a Jewish mother, the descendant of Russian and British textile factory owners, who was a student when she met my father, an African American and Choctaw Indian who was an artist and interior decorator in Boston. One of fewer than twelve thousand African-American children adopted transracially in the U.S. at the end of the segregation era, I was raised by Wasps in an all-white community. My adoptive parents, a high school history teacher and an engineer, were naturalists.

My earliest memories are of long family treks—by kayak and canoe, on snowshoes and foot—into the wilderness.

My parents seemed to seek extreme locations—places of great physical beauty that were difficult to reach. Plants and nature defined our world and, indeed, took over our house. Independence from others and a life of the mind were ideals.

From an early age, I felt myself in deep conflict with my parents’ desires for wilderness and solitude. Though I shared their love of beauty, I was searching for human connections. I was attracted to material culture, the things we live with, the beauty of the domestic (fashion and textiles), and I longed for people. The Cape Verdean African community in Providence pointed to a tangible connection with Africa, and because we shared the appearance of the métisse—of being mixed race—for the first time my belonging was assumed. Somehow, these desires took root and Africa and design and storytelling became the things that defined me.

I left Attleboro to attend Sarah Lawrence College, where I studied creative writing. By graduation, I was on my way to join an Africana Studies department at an Ivy League university that, at that moment, was home to the most respected historians, philosophers, and writers on Africa and African America. My childhood unwittingly prepared me for what was ahead—my indigo journey.

And by the time I arrived in grad school, and discovered that what African women wore were texts, history, and expressions of social identity—things with weight but also something playful and optimistic—I was freed to take it.

When I was a graduate student, studying postcolonial literature, I was dating a Nigerian professor who was much esteemed, considered by many a genius. His intellectual fi re and political dissidence in Nigeria, at the university where he taught and as a trade union organizer, were legendary. He lived in a large, cold, somewhat remote house in upstate New York in self-exile—a bachelor’s house, bare except for his books and only the most essential furniture. It struck me as the shelter of someone who did not accept the life he had made.

Although it was full of comforts and privileges less tangible than a house and the material life he seemed to eschew, he seemed ashamed of his desire for them. It was the home of someone self-punishing. Its only soulful corner was a wall of his living room, where, high on the otherwise stark wood paneling, hung rare, beautiful indigo cloths, the hand-designed work of Yoruba women of Ibadan, the town where he was raised. J e cloths were luminescent, ranging in intensity of color from powder to blue-black. Watching them was like moving through layers of sky.

I would get lost in those blues. They seemed to absorb the feelings of those who gathered in that house, recasting everyone in a kind of soulful beauty. J e professor would often lie next to me, lost in his work and memories, and I wondered if the power of the cloth was what held me there, coloring his moody caress.

Long after I left school and my relationship with the professor ended, he stopped at my apartment in New York City en route from a visit to Nigeria. I was away and returned to find, at the foot of the bed, a small parcel wrapped in paper from a Lagos shop. As I peeled it away, a strong vegetal, smoky perfume opened my nose. After a few minutes the perfume gave way to an undernote of something urinelike but oddly pleasant. Inside was a cloth with tiny white hand-drawn batik designs—of abstract birds and reptiles and other animals, whose figures appeared more like handwriting—against a blueblack indigo background. J e blue, and the scent, rushed my senses, and I remembered my feelings of pleasure and longing.

The cloth, like many indigo cloths, had a name, Ori mi pe, “My Head Is Correct.” “You know, your ori is your soul, which is believed to reside in the head—your destiny. So this cloth means ‘My destiny is good,’ ” he later told me. “I remember you always liked these things.”

Each time I handled the cloth, it left ghostlike traces of blue on my hands, beautiful against the skin. They felt like a blessing or protection. I had moved to New York the year before hoping to begin a career as a writer, and was trying to make a home there amid the uncertainty and angst of my early twenties. I tried to preserve the stains, as if keeping that blue in my eye and on my hands was essential to preserving my balance, but they quickly faded, proving as elusive as his gesture.

Not long after I received the professor’s gift, I traveled with two friends, a librarian and a painter, to Mali. We’d planned this somewhat impromptu journey over dinner, high from meeting the photographer Seydou Keita at a SoHo gallery party, where his elegant, nearly life-size studio photos of Malian women and men in the 1950s were hung.

It was their first trip and my second; part of a pact to see all of West Africa before we were thirty, an age we’d assigned various vague and inhibiting responsibilities. One day after a long hike into the Bandiagara escarpment in Dogonland, we sat resting on a horse cart at the foot of the cliff s. High above, blanched by the atomic sun’s glare, centuries-old mud dwellings nested in massive rock shelves. I saw something moving in the cliff tracks—a cool, brilliant, snaking band of blue, the color as intense as the literal hum of the 104-degree heat of the Sahel, the frontier to the Sahara.

Soon a group of Dogon women appeared. They wore indigo skirts, inky dark, met at the waists by neon-bright, boldly patterned demi-blouses, and huge, ornate amber and gold jewelry. I was entranced with the riot of colors, the dark tonal drama of brown and black skin mixing with blue.

“They are sorceresses,” our host explained. “You can read their stories on their wrappers. They have come from a women’s gathering. Maybe there has been a birth.” I stared at the tiny white batik designs, like scarification marks, and bright elliptical embroidery on the border of their skirts.

As quickly as the women arrived, they moved wordlessly past us on the trail, the sun again obliterating all but the light from their skirts. I watched the retreating band of blue, and a kind of welcome possession took over as the eruption in my senses filtered into calm.

But later I felt flooded by a strange anxiety at the loss of that beauty, at not being able to read those marks, and at something else unnameable—a nearness to something magical, or divine?—slipping out of my hands.

Learning to read and write is one of my most powerful, even fantastical, childhood memories. As a child, writing seemed to me like wizardry: the making of words, with the exotic dark blue India ink (once made from indigo) that filled the fountain pens we used, seeming like a mystical source of my expression. I loved the print on book pages, newspaper ink, and the dark tattoo of the funny pages—it smelled pungent and rubbed off and stained, as if allowing the stories to live in you. I would chew the corners of the Sunday Times, forming small, hard tablets that I would swallow, associating those dyes with the power to speak and write. J e Dogon women, wearing blue texts and signs, brought that sense of power and beauty back to me.

When those Dogon women parted, I too set off , like the woman of legend, on a path of unnavigated desire, in search of ori and my own blues.

In 1999 I began an overland journey, supported by a Fulbright grant, to search for indigo across nine West African countries, including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, and Senegal.

Indigo has profound spiritual and sartorial significance in most West African societies, and yet it has almost all but disappeared, replaced with less beautiful, synthetic blues and commercial imports, eroding the social and cosmological meaning of the sacred practice of dyeing.

For much of this time I found myself wandering like a somnambulist, looking for something now rare, hidden from the uninitiated, difficult to enter; not always knowing what I was seeking.

I was accustomed to searching; it was as reflexive as my desire for indigo. As an adopted child, I had spent the ten previous years searching for family lost to me, piecing together the histories of several generations of Jewish “rag traders” who dealt in cloths, and descendants of African slaves traded along the same routes as indigo, where a length of blue cloth was a common exchange for human life. J e naturalist parents who raised me were descendants of a clan of Scots who wore woad, or possibly indigo tartan as their virile armor. Their intense connection with the life of plants surely informed my own fascination with those small green African leaves. Indigo was in my blood.

I didn’t fully understand, when I started on this four-year journey, that I was not just chasing beauty but trying to recapture some part of my own legacy and my blue inheritance. I was driven by a desire to live closely with that beauty; to become literate in the stories of those cloths; and to understand history through the African women, mostly, who mediate and wear and trade indigo.

These women, unwittingly, taught me about birth and death and about the beauty and meaning that people make of the life space in between. They helped me to understand the power of these phenomena in my own experience and, as one of the heroines of my journey would promise, learn to truly “taste life.”

Freelance photographer Marcia E. Wilson/WideVision Photography gallivants around NYC looking for literary events to spotlight on the “Around Town” page. She may be at a reading near you.

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