Photos by Blaze Like Fyre
City Park (Botanical Gardens): When picking the location for this shoot, I thought about how to make the indigo pop. I knew that anywhere that we shot would have to have a colorful backdrop. Though this wall is not hyper-colorful, the muted orange hue accomplished the splash of color necessary to complement the indigo fabric. City Park was the location because if it’s magic. When I step foot on the grounds I never have a specific intention, however I always leave feeling accomplished and with a sense of peace. This site is especially relative to the African experience, because this is ancestral land, a former plantation site, where many died from inhaling the fumes and harvesting of Indigo. Indigo grows in Africa as well, the enslaved Natives used to harvest it here, but they got sick quickly, so the enslavers brought Africans to this part because apparently we have magical lungs.. idk.. I guess, being black means to other races that we are strong, and big, and immune to illness. In West Africa, many of the designs still feature the use of indigo. The Tauregs or “blue men” are known for their indigo garments and rub blue pigment into their skin. I understand how our knowledge of Indigo made us perfect for the job, as it was used for centuries in Africa as a symbol of wealth and fertility, however the climate of the process her in the states was almost certain death, if you ran away, your sentenced was the fields of indigo—the other “fabric of our lives.”
LUCINDA GADDIS : “Sometimes humans find themselves on a detour from a path they had consciously previously chosen. Sometimes we know precisely what brought us there; sometimes we have no idea – it’s really all about a stumble. I stumbled into indigo. My engagement in ecological sustainability-this may be a stretch, so stay with me- comes from my depression-era raised father, God rest his soul. He taught seven children that wasting things is sinful and just stupid. I dye gently-used clothing and household goods because I believe in their instrumental value. I learned to sew from several sources- first and foremost, my mother and aunt, who were damn good at it, but I also learned at school, before folks decided it wasn’t worth being a part of most curricula.
I value tradition. I was introduced to lappas (traditional wrapped skirts) by my cultural father, Abdoulaye “Papa” Camara, a titan of a man who shared his love of his Manding traditions (along with those of other West African peoples) through dance, drum and craft. The simplicity and utility of enveloping oneself in cloth is beautiful to me. The tie-on pants are a tribute to that tradition. The flowing lines and soft drape of the midi-length vest counter with indigo–dyed structured square sections- a nod to balancing life’s polar opposites. Before I was Conscious, I was conscious. From the first moment I saw the amazing colors, patterns and designs worn by indigenous Africans in books, I thought they were beautiful. Ever since I was first able to put my hands on the fabric or the actual clothing, I have. I will use the cliché just because. It touches my soul.
“…the worst of human behavior collides with the highest of spiritual imagination…” Michelle Martin, NPR
Indigo- the plant- unfortunately played a big part in the trading and enslavement of African peoples. This intoxicating shade first intrigued, then seduced those in power. I choose to believe the color can now heal.
Mwende: One of my last foggy memories from Kenya is of giving one of my uncles a Bible when I left. I’m not sure why I gave it to him, but as a small Kenyan girl who had been born and raised into a Christian family, it was probably a fitting parting gift for my ‘unsaved’ uncle. The story goes that he went on to get saved as a result of that incident, and indeed when I go back to Kenya these days, him (along with the rest of my family) can be heard praying to God and often referencing leaving things up to him.
This memory makes me smile these days because while apparently I was chock full o’ faith back in the day, these days I struggle with faith and spirituality, especially with regards to Christianity.
I remember the exact time I started to question my faith in a Christian God. I was in Sunday School, I must have been 9 or 10 years old, and we were making stuffed bears and packing other gifts including Bibles for children around the world who ‘would not be getting Christmas gifts and needed to hear the word of Christ’. As we were making them and praying over them, I remember my teacher said something about also praying that the pilot of the plane making it safely to his destination. In that moment, I froze. I guess as a child I had never really given much thought to how these gifts would get overseas (I guess in my head I thought Jesus would come get them from the church or something on his…spaceship?? I dunno man), but in that moment, I remember a series of questions starting to whirl in my head: What happens if the plane crashes and the pilot doesn’t make the trip? Would all the kids go to hell just because they didn’t get the bible? I remember I asked my teacher a question along those lines and she said something about how God always protects his children and has a place in heaven waiting for them even, if they don’t get to hear ‘his Word’. I suppose any other faith filled child would have just taken that answer and moved on, but I remember thinking “What about the kids who never got a bible and grow up into adults? Do they still have to go to hell?” I also remember being very sad because almost all the pictures of the kids we were sending gifts to were kids in African countries and I was panicking that they didn’t know English and couldn’t read the bible to get saved, even if it made it to them. I couldn’t make sense of how God would just leave all their lives to chance. I wasn’t even necessarily thinking of it in racial/cultural terms as a kid, I just thought it was soooooooo unfair that some people got to know God but others didn’t, and it didn’t seem like an option for everyone which meant some people were just going to hell. I know, it was childish panic, but that was the first crack in what was apparently a fragile faith.
Growing up, I went to church every Sunday and even Sunday evenings for youth group. As I got older though, I just couldn’t reconcile what seemed like blind faith with a world I was starting to see with eyes wide open. At some point, church became more a habit, something I did to not piss my parents off than an exercise in faith. I stopped going to church towards the end of high school when I left home…kinda, but to this day I still go to church when I visit my family, even though I don’t necessarily connect fully to what’s going on. At the same time, I really do enjoy listening to sermons and singing praise songs, so when I go to church I’m not sulking in the back, I’m an active participant. It’s confusing, but I think I keep going because I feel the need to connect with something more than myself and humanity and recognize its there, I just don’t know how to access it for myself in a way that feels authentic so I access it in a way that feels familiar.
Speaking of authenticity…this might ruffle some feathers (but like why you got feathers in the first place? Sounds like you should get that checked out…I swear English makes no sense sometimes), but its not just the whole white Jesus Christianity thing that I struggle to connect with authentically, I also have struggled very much to connect with the various religions/spiritualities/Gods that folks here claim as “African spirituality” that usually stems mostly from West Africa, often calling back to the Yoruba religion and their Orishas. I see so many folks connecting to it, to their roots through practicing “African spirituality”, but I feel so distant at times because those are not the Gods of my people. At the same time, colonialism did such devastating work on separating many Africans from their traditional roots that I’ve struggled to find this information from my own family. I’ve asked before, but most everyone who is alive now in my family was born into or after colonialism so there are real gaps in our historical record as a family and as a people. I want to connect, to have a spiritual connection, but if I admit that the name Jesus sits funny in my mouth, then I think I have to as well that so does Oya. I want the same process of self discovery and connection I see Black Americans going through as they reconnect spirutually to a general or specific ‘African’ religious or spiritual custom, but I do not know if I can do it praying to a God who has a foreign name in a foreign tongue. Somewhere in me I want to beleive that all Gods are in some way a manifestation of human faith, that there may be many gods who we all know by different names or the same one we all call different names, but I can’t help but want to know the names of the gods that my great great grandmothers whispered in their prayers and the prayers themselves. Beyond these, I struggle with the idea of faith generally. Sometimes I think I’ve become too jaded by asking too many questions and getting too human answers to just believe in anything, though I feel there is some higher power, I just haven’t quite figured out how to connect to her…
Church too has always been a place where I didn’t feel like I could authentically express myself in terms of clothing. Everybody knows Sunday is about stunting in your Sunday Best, but, as you may have picked up on if you’ve read this blog before, I low key hate getting dressed up. The thing I hated the most about Sundays (this is random as all hell) was the shoes I would have to wear. I’ve always been a beat up sneakers/boots kind of girl, but on Sunday mornings I would always have to wear some dorky grandma loafers or kitten heels or something you would not really be likely to find in my wardrobe if I didn’t have to go to church. And all the stuff I thought was cute, was always too revealing for church (as if God didn’t make us naked…but I digress). Like the outfit I’m wearing in this shoot. If it didn’t have the slits on the sides and front, that’s what I wore to church. JUST KIDDING! It was never that bad, but I never felt comfortable in church clothes none the less because it felt like such a costume. Plus, it always confused me because I thought Jesus said in the Bible to come as you are BUT I DIGRESS (again).
At this point in my life, I’m still not very sure where I stand in terms of my faith/spirituality/religious affiliations. I do know that when I was in high school I read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf and a line stuck out to me then that I still hold with me now as a place I am trying to get to, Religious Squad Goals if you will:
“i found god in myself
and i loved her
i loved her fiercely”
I’ll let yall know when I make it there.
Denisio: As a pre-teen in the homogeny of suburban Maryland, I grew up in the Catholic Church. Our parish, St. Elizabeth’s was one of those modern white liberal churches, less gothic architecture and hard pews for you to contemplate your numerous sins more blue jeans, electric cars and organic banana bread after mass. People were friendly, genuinely friendly, and in the cruel world of middle school where I skipped lunch to read in the bathroom (and to avoid having to eat alone) St. Elizabeth’s felt like a place to belong. Here, a man in a white robe , whiter hair and large book smiled at us and said we were all special and made in “His” image. That there was someone up there who loved us unconditionally, a Being (read: Old White Man) with endless forgiveness. A Being who didn’t care how I dressed or talked (or that I didn’t talk at all). In fact my ilk “The Meek” would one day inherit the earth. These ideas were practically seductive to a shy 12 year old.
So in true nerd form, the Bible became my new favorite book. Each night, I’d spend hours reading chapter after chapter. Old testament, new testament, didn’t matter. I’d tent myself beneath my comforter with a small pen flashlight and a plastic rosary that glowed in the dark. I’d close my eyes and allow my fingers to slip into whatever book I’d read from that night. Later, when I began Catechesis (the classes kid and adult converts take to become real Catholics) my teacher gave us all a series of excerpts and prayers that we could recite before bedtime. He suggested that we light a candle and passed out sticks of frankincense and myrrh to burn as well. The first passage was from Psalms 16:
1Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
2I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
3I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
4Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
or take up their names on my lips.
When I read the passage now, there is a physical resistance in my body. Its hard for me to fathom now but at the time I found extreme comfort in what would become my bedtime ritual. After reading whatever chapter, I’d light a small tea light and the incense our teacher gave us. I’d inhale the smoke which was sweet and bitter on my tongue, I’d sit crosslegged or lay on my stomach with the stapled passages before me. And I’d recite, trying to really feel the meaning behind what was on the page and hoping that God would hear my prayers. Because my prayers were not just the words printed before me. I wanted God to help my mother to stop drinking. I wanted him to make me happy. I wanted him to take away my urge to cut myself. I promised Him that if he did at least one of these things that I would become devoted. I would even become a nun if that’s what He wanted. I just wanted to feel normal.
It seems ridiculous now, but I believed that it was possible that God could make all of these things go away magically. Just take some big chalkboard eraser and wipe all of the nonsense clean away. I hadn’t gotten to the free-will part of class, or maybe I ignored it. If he loved me then he would save me and my mother, simple as that. And when the months rolled by and nothing happened I knew that it was simply because I didn’t believe hard enough. I was still sinning. Like a good religious fanatic I began to punish myself. I starved my already painfully thin body to bones. I stopped reading anything but the Bible. My grades slipped. I stopped painting and writing.
Towards the end of Catechesis our teacher asked us all to pick a saint, and their name would become our Catholic Name. I chose Marie-Bernarde Soubirous known as Saint Bernadette. Like me she was meek, sickly. I wanted to be steadfast in her beliefs as she was; her stories about her visions of angels never wavered or faltered. She lived most of her life in a secluded convent, caring for others until her death.
You probably know how this ends. Nothing really changes. I become a full fledged teenager around the time I became a full fledged catholic. My cynicism begins to kick in. I become discouraged and then completely disillusioned. I skip mass when I can. I pray less. I learn about the non religious history of Catholiscm. I learn about the so called missionary work done in Africa. I learn about all the sex scandals in the Catholic church and the way in which they protect very sick, very evil men. I go to college and I stop praying all together, although oddly enough I really get into gospel choir (like the lunch table, it was a place for us black kids to congregate). I dabble in other religions. And then I come to the conclusion that I am simply not a religious person, and that is okay.
If I had to define it, I’d say my beliefs fall somewhere in the fog of agnosticism. I believe in the possibility of something greater than mankind, or at least I’d like to. I’ve had enough things happen in my life that couldn’t be explained by human logic or science to know that there must be something more. I believe in magic and energy. I like the idea of praying to and listening to my ancestors more than some white haired dude on a cloud. I just don’t know that the ceremonies and customs performed in reverence of this God or that God, the hierarchies people place on their religious practices ultimately make a difference.
Unlike a lot of non-religious people I don’t not dislike religion. I don’t want to see it eradicated. I recognize the destructive things that people do in “His” name but I recognize the good too. All during my aunts valiant battle with stage four lung cancer, she remained steadfast in her faith and there is no doubt in my mind that her beliefs kept her alive for much longer than doctors predicted. I have seen with my own eyes the peace it brings to some and its beautiful. To have complete faith in something greater than yourself is something I’ve personally never been able to do, at least for more than a fleeting moment, and it’s admirable. I myself have experience the comforts of certain ceremonies and practices. At the same time I currently have no desire to completely immerse myself in any one spiritual practice, and I am completely okay with that. I’ve only recently reached that conclusion. I think for me I find more comfort in being open to the possibility of anything rather that absolutes.
I’m ending this post with an excerpt from the novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman:
“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not…
…I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.
I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.
I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too….
…I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora