Jun 30 2008

For Us, By Us



Imagine you lived during a time when the clothes you wore were produced by slave labor. Oh… wait… that’s right… if you’re the average American, (or the average Earthling for that matter) it is highly likely that at least one of the garments you’ve worn in the past week (perhaps what you have on right now) was produced by a worker who earned far less than a living wage.  For evidence of this, please read the story below:

Indian ‘slave’ children found making low-cost clothes destined for Gap Kids
Child workers, some as young as 10, have been found working in a textile factory in conditions close to slavery to produce clothes that appear destined for Gap Kids…
(click here to read the article) 

Knowing this is widespread, and knowing that clothing is not something you can live without…

What would it take for you to commit to never again purchase or wear fabric or clothing that was produced unethically?

I asked myself that question today, and, to be honest with you, I haven’t arrived at a firm resolution yet. I want to change my life so that it mirrors what I know I believe, and yet I’m wondering how hard it might be to find and buy clothing that is cruelty-free.  With the price of gasoline going sky high, and my budget already stretched to capacity, can I afford to forego inexpensive clothing for something that is guaranteed to have been produced justly?  And then there’s the question of consistency. If I’m going to worry about how my clothing is made, shouldn’t I be worried about how my food is harvested?  How about the furnishings in my home?  At a certain point it becomes overwhelming — and that is probably why so many of us turn a blind eye.

Which is one of the many reasons I a.d.m.i.r.e. abolitionists Lucretia and James Mott.

In the decades leading to the end of legal chattel slavery in America, James and Lucretia Mott were fierce abolitionists who saw slavery as an evil to be opposed at every opportunity. Not only did they open their home to escaping slaves, the couple refused to use cotton cloth, cane sugar, and other slavery-produced goods.

Lucretia was known for her skill as an orator, and spoke publicly for abolition, despite repeated threats against her home and family.

African American Abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote of Lucretia:

“Foremost among these noble American women, in point of clearness of vision, breadth of understanding, fullness of knowledge, catholicity of spirit, weight of character, and widespread influence, was Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia. Great as this woman was in speech, and persuasive as she was in her writings, she was incomparably greater in her presence. She spoke to the world through every line of her countenance. In her there was no lack of symmetry–no contradiction between her thought and act. Seated in an anti-slavery meeting, looking benignantly around upon the assembly, her silent presence made others eloquent, and carried the argument home to the heart of the audience.

I shall never forget the first time I ever saw and heard Lucretia Mott…The speaker was attired in the usual Quaker dress, free from startling colors, plain, rich, elegant, and without superfluity–the very sight of her, a sermon. In a few moments after she began to speak, I saw before me no more a woman, but a glorified presence, bearing a message of light and love from the Infinite to a benighted and strangely wandering world, straying away from the paths of truth and justice into the wilderness of pride and selfishness, where peace is lost and true happiness is sought in vain. I heard Mrs. Mott thus, when she was comparatively young. I have often heard her since, sometimes in the solemn temple, and sometimes under the open sky, but whenever and wherever I have listened to her, my heart has always been made better and my spirit raised by her words; and in speaking thus for myself I am sure I am expressing the experience of thousands.”

To learn more about Lucrtia and James Mott visit one of these links:

James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters By Anna Davis Hallowell, Lucretia Mott

As I read, and write about this awesome woman (and her husband who supported her work), I am inspired to get off the fence I’ve been on for so long.  I pledge to educate myself about this issue and work to become a part of the solution.

I am a descendant of slaves whose forced labor produced goods that made rich people richer.  Isn’t it a dishonor to them to buy or wear clothing that makes rich people richer at the expense of the disenfranchised and the desperate?

Here’s my poem about it:

For Us, By Us

kneel beside her now
this brown sister
sweat drenched
work weary
perpetually underfed

taste a drop of her sorrow
this Creator’s child
leg shackled
to desperation
freedom be her dread

ache to lift her burden
workhorse woman
baby tied
to bowed back
with rags from massa’s wife

scream out justice for this
soul survivor
hands weary
scarred and wageless
clinging to so-called life

we could end her slavery
invisible daughter
sweatshop whore

call her name, haiti
dominca, mexico
she be nafta’s slave
serving two gods
hers, and, yes, brother, yours

condemn her masters
karan, levi,
brooks brothers
and, sadly,
your own f.u.b.u

hey, brother
she’s your sister
your daughter
your mother






Jun 18 2008

James Breeden’s “Negro Woman”

Charlott’s Great-Great Grandson, James Kelly

On February 28, 1825, a white Tennessee farmer appeared before the Hawkins County Court with his black slave and two children he sired with her, with the intention of petitioning for their freedom. As required by Tennessee law, James Breeden posted a bond of $500 (roughly equivalent to $9,000 today) so that he might be allowed to convince that body of white men that his “negro woman” and her offspring should no longer be considered his property.

Breeden’s argument apparently satisfied the court. Recorded that day was their decision:

it is therefore considered…that said Negroes…be emancipated, freed and set at liberty.

Thus, Charlotte Breeden was granted her freedom along with her two young sons, Lelan and Pleasant. When Pleasant reached adulthood he left Tennessee for Jerseyville Illinois where he purchased 40 acres of land, married a black woman named Cordelia Hinton and produced a free-born daughter, Charlottie Breeden, my great-grandmother.

As I am aware of the economic, social, educational, pyschological and other benefits received by my family, I can say without reservation that the act James Breeden committed before the court on that day more than one hundred and seventy five years ago was good, but I have no idea if he was. He did, after all, own my great-great-great grandmother.

I don’t know if James purchased Charlotte on an auction block, or inherited her from a relative — she might have been a gift from a friend, along with a wheelbarrow and some farming implements. Or, perhaps he bought her from an evil neighbor to save her from a life of torment. There is a heavy ache behind my ribcage as I ponder the possibilities, and concede to the reality that I do not, and probably cannot ever know.

Historical records indicate that James Breeden never married nor sired children with anyone other than Charlotte. In his will he provides for her upkeep,

I will to my negro woman Charlott (that I have freed) one cow and calf for her support, also one sow and pigs to her own use.

but I don’t know if he loved Charlotte, or held for her any feelings of respect or esteem. I do not know if the sexual act that led to my eventual existence was forced or consensual, torturous or tender.

What I do know is that at a time in American history when it was perfectly legal for James Breeden to do with Charlotte whatever he pleased, he stood before that body of his peers and argued for her freedom. I am grateful to him for that act. Grateful—a word I choose deliberately, fully mindful that I am offering thanks to a white man who both is, and owned, my ancestor.

grateful: grāt fül) adj. 1. Appreciative of benefits received; thankful.

In writing those words, I feel the need to duck and raise one arm protectively in front of me (metaphorically, of course) as I expect someone (who knows the insidious divisions such favors created among the enslaved) to hurl the epithet “house slave” my way.

The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread

and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick

and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—

sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,

and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.

(The House Slave, by U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove)