Negro Cloth

Negro Cloth | “I know that many Negroes have died from exposure to weather. They are clad in a fl imsy fabric that will turn neither wind nor water.” Hon T.T. Bouldin, slaveholder, USA Congress, Feb 16th 1835.

This ‘fl imsy fabric’ was called Negro Cloth produced by the very few textile mills in the South of the USA. It was a coarse, unbleached or brown-coloured cotton, or blend of wool and cotton, and used for slave and prisoner clothing. It had been mentioned in the Negro Act of 1735 as one of the cheapest fabrics that slaves were allowed to wear. The question of whether they could wear the cast-offs—second-hand clothing—of their masters was hotly debated and a prohibitive measure carried in South Carolina. It was considered to be of great importance that clothing was used to reinforce the distinction between slave and master. John Woolman observed in his 18th century journal, “A plantation Negro man receives a bad coat and long pants out of 5 yards of white or blue Negro cloth. Men and women have many times scarce clothes enough to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls, ten and twelve years old are often quite naked among their masters’ children”. On many plantations slaves were issued once a year with just the cloth itself, and would have to sew clothes for themselves in the little non-working time they had, mostly working on picking the cotton that produced the cloth. If they wore out they had to do without until the next year. And this did happen. “In every slaveholding State many slaves suffer extremely, both while they labour and when they sleep, for want of clothing to keep them warm”, wrote the Rev. John Rankin

And yet, a sense of style could not be repressed. Indigo dye was used by the slaves who made the dye, for their own clothes, so that as early as 1744 a grand jury in South Carolina complained, “Negro women in particular do not restrain themselves in their Cloathing as the Law requires but dress in Apparel quite gay and beyond their condition.”

In the 1940s, like a storm, fashion made by young black Americans and pachuchos, young second generation Mexicans in the southern USA, became the Zoot Suit. “… walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upwards from cuffs fi tting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western man.” Or, in the language of Harlem nightlife, “a killer- diller coat with a drapeshape, real pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

The usual exclusive versions of how and where the style had come from competed with each other, but very quickly, in the middle of World War II and cloth rationing, it became racially defi ned as ‘delinquent’ and as the clothing of ‘gangs’. The War Production Board produced regulations that effectively banned them, but bootleg tailors kept making them. Instead Zoot-Suiters, who were keeping out of the war, were attacked by the police and by white soldiers. In 1943 this created race riots in Los Angeles and Detroit. The Zoot Suit was just too cool to be tolerated, too openly an act of rebellion.

1795 | Four weavers in the area of Cuddalore on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, India, construct a straw effi gy of an East India Company agent, Davie Veerpah Chetty, and burn it. Normally such straw fi gures were burned only in rituals associated with ‘bad deaths’, either of those who had lived ‘sinful lives’ or had died violently. This was one incident in a struggle of over 30 years against the Company, which was a pioneer in imposing capitalist discipline on many hundreds of independent weavers. It had lead to a fall in their incomes, and was backed up by fi nancial penalties, enforced debt collection, and the political power to punish. Previously in the Cuddalore and Madras areas weavers were in a better position when dealing only with Indian traders. Instead, the Company made much smaller monetary advances than before; imposed strict cloth quality control, determined by its own agents; and pressured weavers to meet delivery schedules, determined by itself. It also expected two pieces of longcloth per month, which the weavers found excessive. In response the weavers orchestrated work stoppages and desertion. A frequent tactic to avoid the demands of the Company, or the taxes imposed on non-Company weavers, was to pick up their looms and move elsewhere. In other places like the Northern Sarkars, there were riots. Most of all, while the Company wanted to see the weavers in caste terms, a typical colonial strategy of categorizing and division, and to see their complaints as strictly economic, they developed their own identity as weavers and in many instances fought against what they perceived as attacks on their pride. “What emerges…is not the rigidity of the weavers social world, as primordialism implies, but its plasticity. The ties of solidarity the weavers created were not fi xed, but continually made and remade…and demonstrated extraordinary inventiveness, resourcefulness and creativity. In fact, the act of protest itself and the demands of mobilizing for protest, lead weavers to create new forms of solidarity.”

Poncho | Folded inside you, the world of time outside your weave, comfort me this night. Oh Tomás, Tomás Catari, you who did everything the way they say it must be done, who could write their language, who told them so that their King might hear. But they are deaf in Buenos Aires or their voices are not so loud that the white men and their mestizos who rob us, who insult us here in Chayanta province cannot hear them. You told them the truth, how they robbed us, so they killed you, just today when the sun was high in the sky, they killed you. Just for this night keep me warm head-to-foot so that, like a miracle of our saint, sleep may come and I can awake ready to fight again, me, Micaela and the others united again to fight. Your red and blue weave, thick and fast, take me to sleep. I watched Micaela weave it when she was big with our first-born, happy together until the priest ordered that we must be married, that it was a sin how we were. Sin? Not for us. What, do they take marriage so lightly that they do not think we should know each other over time, in the bed, with our work, lived together one day after another before we marry?! Mateo Choque, her father, he complained that the priest was wrong, that we have our way to live, that marriage is too serious, and for this he was punished, so that he must be dragged through the streets and must say that it was right that he, a stupid Indian, be punished for complaining to the priest. I heard him, saw Mateo’s suffering and there was anger in my heart. There is anger in my heart and I, who knew nothing of killing, have killed again, just as they killed Tomás, so that life will never be the same from this day.

Life will never be the same, and the best of us is dead, but tonight, weave tight around me and give me sleep.

There was anger in Tomás’s heart also, how we were robbed in every way by Blas Bernal, made cacique by his friend the Spanish dog Alos who himself paid to be lord over us. Cacique who was not worthy of the name, used it only to rob us and respected nothing. How they forced on us the rubbish they could not sell. Those rich men who would kill for a Peso.

So Tomás wrote. He could write in their language and explained how it was wrong, that we knew our obligations but would not be robbed and abused. That our crops and our animals should not be taxed. He wrote and for this, for saying it was wrong, just like Mateo Choque, he must be punished. Those who cannot hear what is said in Buenos Aires put him in prison where there is no sun, no moon, no light of day and there was more anger in his heart, but he said we should not fight them because, he said, whoever won the fighting, we would lose. No, he would write again because in Buenos Aires where he had been, they had said he was right, that they knew what he said was right.

Too late now, nothing will ever be the same again. But we are not stupid Indians as they call us, we know nothing is ever certain. We plant the crops when we know the time is right. We know from our ancestors exactly when it is right. There is no certainty in the crops coming good, but how and when we sowed, it must be done right and in good time.

And this we did when they had put Tomás in the prison again, it was right that we should say No, he is a good man who tells the truth. It was right and in good time that we should go to Pocoata town and bring him back to be with us, to live our lives in Chayanta. It should not have been that Alos, who would be our lord and master because he had to pay to be what he is, should set soldiers against us, but this is what he did, and to save myself I, who have never killed, killed a soldier. And then we saw that Alos was just a man and we took him and we said we will hold you while you hold Tomás even if that is not a good trade when he is such a better man than you. Yes, we took Tomás home with us and he thought that now we could live as life should be lived for in Buenos Aires they knew the truth.

Fold your warmth around me, make a miracle to my mind that will not stop run- ning as I ran today and let me sleep so that I can fight tomorrow for they cannot be trusted, never Tomás, who died today to know this, these white men, and their mestizos with their mines and the money they have stolen from us as if the whole word is theirs. I will find your brothers Damaso and Nicolas, for they are ready, and Micaela is ready, and we will go to La Plata and we will kill them all, we who have never killed, never thought to kill.

After Pocoata Tomás believed that we could live life as it should be lived, the law was on our side. But the law has no voice here, not for us. He said not to kill, for those who have abused us are experienced in killing and once they have started will not stop, but now I know they understand only fear. That is what happened, Alos was frightened when we took him, that is why he wrote and told them not to send more soldiers. But I did not want to know this then, that they must all be frightened forever. I also wanted to believe that we could live life as it should be lived, that we would not be pressed again.

But they came for him again, imprisoned him again. As if we had not spoken. Even if in Buenos Aires they did not speak loud enough, we had spoken. Alos was afraid but there are always more of them, white men, priests, and those who would live as white men, who would tax our crops, tax our animals, who tell us what we must do and would kill for a Peso. Like today. We came to take Tomás home with us and they killed him, the magistrate and his men, Alvaro the mine- owner and his men, they killed him. We were mad with rage killed some and the others they were afraid and they ran for it is only fear they understand. There is no peace in my heart, nor my head, nor my blood that will itch until we have killed them all, or they have run away. But for this night fold me in your weave, warm me, make me a potato in the soil and bring me sleep before I join the others that I had to leave when I saw Alvaro slip away to his mine to dig more thousands of pesos from our earth. There was anger in my heart and I followed. He thought he was safe there, that no stupid Indian would follow. From outside I called to him, words using Tomás had taught me, that the Indians had run away and I had brought his reward from La Plata. He came out for he is one who would kill for a Peso and I brought the rock down on his head. I heard it crack and smashed it again, I who had known nothing of killing.

The night thoughts of this anonymous indigenous Andean man took place early in January 1781 on the night of Tomás Catari’s death in what is now Bolivia, but then governed from Buenos Aires. Caciques or Kurakas were intermediaries between indigenous communities and the Spanish crown (and its intermediaries). Tomás should have been one, but at this time they were being imposed by colonial power factions. Instead he tried to use existing colonial law to protect his own community. In all probability he did join up with Catari’s brothers to attack the town of La Plate, modern day Sucre. The brothers were betrayed and executed in the most grue- some fashion. The fate of this man is unknown but he may well have joined up with other indigenous resistance fighters in the siege of La Paz led by Bartolina Sisa and her partner Julian Apaza who styled himself Tupac Catari in honour of the Catari brothers and the Tupac Amaru uprising in Peru. The city was saved by the Spanish at the very last minute and then the usual reprisals took place.