By CLARENCE GLOVER
Sankofa Garden Homes
“For more than two centuries our fore parents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the mist of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation – our and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“And yet.” These two words eloquently describes the strength and vitality of our earlier articles to replace the word “slave” when speaking of our African Ancestors who where enslaved. As I stated then, slavery is a condition and not a people.
As Descendants of Africans who Built America people, a term I created to better connect us to our ancestors so that we understand them and understand ourselves better, we continue to embody through our efforts the power of “And yet.” And yet, despite how we were brought to America, we have embraced her and made her our own.
Central to the story of King Cotton in America is the story of African people. It is a story that began in Africa not America where African people were already and still are familiar with the soft white gold. Cotton Made in Africa site states, “Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the largest cotton producers worldwide. In Africa cotton is almost exclusively grown by smallholder farmers, and there are only very few large plantations. The cotton plant loves warmth – it needs about 200 days of sunshine in the season to flourish and bear fruit. For that reason alone, it does well in the dry or humid savannas of Africa. The climate, with its high average temperatures and alternation between dry and wet seasons favors the growing of this natural fiber crop.”
It takes about six months from planting to harvesting of cotton. After the harvest, seed and fiber are separated from each other in the gins, and the thin coating of wax that surrounds the fibers and protects them from wetness is removed. At the end, the raw cotton is pressed into large bales, and sold onward to the spinning mills for yarn manufacture. Thus it starts its trip along the textile chain – from the spinning mill to the finished garment.”
The creativity of African cotton can be seen in many of the beautiful African fabrics woven from cotton long before the institution of chattel – or property – slavery in America. Such fabrics as kente and mud cloth are examples that are now a part of the fashion statements of many African Americans. When we wear or decorate with African fabric we make a cultural statement as to who we are just as other cultures do with their fabrics and patterns. Like music and food, fabric colors and designs is one of the many ways we identity and celebrate the many cultures of the human family.
This knowledge of growing cotton and other crops in West Africa did not go unnoticed by a young nation seeking to establish an economic foundation. Henry Louis Gates in his PBS Documentary, The African-Americans; Many Rivers to Cross stated, “The most commonly used phrase describing the growth of the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s was ‘Cotton Is King.’ We think of this slogan today as describing the plantation economy of the slavery states in the Deep South, which led to the creation of ‘the second Middle Passage.’ But it is important to understand that this was not simply a Southern phenomenon. Cotton was one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco, and was also the commodity whose production most dramatically turned millions of Black human beings in the United States themselves into commodities. Cotton became the first mass consumer commodity.”
Understanding both how extraordinarily profitable cotton was and how interconnected and overlapping were the economies of the cotton plantation, the Northern banking industry, New England textile factories and a huge proportion of the economy of Great Britain helps us to understand why it was something of a miracle that slavery was finally abolished in this country at all”.
Genene Dattel in his book Cotton and Race in The Making of America gave insight into how King Cotton became an African creation in America, “Since the earliest days of colonial America, the relationship between cotton and the African American experience has been central to the history of the republic. America’s most serious social tragedy, slavery and its legacy, spread only where cotton could be grown. Both before and after the Civil War, Blacks were assigned to the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a Black migratory invasion caused White Northerners to contain Blacks in the South.”
Gene Dattel’s pioneering study explores the historical roots of these most central social issues. In telling detail, Dattel shows why the vastly underappreciated story of cotton is a key to understanding America’s rise to economic power. When cotton production exploded to satiate the nineteenth-century textile industry’s enormous appetite, it became the first truly complex global business and thereby a major driving force in U.S. territorial expansion and sectional economic integration. It propelled New York City to commercial preeminence and fostered independent trade between Europe and the United States, providing export capital for the new nation to gain its financial “sea legs” in the world economy. Without slave-produced cotton, the South could never have initiated the Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict at home”.
It goes without saying that without Africans in America cotton would not be king. And if cotton had not been King America would not have been. But let’s see just how King Cotton has influenced America. On the site Cotton Counts Educational Resources, we are given a breakdown to just how much King Cotton touches our lives,
“One Bale of cotton (480 pounds) can make:
- 215- Pairs of Jeans
- 249-Bed Shirts
- 409-Men’s04 Sport Shirts
- 609-Terry Bath Towels
- 765-Men’s Dress Shirts
- 1,217-Men’s T Shirts
- 1,256-Pillow Cases
- 2,104-Boxer Shirts
- 4,321-Mid Calf socks
- 6,436-Women Knit Briefs
- 21,960-Women Handkerchiefs
- 319,600-$100 Dollar Bills
As Cotton Incorporated states, “Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives.”
Indeed, King Cotton touches our lives in the most personal of ways. It has built the most powerful nation on earth. Its kingdom reaches worldwide and its subjects are of every culture and color.
And yet, those who created the dynasty of King Cotton have not reaped their fair share of its wealth. Some would say, Respirations now. But, I say no, not reparations now, but respect now! We who are the descendants must first give due respect to our African ancestors who during slavery and Jim Crow, made cotton king and America great. We must remove the shame from cotton and embrace it as it embraces us.
Next year during cotton season, celebrate the Second African American Cotton Festival with me on the third Sunday in October in your homes, places of worship, schools, businesses and communities. Then King Cotton and our Ancestors will begin to bestow their blessings on us. Share the news. All are welcome. For more information please contact me below.
The Sankofa Garden Homes column is provided by Clarence Glover, known as Professor Freedom of Sankofa Education Services, for the purpose of “taking the chains off our brains, so our minds can work.” He can be reached at email@example.com.