Thursday, April 11, 2013

Slavery Knitting Heritage

Yesterday I picked up a book that's been on my shelf for a long time and began to read. Mighty Rough Times, I Tell You, edited by Andrea Sutcliffe, is a compilation of narratives by former slaves. In the 1920s and 1930s there were a couple of projects designed to get first-hand accounts of slave life by interviewing former slaves who were at least 10 years old by the time of the Civil War. The aim was to record the responses to a standard questionnaire and amass a bank of information from those who knew the institution of slavery best. This could be compared to the Worldwide Shoah Memoirs Collection of Holocaust survivors narratives.

The narratives in Mighty Rough Times, I Tell You were obtained from slaves who resided in Tennessee, and they feel pretty close to home as I read names of towns and rivers that are thoroughly familiar. Tennessee was initially an abolitionist state, and even after 1830 slavery did not exist to the extent that it did in other southern states. That didn't make it any more palatable or less cruel, as the individuals in this book describe.

Early in the book, a woman named Precilla Gray is interviewed. She was raised in Williamson County and passed around to several members of the same family. Describing her first "mistress":   "My first mistress had three looms and we had to make clothes for everyone...I was taught to weave, card, spin, and knit..." as well as to do rough field work. Under Missus Snythia, "soon as the chillun was seven years old, they started them knitting...We wore yarn hoods, shawls, and pantalets, which was knit things that come from your shoe tops to above your knees...When the Civil War was starting...I had to knit socks and helps make soldiers' coats."

I picked this book with the grudging feeling that I was getting into something that would be completely unpleasant. It is exciting to find this knitting connection and bits of information about what African-Americans in slavery times were knitting. For instance, who knew that leg warmers (pantalets) were around before the 1970s made them popular outside the ballet world. I have peeked ahead (yes, I know!) and I see the word knitting coming up again. The piece of my past history that began with slavery has some dreadful, evil, inhuman detritus, but it also has knitting!


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