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‘The Tools We Have’: A Photo History of African Women

The McKinley Collection/Seydou Keïta/SKPE—Courtesy CAAC—Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta: Untitled #460, Mali, 1956–1957; from Catherine E. McKinley’s The African Lookbook

During the summer of my seventh year, my mother enrolled my older sister and me in a class at the Singer sewing school in downtown Brooklyn, New York. The class met daily from late morning until late afternoon above a Singer sewing machine shop that also sold patterns and fabric. The class was taught by a woman of Eastern European descent with a heavy accent, and I struggled to understand most of what she said. But her accent, it turned out, was the least of my worries.

On that first day, the small grouping of maybe nine or ten Black girls were seated before sewing machines we were not allowed to touch while our teacher deconstructed what felt like the history of the sewing machine back to its nineteenth-century invention. While I longed to get my hands on that machine and see what magic I could create from it, I also longed to be outside, back on my Brooklyn block, where I knew my friends were being allowed to run wild in the July heat. There was no air-conditioning in the cramped classroom and, though not allowed to touch our machines, we worked with patterns (mine a 1970s sizzler set) and fabric (mine yellow flowers printed against pink cotton) we had bought downstairs. We were taught how to pin, cut, dart (I was breastless, thus didn’t need these, but envied the girls who did), and baste. Finally, with much guidance from our sewing instructor, we were allowed to use our machines, which was—because I was, as my teacher said, “a terrible sewer”—anticlimactic.

My memory of those years in sewing class was often one filled with a deep shame. For decades after, I rejected sewing fiercely. It felt subservient. It made me think my mother had low expectations for me. It felt too “country,” and here I was, a city girl. For a long time, I didn’t understand how my mother’s desire for my sister and me to have a “skill to fall back on” could be connected to something older and deeper than that stifling downtown class above a Singer sewing store.

The McKinley Collection

Accra, Ghana, circa 1970s

Recently, as I slowly moved through the stunningly beautiful pages of The African Lookbook, I found myself being transported by the glorious photographs Catherine E. McKinley has collected in a narrative that brings clarity to those summers. As the saying goes, Black people have always traveled with our pain and our medicines. My mother, a Southerner, and I, a child of the Great Migration, trace our roots back to the west coast of Africa. As I pored over the lovely fabrics, the pride on the faces of the women and girls in this book, the adornments that were literally skin deep, I understood again that my long days spent in that classroom were about more than my mom wanting me to learn a trade—whether she knew it or not. Our sewing was and continues to be our pain—and our medicine.

Laced within the beauty of these pages are bits of history and the elliptical and evocative poem-like narrative McKinley uses to describe all that we are seeing—and, by extension, all that we feel:

Fashion, in which both the past and rapid change are alive, offers a record that buildings, agencies, roads, borders, and currency cannot support as they shift, erode, devalue, and are imperfectly resurrected over periods of dramatic change. The architecture of clothing, the overwhelmingly sculptural quality of dress in much of the African-Atlantic…can stand in for many of these other losses. Fanti women, growing up in the shadows of the slave forts, wear something at once so up-to-the-minute and so old, implicating them in centuries of the economy of colonialism.

The summer before last, I returned from Ghana with my suitcases loaded down with African fabric. In the years since those Singer sewing classes, I’ve returned to my sewing machine and have come a long way from pink cotton fabric and sizzler sets. Still, what I am reminded of as I again and again pore over the pages in this book is that my mother’s dream for me was part of a long line of dreams mothers of the African Diaspora have for their daughters. Dreams that trace themselves back to the continent itself. We took and continue to take the skin, the pain, the fabric, the tools we have. And with all of this—as Catherine E. McKinley has done here—we make something as beautiful as our own selves.


Frida Orupabo/The McKinley Collection

Collage by Frida Orupabo of an undated photograph from Accra, Ghana

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The McKinley Collection

Jacob Vitta, Tarkwa: Fanti Women in Full Dress, Gold Coast (Ghana), circa 1910


The McKinley Collection/Estate of Abdourahmane Sakaly, Bamako, Mali, and Revue Noire, Paris

Abdourahmane Sakaly: Two Young Yé-Yé Girls with Sunglasses, Mali, 1965


The McKinley Collection

Congo, undated


The McKinley Collection

St. Louis, Senegal, 1939–1945; from the Collection of Alhadji Adama Sylla


The McKinley Collection

Accordian, Kapushi, Congo, 1930


The McKinley Collection

Fernando Poo, No. 7-Type of Mende and Monrovia, Equitorial Guinea, undated; Collection Alfonso XIII/Editada por Geronimo Lopez, Sta. Isabel


The McKinley Collection

Dan. Minolta, Accra: Aunty Koramaa III, Ghana, 1956

The McKinley Collection

Aunty Koramaa IV, Ghana, 1960s


The McKinley Collection

Senegal, 1952


The McKinley Collection

Nigeria, undated


The McKinley Collection

Barthelely Koné (?): Untitled, Mali, circa 1950s


Adapted from the foreword to The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley, published by Bloomsbury.

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