Colors

I opened the solar dyeing jars. That was unpleasant. You know what happens when you put a bunch of plant matter in water and then heat it for days? The same shit that happens when you stick a bunch of plant matter and water in an elephant and let it work its way through the system: a smell from the outskirts of hell.

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These guys live in the garage until I’ve decided they don’t smell too bad to include. The idea that I might have to overdye them with Kool-aid just to make them smell okay is cracking me up.

Anyway, in my neighborhood, it seems the easiest color to make is yellow. I keep making it almost by accident. And it got me thinking about the outfits people wore before commercial dyes, what folks’ clothes would have looked like. And I have to imagine, for the people who had to make most, if not all, their own clothes, there was probably a lot of yellow.

And it got me thinking about the colors that have magical properties. There’s an old African-American hoodoo belief that to sleep under a blue blanket will bring prophetic dreams. And to get a blue color that stays? The person who can get that for you has to seem like magic, that blanket or quilt has to seem like magic. Blue is hard to get and hard to keep, until you have indigo.

Red, black, and white are also tricky colors to get (and to keep) with plant materials available to most people.  Yes, madder, but look at how much skill it takes to get red out of madder if you have to do it yourself. Black is… I don’t even know. I think you could dye a lot of things for a long time to get a dark, dark, dark brown that might pass for black, but pure black naturally would be hard. And white, a clean white, requires a lot of processing as well. So, it’s no wonder you find so many charms that call for thread or yarn in those colors.

If magic is about gathering energy and expending it in directions it doesn’t normally take (think of the sailors who kept winds they needed tied in knots in yarn they kept in their pockets), then red, black, and white have a lot of energy put into them.

But I live in America, so I also can’t wander around with the dog thinking about color without thinking about race and I got to thinking about how much of a fear of the “secret” black person there has been in American popular culture. And smarter people than me have written about how “black” is seen as corrupting and spoiling.

Corruption and spoilage are both powers. And black, in color, is hard to get.

Yellow is common and easy to make.

And I feel like there’s a revelation about a facet of American racism right at the tips of my fingers that I can’t quite articulate yet.

But it’s commonly accepted that words have meanings and associations that color (ha) how we see the things those words are describing, meanings and associations pulled in from other uses of those words. So, saying that a bad person is blackhearted or has a black soul or has a dark morality or that these are dark times and then saying that person is black or has dark skin can lead us to associate that person’s skin color with all the ways we think of black as meaning bad.

So, I wonder how much to an 18th or 19th century white American, black would have also resonated as powerful (much to the eternal tragedy of black people) and yellow as common and easy to get. And I wonder how that shaped the expressions and their own understanding of their racism?

Also, speaking of black, look what black beans gave me!

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4 thoughts on “Colors

  1. Well, now you know why, in every culture we know of, tanning, thread/yarn-making, dyeing, and weaving were among the first specialized work, and generally the very first to be carried out by commercial concerns. Because it’s a lot easier (and better-smelling) to let someone else do all those steps for you. And it’s a lot easier for one person or small group of people to carry out those tasks in large batches than for everyone to do them themselves.

    And in addition to color, think about the fact that, in the cultures of India, it was tanners and leatherworkers who became seen as the lowest of the low. There’s a lot to unravel there.

  2. Oh, I have learned that, if I want historically accurate plant dyes, I should be collecting my pee. So, there’s overlap there.

    emjb, that’s a good questions about “haint blue” and I’m not sure the answer. It sure seems like it must be related, both because of the color and because it’s about you being “under” the blue in order to have the good outcome–prophetic dreams or lack of haints.But I don’t know.

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