Knitting for social justice is nothing new to those of us who have been around the block a few times. From knitting socks helmet liners for the troops in WWI and WWII to yarn bombing in city squares, we knitters have always found ways to use our craft to make a statement.
After the Civil War, slavery was ended in name only as involuntary servitude for many African Americans continued in the United States up to World War II. Many blacks who committed petty crimes or who simply didn’t show “proper respect” to whites were sentenced to work as unpaid laborers for corporations under what author Douglas Blackmon calls “Slavery by Another Name” in his Pulitzer prize-winning book and the PBS documentary of the same title.
Today, over 150 years after the end of the Civil War and over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, black people in America are still oppressed by society-wide racism. Lately it’s been in the news almost every day. Since Michael Brown—an unarmed black teenager—was was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, over 300 black men—over 30 percent of whom were unarmed—have been killed by police officers. Steven Hawkins, executive director Amnesty International USA has said, “…you’re twice as likely to be shot if you’re an unarmed black male.” Something is still very wrong in our society.
I have to ask myself as a white woman, how can I help defeat white supremacy and support #BlackLivesMatter? Can I use my knitting? The Yarn Mission, a group of knitters in Ferguson, is one organization that answers that question with a resounding “Yes!” Founded by CheyOnna Sewell after the shooting of Michael Brown, this is one group of knitters that is boldly speaking out for justice and equality and doing it stitch by stitch. The group, whose members are mostly black women who live in and near Ferguson, welcomes all knitters who want to spread a message of equality.
“People consistently underestimate the power of knitting,” Sewell told a reporter at The Guardian. “They don’t recognize its radical properties.”
I agree. But knitting, by itself, isn’t enough. We have to speak out so people know why we are knitting. This volume of Stories In Stitches is all about speaking out, and I can’t let it go to press without speaking out myself. I want my knitting and my writing to have a purpose beyond making pretty things and telling stories that make people feel good. I’ve been struggling with this topic all year, and I think it’s part of the reason Stories In Stitches 5 is so late coming out of the gate. I tried to figure out how to speak out inside the book, and I just couldn’t make it work. The next 3 books are also about knitting in the Civil War era, so I’m sure the topic will come up again and I’ll find my voice and the right way to address the topic before book 8 goes to print. In the meantime, I’ll speak out here on the blog, where I can rant freely.
I’m not black, so I can’t completely understand what it feels like to be without white privilege in today’s society. My family wasn’t even in this country before slavery was outlawed, and I don’t feel any personal responsibility for the racist behavior of white-supremacist idiots. But I spent my teenage years in a bi-racial household. I watched Roots with my African American housemates. I know the smell of a hot comb heating up on the kitchen stove and I’ve romped through the woods with my black friends chanting, “Ungawa, Black Power.” I know that black lives matter. And I know that white people, including me, have to speak out against the institutionalized racism that has ruled in this country since its inception.
“The Yarn Mission uses yarn to promote Action and Change,” the group’s website says, and “to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression.” I would like to do that too. I would like to make Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman proud.
Visit Stories in Stitches for more info on this topic.