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There is a saying that I constantly hear as I report on movement work across the South: “We keep us safe.”
I hold this saying like a mantra as it reminds me of the comfort in community during times of turmoil and adversity. It’s been about a week since the massacre of Black life at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. So, I want us to think about the ways we can hold each other as we grieve.
I won’t dive into the racist motivations behind the shooting, which killed 10 people and injured three others. We know all too well the history behind racial terrorism and how it shows up today. Almost all the victims of the Buffalo shooting were Black.
I want to give space to how the victims lived. I express gratitude for the way they took care of their families and communities. For example, Peal Young, a 77-year-old Alabama native who moved north as a young adult, expressed her joy through singing, dancing and service. She fed hungry people through her food pantry at Buffalo’s Central Park.
If your heart is heavy today, check out this Therapy for Black Girls post featuring different self-care techniques during a chaotic news cycle.
For y’all who are deciding to stay with us, join us as we dive into the beauty of Black creativity. Screw the fear mongering of Great Replacement Theory. I want us to know that our Blackness is dope. And our dopeness deserves to take up space.
Let’s expand that space together by forwarding this week’s newsletter to your friends and fam.
— Starr and R.L.
Get your stitch together!
Black liberation is in the power of needle and thread for Lisa Woolfork.
Sis created a platform called Black Women Stitch, where sewing meets Black power, in July 2018 after witnessing how white sewing circles distanced themselves from social justice conversations. Lisa said, “heck, naw” to that and she will unapologetically tell you that we as Black people shouldn’t bow down to white comfort. So Lisa created a space for Black creatives to come together without having to shrink their Blackness.
Black Women Stitch’s Instagram, which has more than 16,300 followers, is a patchwork of beautiful creations (like this cute needle felted Baby Yoda) and conversations from Woolfork’s “Stitch, Please!” podcast, which gives the mic to Black women, girls and femmes in the sewing community who are using their skills to shut down the legacy of white supremacy through liberation, radical self-love and social justice.
As a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast, Lisa often thinks about a quote from North Carolina scholar and poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Freedom is not a secret. It’s a practice.
“It reminds me often to say: What are you practicing?” Lisa said. “Every choice we make is an expression of our freedom. That’s what sewing is for me. It is the practice of liberating. That creative expression that can come only from me.”
Lisa, 52, said more millennials and Gen Zers have found their way to sewing after having way too much time on their hands when the pandemic started. Many started by crafting homemade masks when PPE was in short supply.
She has enjoyed watching the younger generation using an ancestral craft to free themselves from the harmful institutions.
“We’re trying to liberate ourselves from the brutalities of white supremacy, patriarchal capitalism and all these other things that have been framing the South and that continue to press upon black lives in ways that are harmful and repressive,” Lisa said. “I think we as Black folks, especially in the times we are in now –in the jaws of a heartless and racist democracy, we need to fill our joy cups up constantly and we need to do that unapologetically without apology or even without explanation.”
The origin of Black Women Stitch is cut from the cloth of Lisa’s trauma. A Florida native, she now lives in Charlottesville, Va., the site of white nationalist rallies in 2017 and where Lisa has been an English professor at the University of Virginia specializing in African American literature since 2000.
Lisa was there when a neo-Nazi murder a woman and injure more than 30 others after plowing his car into a crowd of people who were counter protesting the Unite the Right rally.
Lisa didn’t sit quietly during this summer of hate. She organized marches with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville and sewed a dress for a 15-foot-tall puppet of Sally Hemings, an enslaved seamstress and maid who was raped and bore six children by her enslaver, Thomas Jefferson.
Lisa turned to sewing for healing. But before Black Women Stitch, she found herself in sewing circles where she was the only Black person. This dynamic became an issue during a time when social justice was in the forefront of everyone’s mind. She was asked not to speak about the white supremacists’ rallies during a sewing retreat she attended in September 2017. The white quilters’ forced silence on issues that affected Lisa as a Black person was the first red flag.
“This was not because they wanted to spare my feelings. The reason Charlottesville was not to be discussed by this group of quilters is because they had sympathies, in my opinion, with these white supremacists,” Lisa said. “The idea that I was nearly murdered was something they did not want to think about and made them uncomfortable. Again, white comfort mattering more than Black lives.”
Second red flag: After she returned from the retreat, Lisa got a check in the mail without a return address. The quilting group refunded her the money she paid for a future event because they didn’t want her to come. Pain turned into embarrassment as she realized she was that Black friend to those white women: one who was only allowed in white spaces if she was on “good Black behavior,” she said.
“My Black joy practice was compromised, which for me was sitting and sewing for a long weekend,” Lisa said. “I thought I could do that anywhere and with anyone. But then I realized this important point: I would never audition my humanity in exchange for doing something I loved.”
It was then Lisa crafted the space for Black Women Stitch. Lisa quickly saw the need as they platform became a soft space to land for so many Black women, girls and femmes in the wide-ranging field of needle arts. A lot of these creatives have been featured on her “Stitch, Please!” podcast, which has more than 125 episodes and more than 300,000 downloads. She’s interviewed Black women from across the globe, including cosplayers, an aerial artist, fashion designers, a mother-of-three who has been featured in Vouge magazine for her upcycled children’s clothes.
“It’s like this beautiful mountain of Black women’s creativity,” Lisa said. “I think it’s important that we remind ourselves we have this right to convene. We have this right to create, we have this right to get together, we have this right to celebrate and sustain each other. That sisterhood is our birthright.”
Grillz: A timeline
Grills have become a staple of Southern Black culture. These flashy mouthpieces are making statements from the hood to the red carpet (OK, Issa Rae! With the diamonds!). Some of my favorites from Atlanta rapper and “King of Grillz” Scotty ATL are:
We actually got a chance to chat with Scotty ATL about his grill empire, but before we go into that. RL’s gonna give y’all a quick history lesson about how this flashy dentistry came to be:
Way back in the day. According to a 2014 Vice article, there is some debate over which civilization invented the use of ornamental gold teeth. Many scholars believe it was Egypt in roughly 2,500 B.C. There is also compelling evidence that it was the Etruscans, in modern-day Italy, that popularized gold teeth from 800 BC to 200 BC. That ended when Caesar and the Romans rose to power.
300 AD to 900 AD. The Mayans invent the practice of filling teeth — not with gold but jade. As was the case in the Old World, the Spanish shut that down when they conquered the region, Vice reported.
900 AD. Europeans catch up to the trend as we see evidence that Viking men modified their teeth by filing ridges into them. It’s unclear whether the Vikings thought of this themselves or got the idea in their travels around the world.
1800s. The use of gold becomes common in dentistry due to the metal’s malleability, resistance to corrosion and similarity to natural teeth in terms of hardness. Because it’s also one of the cheapest ways to fill cavities, it becomes common for low-income Americans lacking access to dental care to have mouths full of gold.
1970s and 80s. African Americans in New York City begin wearing gold teeth as a fashion statement, popularized in the rise of hip-hop culture and music. Several reports cite a man named Eddie Plein as the godfather of tooth grills in NYC (Plein makes this claim himself on his Instagram and Twitter accounts). With artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Flava Flav sporting gold fronts, grills went from “a sign of poverty to proof of empowerment,” National Geographic reported in 2017.
Late 1900s. Gold mouth jewelry meets some backlash and newspapers publish editorials arguing that gold teeth could limit young folks’ employment prospects. In spring 2001, Toyota launched a print ad campaign featuring a smiling Black face, one of their teeth containing a gold embed in the shape of a RAV4. Civil rights groups successfully demanded Toyota remove the ad, arguing it promoted stereotypes.
2005. Nelly’s hit song Grillz features Jermaine Dupri, Paul Wall, Gipp and Ali of the St. Lunatics. “I got a Bill in my mouth like I’m Hillary Rodham,” Ali raps, referring to his mouthpiece’s price tag and two famous politicians.
Mid-2000s to present. As the legend goes, Eddie Plein relocates to Atlanta and began making grills for Southern hip-hop artists. “If you weren’t getting your grills from Eddie, you were getting it from the flea market,” noted Scotty ATL, a renowned grill artist who recently opened a West Coast location in Los Angeles. Of grills, Scotty told Reckon’s Dez Wilson recently: “It’s already part of the culture. People’s parents grew up wearing gold teeth. My dad’s had a gold tooth since I was little. You feel me?”
Express your creativity by cultivating your own Black joy. See y’all Friday!