John E. Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past

I think after this year, I am going to always remember the year, 1619.

Cotton as a symbol: “This is a memorial to those who died right out there in the fields and were buried in unmarked graves, and its a warning to us not to forget what came before.” ~ John E. Dowell

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This is the quote I read on the wall when I walked up to the second floor in the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

I read the quote then stared at the artist’s name, John E. Dowell.

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Next, I read his inspiration behind his art. “In August of 2011, I started having dreams of my grandmother…I felt she was directing me to cotton. I found a…farmer (located in Savannah, Ga) who helped me navigate my first experience with cotton…photographing first and second day cotton flowers, as well as ‘ “Perfect cotton” ‘ …was beautiful but treacherous…I cried at the thought of it, bringing back memories of my grandmother from so long ago.”

 

I immediately thought I was going to view work about cotton growing in the south. I took a glace at the synopsis on the wall, reading but not really reading. Eager to view Dowell’s work, I turned the corner. That’s when, the exhibition took an unexpected turn.

“Stacy, these pictures look like they were taken in New York”. Stacy was already at the third panel and just like me, moving slowly. We both were silent.

Then after awhile, Stacy responded, They were taken in New York. All of them.

I was stunned. A bit shocked. But the history settled with me. Somewhere in my memory, I knew that New York wasn’t exempt from the brutal slave trade. But, a massive slave market?  I went back to the synopsis and reread everything slowly. Even the title, Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past.

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Then, I thought about my family. Dowell’s grandma had picked cotton. But who in my family picked? Was it my great- grands or my great- great grands?And thinking about who could have picked cotton meant I had also started to think about who survived in my family. From 1619 till now. Who survived the ships? Who survived the fields?  Who escaped lynching? The stories, they are missing.

Stacy and I viewed each photograph and read each caption. We got excited when we recognized a place or landmark. In no way did we think we were going to learn about the history of our city while visiting the city of Brotherly Love. Dowell made it close to home for us.

We walked down the corridor and turned. There we saw a little shrine set up  to honor the ancestors. Black and white photographs were placed there. Not too far away sat a wooden bowl filled with cotton to be picked.

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When I picked up a bunch, I found I could only pick less then a handful. My fingers got red and the seeds were still intertwined into the cotton.

Next, we viewed more photographs and read how scary it is to get lost on a cotton field. Set up in the middle of the room was a maze. Stacy went first and I followed. It is nothing compared to the thought of getting lost on a field, but the maze was unnerving enough for one to completely understand.

Before Stacy and I arrived at the museum, we hurried to the bus station. There we met a Black lady who charged us for our tickets.

Can we get a discount? We asked her, smiling.

If I could, I would ladies. Seriously.

Can we get a discount for being black? I asked, smiling. Stacy and I busted out laughing.

She smiled then in a matter-of-fact voice responded,  when you woke up this morning, that was your discount. To be black and surviving in this world is a miracle. Count your blessings.

Amen was all we could say. 1619. And still counting.

 

Going to see the Amish

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For the end of the year trip, the third grade went to Pennsylvania to continue their studies about the Amish people.

The tutor guide, Ms. Ellen, was very down to earth and had a clear understanding about the Amish and their way of life.

Before we went, I searched for children books about the Amish but only found cookbooks. The New York Public Library told me there were no Amish children books in their database. I asked my brother who is in graduate school to see if his school had any books about the Amish. That night he came home with  a thick but easy read book titled: A History of the Amish. It was worn and someone had highlighted all the important material so it was easy for me to use the book to teach my class.

During the trip I took notes worth sharing:

The Beginnings: Menno Simon, who was a priest, objected the idea of taking babies and baptizing them. He argued with the Pope and left the church with a lot of members. They now call themselves the Mennonites as oppose to Catholic. They believe people should be baptized as Adults and not as babies. Everyone should be given the choice to decide whether they want to be apart of the church. They were kicked out of Switzerland, Germany, France and other European countries because of their defiance.

Another Breakaway: Then in the 1690’s the Mennonites begin to argue among themselves about people not following rules. Jakob Ammann argued that the rules needed to be stricter, such as, if you don’t obey the rules in the church, well, then you will be thrown out. You will be shunned. The Mennonites then split in half. Those who wanted things more strict, became Amish and those who were satisfied stayed Mennonites.

William Penn: These two groups heard about an American, William Penn, who started the colony of Pennsylvania. He told both groups that they were welcome to come to Pennsylvania. Thus, both groups came to Pennsylvania. Today the Amish is in 23 states and in 3 Providences in Canada- but none are in Europe. On the other hand, the Mennonites are everywhere. They are in a lot of states, South America, Africa, and Europe. There are so many of them because they have missionaries and want to bring more people into their church. Meanwhile, the Amish are satisfied with the members they have.

(The man who gave us a buggy ride was a Mennonite).

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The Amish House: They do not have electricity so they use an oil lamp or propane tank. They do not use rugs because you need a vacuum to clean the floor.

Church: They also do not have church buildings. They have church in their homes. Every other week, they attend someone’s home for service. Each member should have room in their house for the church members to attend.  During church their will be singing and a sermon. Then Brunch follows and the ladies are the ones who fix the meal. The men eat first. After they eat, the ladies and kids eat. After they all eat and clean up, then it’s time for sports.

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They have bishops and minsters, all of whom are elected by each other. They do not get a salary because they already have an occupation as a farmer or carpenter. Everyone gives ten percent of their money to the church which goes into a bank account and if one of them has a problem which result in huge expenses, the church steps in and pays. For example, if someone has a huge hospital bill and can only pay half, the Bishop has the power to pay half of the bill.

They take care of each other. No one goes into an institution and no one gets sent away. If someone has alzheimers or if a child is born with physical problems. Everyone in the church, helps you out. Very little crime. If you committed a crime and the Bishop heard, he would come to your home and take you to the police. They do not hide anyone. If you get arrested for a crime, you are also shunned.

Sports: Everyone participate in sports after church. They might play: volleyball or baseball. We saw a pair of skates near the bed, in which we were told everyone had skates and scooters. Some have bikes that they ride on the farm. Everyone plays together.

Holidays: They celebrate all the traditional Christian holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. They also celebrate birthdays. They do not celebrate memorial or labor day (which celebrate soldiers). But they celebrate July 4th.

Citizens: They vote only if the issues is important to them. So they vote sometimes. They do not take part in elections. They pay their taxes and are good citizens. If you lived by them as a neighbor and needed help, they will help you.

Daily Life: Everyone eats together. Breakfast and Dinner. The mother and daughter are up early in the morning to prepare the food for everyone. The men do a lot of physical work. They are farmers or construction works. No one eats a piece of toast or fruit for breakfast. They all have big hearty breakfast (eggs, sausage, pancakes). Then, the kids go to school and Dad goes to work while mom does house work. Like, tending the garden, canning, and making quilts for themselves and tourist.

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Fun Fact: The Amish calls us Englishers because we speak English. To the Amish people their are three types of people: The Amish, The Mennonites and the Englishers. They call themselves the plain people. They dress the same, they want to look like a community of people. The individual is not important. The community is important. The look and live different from Englishers. When they are growing up, they are not Amish. They only become Amish when they grown up and choose to become Amish as adults.

They are taught from the time they are very little that their are three very important things in life. They are very religious and teach their children the acronym JOY. Because they are very religious, it’s more important to learn about JESUS, be a good person and get to heaven. The O is for OTHERS. Others are your community and family and church group. The Y stands for YOU. You as an individual come last.

Marriage: This one I wasn’t really clear on…but it seems as if the Amish date before joining the church. It’s only when they decide to marry when they must join the church. The soon to be bride, makes a plain dress for her wedding. Her dress will be either blue or purple. The dress she makes for her wedding is the same dress she wears to church every other week. She wears the dress all her life. And when she dies she is buried in the dress. The bride also wears her prayer cap on her wedding day. The day she marries, she will wear very old-fashion high top shoes. The rest of the time, she wears high top black shoes and black stockings.

The Wife: The ladies have very long hair. Their hair is parted in the middle and pulled back into a bun. All ladies have the same hair style. They want to look alike. They wear a prayer cap. Like the Mennonites and the Muslim,  the Amish follow the scripture closely about a women’s hair being her crown and glory and should be only seen by her husband. Thus, they cover their hair.

When the women work, they dress plain. Unlike the Mennonites who believe in wearing bright colors and prints on their clothes.

The main job of the women is to be a wife and mother.

The Little Girl: When a child, the child dress exactly like the mother (kind of like having your own American Girl Doll). The little girl wears a plain dress and a black apron. However, she will not wear a prayer cap. She will part her hair in the middle and wear braids with a scarf for covering.

The Husband: He wears black slacks without cuffs or buttons. He also does not wear a belt. He wears suspenders. He may wear a shirt from Walmart (this comment aroused a lot of questions…as my students had learn that they make their own clothes…). All Amish men wear their straw hat  or his black wide church hat (which my students declared: ‘That looks like Ms. Hurley’s hat!” ) and construction boots.

When the men attend church, they wear hand made suits which have no buttons. He wears a white shirt and not tie and a vest.

The Little Boy: The kids are taught to work from very little. They are not out playing, they are working. The little boy sits on the back of the plow (he’s 5) and helps his dad (who maybe a farmer) plant tobacco. When the  dad puts the plow through the ground, his son is sitting on the back with the plants and he’s leaning over placing them in the grown.

In conclusion, the Amish are a happy people who are not interested in violence or war. They have a different culture.

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