Handcrafting Whiteness: Booker T. Washington and the Subject of Contemporary Craft

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The Power is in your hands!1

In 2012, the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery marked its fortieth anniversary with an exhibition titled "40 under 40: Craft Futures," highlighting the innovative directions of contemporary studio craft and charting its long history of political engagement and social reform. "For the past 150 years," writes then-museum director and exhibit curator NICHOLAS R. BELL, "craft has served as a minority report, reminding us that in a less-than-ideal world of things, other ways forward exist and can prosper if only we pay them attention."2 Such characterization of craft as a vehicle of dissent extends beyond galleries and studios. Its function as "social conscience" suffuses the popular craft movement and—as the knitted pink pussyhats worn during the 2017 Women's March demonstrate—it is also a potent symbol of collective resistance.3 Like the American Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which emerged in response to the rise of industrial capitalism and increasing urbanization, contemporary craft [End Page 423] discourse reiterates many of those same concerns of the progressive reform era, rejecting mass-produced consumer goods, labor exploitation, and environmental destruction in favor of a self-sufficient, authentic, and eco-conscious connection to one's labor and community. Harnessing the countercultural and feminist reclamation of the 1960s and '70s and the Punk-infused DIY spirit of the 1980s and '90s, popular craft in the digital age is often associated with terms like "slow," "sustainable," "green," and "local," positioning itself as a site of resistance against the injurious effects of globalization, capitalism, and excessive consumption. Variously described as "makers culture," "fabriculture," or "craftivism," and ranging from a revival of artisanal traditions to the bricolage of reuse and recycle or "upcycling," this resurgence is distinguished by its use of digital technology to amplify the long-standing belief in craft's power and potential for social change.4

"… despite its social justice concerns and its progressive genealogy, contemporary craft discourse in the US remains curiously disengaged with or isolated from the nation's racial politics and history."

Yet, despite its social justice concerns and its progressive genealogy, contemporary craft discourse in the US remains curiously disengaged with or isolated from the nation's racial politics and history.5 Critiques of the gendered and racialized forms of labor exploitation and global capitalism often externalize such exploitation as a feature of the "Third World," rendering the exploitation of garment workers in the United States invisible or as a fact of the past.6 Moreover, in books, magazines, and blogs that celebrate this current iteration of craft culture, people of color are often underrepresented, if not altogether absent. In their assessment of "fabriculture" and activism, media studies scholars Jack Z. Bratich and Heidi M. Brush note the dominance of white women but caution against falling prey to the "spiral of shame surrounding [the] privilege" of white women "with the time and resources to make clothing by hand."7 Unfortunately, such caution potentially reinforces stereotypes and conditions of white female fragility and forecloses examination into the conditions of erasure in contemporary craft discourse. [End Page 424] Feminist scholarship has powerfully demonstrated the gendered history of the Arts and Crafts movement as well as the configurations of domesticity that have defined amateur or popular crafting as a feminine space.8 Less attention, however, has been paid to craft as a site of racial discourse.

The absence of a critical race analysis in contemporary craft, I argue, is an effect of the isolation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Arts and Crafts historiography from the concomitant rise of industrial education in which handicraft was viewed as a means of racial assimilation.9 Often ignored or forgotten in the progressive genealogy of contemporary craft is the history of Black artisans, the impact of industrial education, and the work of Booker T. Washington, who vigorously championed handicraft as the means of Black uplift.10 Black artisans were not only a central part of the antebellum and postbellum economy, but their growing numbers also precipitated two large-scale studies on them in 1902...


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