Subscribe for free to the America First Report newsletter.
Six years ago, in October of 2011, a black and white photograph, which I had painstakingly spent hours upon hours in a dark room developing, dodging, and burning until perfection, graced the cover of the Tennessee English Journal (volume no. 21). For several days after receiving my copy of the journal, I couldn’t stop staring at my photograph or at my name listed right there on the front cover. It was such an exciting moment in my life and an honor I shall never forget.
This year as I reminisce, however, my feelings of pride and of joy are somewhat subdued as I am confronted by the possibility that my art will no longer be viewed with reverence, but instead with contempt. Why? It is because the subject of my photograph, entitled “Southern Portrait,” is the gossypium hirsutum, otherwise known as the cotton plant. My “Southern Portrait” is actually only one photograph in a series of three photographs of the gossypium hirsutum, all of which I developed myself and later had framed. This series now hangs on a wall in my house.
If it’s Southern it’s racist
By now you are likely aware of the Hobby Lobby cotton stalk controversy that occurred last month in which a black woman from Texas, Daniell Rider, took to Facebook to condemn Hobby Lobby for the sale of cotton stalks, demanding the business remove all cotton stalks from their stores so that these plant clippings could no longer be available for purchase. Implying that cotton stalks are a repugnant symbol of racism, Rider wrote, “This decor is WRONG on SO many levels. There is nothing decorative about raw cotton… A commodity which was gained at the expense of African-American slaves. A little sensitivity goes a long way. PLEASE REMOVE THIS ‘decor’.” Most of the responses to Rider’s Facebook post have been derisive toward her. However, as of this morning, October 6th, Rider’s Facebook post has received a surprising twenty-seven thousand “likes” and one thousand “loves.”
Coincidentally, on the same day as Rider’s Facebook post, a Lipscomb University student who goes by “nakaylayvonne” on Instagram, posted a lengthy diatribe in which she reprimanded the university’s president for using cotton stalks as part of a decorative, fall-themed décor in his home: the Lipscomb president had invited black students to his home for dinner. The cotton stalks debacle was worsened, according to nakaylayvonne, by the food served at dinner. “We were very offended, and also the meals that were provided resembled many ‘black meals’ they had mac n cheese, collard greens, corn bread etc., the student emoted,” she opined. Lipscomb University is located in Nashville, TN. While I am not aware of what part of the country nakaylayvonne comes from, with certainty I can state that the foods composing the dinner menu at the university president’s home that night, foods which the student described as being typical of “black meals,” are typical cuisine for native Southerners regardless of skin color.
“I have never been in a Cracker Barrel”
The gossypium hirsutum was also implicated in racism back in August when Ijeoma Oluo wrote a piece at Medium in which she described a recent visit to a Cracker Barrel store. “I decided to get a little daring on this trip and stop in a Cracker Barrel. I have never been in a Cracker Barrel. But stepping inside and glancing the overwhelming amount of Americana that appeared to romanticise a time when people like me were enslaved (btw, you can buy a wreath made of raw cotton blooms because…) — well, I was a little nervous” (emphasis mine). Oluo’s references to Cracker Barrel’s “Americana” décor, to slavery, and to the availability of purchasable wreaths made of cotton from that Cracker Barrel location is clearly her way of incriminating America, Cracker Barrel, and the cotton plant as being inherently racist and oppressive. Oluo then shared a Tweet which she had posted seated at a table in that Cracker Barrel location: “At Cracker Barrel 4 the first time. Looking at the sea of white folk in cowboy hats & wondering ‘will they let my black ass walk out of here?’”
Cracker Barrel and the cotton plant had already come under fire for racism back in January of this year, when Lyefree Iladelph took to Facebook, just as Daniell Rider has done. Iladelph’s Facebook post to Cracker Barrel stated, “Your cotton wreath is racist. It pays no homages to the slaves that were forced to pick it for hundreds of years in Virginia. Its display in a Virginia Beach store and sale in your stores and online is disrespectful to African Americans! Are you doing anything to address this issue?” It is unclear what “homages” Iladelph was referring to, nor whether Cracker Barrel correctively providing “homages to the slaves” in response to this complaint would effectively satisfy Iladelph and resolve “this issue.”
“Raw cotton is equivalent to a swastika”
In 2014, Stacey Patton wrote an article at Dame in which she describes a trip to Brooks Brothers for a dose of retail therapy, noting that her “spirit was weighed down with sadness,” because she was “still grieving the loss of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and the non-indictments in the Ezell Ford case and others.” Her shopping trip, according to Patton, ended up causing her to feel traumatized. “I stumbled across a display with a small decorative bale of cotton stalks. In that instant, Brooks Brothers went from being a place for therapeutic shopping to a hostile environment. WTF? I thought to myself…. On a day when it was difficult just to be in predominantly White spaces, I was accosted by the sight of raw cotton,” she stated. Patton then declared that “the sight of raw cotton is equivalent to a swastika.”
For Ms. Patton, like those mentioned above, cotton must not be permitted to remain within sight of the fragile public. Patton decided to take action:
I was calm and gracious as I pulled one of the workers aside, a nice White lady whose nametag said “Helen.”
“’Excuse me,” I said to her. She smiled expectantly. I pointed at the cotton display and made a face as if it stunk to high heaven. “Can you all please stop decorating your stores with cotton?”
“Make it go away, Helen.”
Ms. Patton then goes on to describe another run-in she had with racist cotton. “I’d had a similar experience when I lived in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn as it was becoming gentrified. A new plant shop opened up on Myrtle Avenue next to a Black-owned barbershop.” Again, Patton chose to take action, confronting the owners of the plant shop. “I said in a tone that was both sharp and gentle, “The cotton is not such a good idea in this neighborhood. You’re right next door to a Black barbershop. Might want to bring the bucket inside and put it in the back. Out of sight.”
A glimmer of hope: “It’s not racist to sell cotton”
There is hope. Writing at Afroculinaria, Michael W. Twitty, a black American, write an article entitled “Cotton is not inherently racist,” in which he speaks out against the most recent incidents of equating cotton as racist. “Hobby Lobby, which I would never patronize because of their stance on birth control, etc. sells decorative cotton. Once upon a time, so did I. Big deal. It’s not racist to sell cotton. Don’t make me clap it out. And the Nashville situation, nope, miss me with the outrage.” Continuing his defense of the gossypium hirsutum, Twitty writes, “When I grew and sold cotton it was exclusively bought by African Americans. I never once heard anyone chastise me for selling a racist product.” Twitty also provides a little dose of history for the perpetually offended, explaining, “We were growing and picking and spinning and weaving cotton long before our Ancestors ever heard of a white man. It’s a plant with African, American and Asian origins.” Lastly, Mr. Twitty supplies his readers with a link to a where cotton grown by black farmers on their ancestral land can be purchased.
Still, I wonder… Will Mr. Twitty’s voice resonate with America’s social justice warriors who seek to dissolve all forms of Americana, including cotton? Although few and far between, the increasing racification of the cotton plant leaves me, as an artist, extremely worried. Will my own photographs, which I truly labored in creating, soon become socially unacceptable? Will my “Southern Portrait” be shunned from the public eye and designated as racist art? As for other artists, will their works too be deemed hateful and racist as our culture progresses further and further toward the total embrace of an all-encompassing “everything is offensive, thus nothing is allowed” point of existence? I pray not!
Covid variant BA.5 is spreading. It appears milder but much more contagious and evades natural immunity. Best to boost your immune system with new Z-Dtox and Z-Stack nutraceuticals from our dear friend, the late Dr. Vladimir Zelenko.