Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World

Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World

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by Catherine E. McKinley
     
 

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For almost five millennia, in every culture and every major religion, indigo—a blue pigment obtained from the small green leaf of a parasitic shrub through a complex process that even scientists still regard as mysterious—has been one of the world's most valued dyes.

Indigo is the story of this precious dye and its ancient heritage&

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Overview

For almost five millennia, in every culture and every major religion, indigo—a blue pigment obtained from the small green leaf of a parasitic shrub through a complex process that even scientists still regard as mysterious—has been one of the world's most valued dyes.

Indigo is the story of this precious dye and its ancient heritage: its relationship to slavery as the "hidden half" of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its profound spiritual (African, Islamic, Christian, Amish) and sartorial significance that is little recognized but no less alive today (blue jeans, anyone?). It is an untold story, existing in footnotes and brief mentions in popular and scholarly records, brimming with rich, electrifying tales of those who shaped the course of 20th century colonial history and a world economy, fascinating people long forgotten who here are brought thrillingly alive. But Indigo is also the story of a personal quest: McKinley is the descendant of a clan of Scots who wore indigo tartan as their virile armor; the kin of several generations of Jewish "rag traders"; her maternal grandfather owned a textile factory in Lynn, Massachusetts; and she's a paternal granddaughter of African slaves—her ancestors were traded along the same Saharan routes as indigo, where a length of blue cotton could purchase human life. McKinley's journey in search of beauty and her own history began with a Fulbright fellowship to research indigo, and ultimately leads her to a new and satisfying path, to finally "taste life."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this memoir of longing, community, and personal maturation, McKinley (The Book of Sarahs), half African-American by birth, adopted and raised by white parents who were plant devotees, seeks her roots through the intertwined European and African history of the once rare indigo. A plant dye long prized for its deep blue color, indigo became a staple of trade from Africa across the Mediterranean and Europe; indigo and the fabric dyed from it evoke stories of slavery (past and present), global trade, and entrenched cultural traditions. McKinley's journey to the source of indigo leads her unexpectedly to politically unstable areas like the Ivory Coast, as well as to Ghana, Mali, and other African countries, where she is welcomed. McKinley's passion for the rare blue dye—created from ash, urine, and leaves, and used to painstakingly imprint storytelling designs—leads to intense friendships and an introduction to the complexity of social and economic status in a continent so far removed from the woman who inspired McKinley's journey—her grandmother—a questioning, tartan-clad woman in a rich blue coat. Photo insert; map. (June)
Library Journal
In this meandering and meditative memoir, McKinley (The Book of Sarahs) recounts her travels in Africa as a Fulbright scholar researching the rich history and lore of the titular prized blue dye. Her outward search for indigo's cultural, religious, and economic significance becomes a vehicle for her more personal emotional and spiritual search for meaning, growth, and greater understanding of her own heritage. The sections in which she focuses on the history of indigo are fascinating, and some of her vivid descriptions shimmer with an almost cinematic quality. However, the book is marred by McKinley's seemingly aimless approach to her research, her overblown, sometimes riddlelike prose, and a too heavy attention to the details of her day-to-day life while living in Ghana, all of which makes the book as a whole too unfocused. VERDICT Lacking in storytelling impetus, this work is best suited for patient memoir or travelog fans interested in African cultural traditions and textile history. Readers or researchers interested specifically in indigo may prefer Jenny Balfour-Paul's recent more focused and comprehensive Indigo.—Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI
Kirkus Reviews

One woman's journey to Africa to discover the secret history of indigo.

In her quest to unravel the mysteries of this precious dye, McKinley (The Book of Sarahs: A Family In Parts, 2002) traveled to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and other African nations. Indigo, "the bluest of blues," has maintained a significant presence on the global stage for generations. "No color has been prized so highly or for so long," writes the author, "or been at the center of such turbulent human encounters." This turbulence is a clear reference to the slave trade, and McKinley argues that the history of Africa appears to be woven into the color itself. During the author's adventures, she introduces the reader to a wide cast of characters who slip in and out of the narrative unobtrusively—like Lady Diana, a master seamstress whose technique McKinley observed for hours on end, and Aunt Mercy, whose dyeing skills were rivaled by no one. The author even learned lessons from the recently deceased, a Mr. Ghilcreist, who—unbeknownst to him—taught McKinley about indigo's role in burial rights, how the color is "not really a color" but an "attempt to capture beauty, to hold the elusive, the fine layer of skin between the two." The author's main contact was Eurama, a Ghanaian shop girl with ties to the cloth market, and with her help, McKinley crossed the continent in search of indigo's history, as well as the colored cloth itself.

While memoir and history often become tangled, the book represents a valiant effort to recount the social and historical implications of a color.

Sarah Halzack
…[McKinley's] personal discoveries resonate, and her unique experiences provide a vivid snapshot of the cultures she encountered in Africa.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher

“Gorgeously recounts McKinley's journey to West Africa's teeming markets and churning factories, through funerals and uprisings, to find ‘the bluest of the blues'” —Los Angeles Times

“[McKinley's] discoveries resonate, and her unique experiences provide a vivid snapshot of the cultures she encountered in Africa.” —Washington Post

“An eye-opening account of the controversial role this gorgeous, coveted pigment has played through the millennia.” —Elle

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781608195053
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
05/10/2011
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
442,420
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Catherine McKinley is the author of The Book of Sarahs. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she has taught Creative Nonfiction, and a former Fulbright Scholar in Ghana, West Africa, where she began her research on indigo. She lives in New York City.

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