by Venice R. Williams—
All I was interested in were a few, small chalkboards for my farmers market displays. I had no idea that a brief shopping outing would evolve into a journey of healing when I entered the huge craft and home décor store. I did not grab a shopping cart or a hand-held basket. No need to meander down the looming 80 or so aisles of mirrors, decorative shelves, yarn, pillows, jewelry, wearable art, books, brushes, frames, jars—all things I was not looking for.
But I did. Even though my husband had dropped me off at the door, was waiting in the parking lot and probably had the car running (I said I would not be long), the seemingly, unending rows of stuff and more stuff lured me deeply into the store. He would just have to wait. My hands were now filled with cute objects that should have remained on the shelves. Hugging the items to my body so none would fall, I turned a corner to enter an unexplored section of the store. When the first rack met my eyes, I felt as if I had been punched right in my gut. My stomach began to ache both inside, as if I’d consumed the worse meal of my life, and outside, as if I’d done stomach crunches for three hours straight. I felt sick and dizzy. Did my knees buckle, or was I imagining that? Had I really become so disoriented that things were now blurry? No. Those were tears welling up in my eyes. Was I actually biting my lip?
I am unsure how long I stood frozen in the aisle, just staring. When another shopper tried to get around me with her shopping cart, her question guided me in naming all the anguish and other emotions dripping from me. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“It is cotton,” I remember saying. “These are wreaths of raw cotton. My ancestors were stolen, beaten, dismembered, raped, tortured and killed because of cotton.” My voice trembled as I asked: “Who would want a wreath of cotton?”
It was not the answer she had anticipated. Now she was also trying to keep her tears from falling. I moved out of her way, as she put her head down, and began to move on. I believe she whispered, more to herself, not speaking directly to me: “So sorry. I don’t know.”
I found myself speaking aloud after she had gone. “Venice, it’s just cotton. It’s just cotton.” Yet my pain was undeniable and not easily dismissed. I took a picture of the wreaths with my cell phone. The next day I posted the photograph on my Facebook page, sharing a small portion of my reaction. The response to the image of the six cotton wreaths was swift and clear. Most of us who reside in the Northern part of the country did not understand. Yes, that’s not my kind of nostalgia. Where in the world? Why would anybody want this? Not cute at all. Unbelievable. Why, just why? Among the 20 or more comments, one Facebook friend wrote, “This just makes me think of BlackCotton.” She had tagged the business on her post. Within minutes, the owner of BlackCotton sent me a private message: “Hey, Venice,” he began, “I saw your post about cotton today. I am a black cotton farmer. I understand your uneasiness about cotton. I would love to expose you to a different view of it.”
I did not want to feel the way I did. Why would I? I was moving through life with an open wound. I had held and seen raw cotton before—on and off its branches. I had cradled it in the palm of my hand. I’d offered prayers of remembrance for ancestors who picked it from sunup to sundown, and prayers of forgiveness for those who enslaved them, disregarding not just the humanity of those from whom I descend, but also their own humanity. At one point in my life, I’d stopped using round cotton balls and began purchasing square cotton cleansing pads. Yes, my grief was that serious.
Long before entering that store, I’d tried—many times—to close the wound. But now I realize that what I felt looking up at those wreaths was not about cotton itself. My internal trauma arose
from seeing raw cotton crafted into a thing of honor, a piece of art, something intended to be seen as beautiful. I could not, at that time, imagine this on my front door or hung above a fireplace mantel. I simply was not ready to embrace that.
I went into distress, which helped me see the urgent need to repair my spiritual, historical sensitivity to cotton.
Cotton was never the enemy. The enemy is hatred. Greed. Ignorance. Self-righteousness. False superiority. Those were just some of the evils woven into the soil and crops of the earth those hundreds of years gone by. The truth is, nothing God created, brought forth from soil and identified as good, could ever be wrong.
Venice R. Williams is executive director of Alice’s Garden Urban Farm and The Body and Soul Healing Arts Center, both in Milwaukee. She is also the developer of an ELCA worshipping community called The Table.
This article is excerpted from the July/August 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.
I am sorry for the grief. I cannot imagine. I am a former farmer who grew cotton. I went broke but I make my living in the same area selling crop insurance to farmers. If it would help to visit a cotton farm, I can help. I can take you out on cotton farms and visit with Lutheran farmers. Maybe it would be good for both of us.
Thank you for sharing. As a white 72 year old Pacific Northwest woman, who has been to anti-racism training at the Churchwide office, who is always surprised at new lessons to be learned. I need y’all to continue to tell your stories so that we might all grow closer to understanding and sharing the love and fellowship that abides in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Tak!
This gives me a different light when I consider the uses of cotton…I wonder what else I may be doing which unknowingly offends others.
So moving that such a simple item as a cotton wreath would evoke all these feelings. You have a beautiful way of sharing your thoughts and feelings.
I’m sorry that the cotton wreath upset you. I don’t have a wreath but I do have a branch with cotton balls on it displayed in an antique bottle that I inherited from my first generation German American grandparents. They were very poor farmers who grew cotton. They farmed along with their son, my uncle, and his family. My cousins had to chop the weeds out of the fields and pick the cotton. It was backbreaking work in the hot sun. The whole family had to help. My siblings and I lived with our parents in the city but my mother made us help pick cotton one summer in the 1960s so we would understand how hard they worked to make a living. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. We got paid 2 cents a pound. Crawling on the ground in the heat dragging a sack along to put the cotton in. There were ants and we wore long sleeves and big hats to protect us from the sun. The cotton bolls were very sharp and tore up our fingers as we pulled out the cotton. But I learned to appreciate their hard work. I keep the cotton branch as a reminder of how hard a life they had and to appreciate all that I have because of them. My cousin still has her cotton picking sack and the bonnet she wore. So my point is that we all have a story of our ancestors and we may see things differently but not with the intention of hurting anyone’s feelings. Thank you for your story and I hope you can appreciate and understand mine.
I appreciate your story and I am learning too. I think this is called centering when we make it about ourselves. I know you mean no harm. Your family was most likely not kidnapped and brought to work in cotton fields, in chains against their will. Prayers that we can all open our hearts and minds to learn and grow together and lift up our black brothers and sisters with love and compassion.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in the South of the Island to be exact. I’ve lived in the Mainland for 36 years now I remember cotton in a very different way. We had sugar cane plantations nearby and we heard as children we used to have cotton as well. My grandfather used to work in the sugar cane fields when he was young. Every now and then there was this solitary cotton plant that grew wild in our neighbors backyard that we used to love. We couldn’t believe they would make fabric out of that and we used to play with it and we thought that was the most magnificent thing on earth. I’ve lived in Georgia for 30 years and would read about black history and their horrible tales in the cotton fields. A couple of years ago I stumbled across Joanns with Cotton stems and I got so excited because it reminded me of childhood. I made door wreaths and decorated with them.Now fast forward to Pandemic mode, where I’ve been off work for almost a year. I had so much time to read and learn about not only the History of the US, but of history from the South.Mind you, we live in a very diverse neighborhood where each household is from a different color from their neighbors-Thank Goodness!! I can’t believe, our best friend and neighbor, which happens to be black, never mentioned it to us. Every time I think about the wreaths I cringe so hard, and I hope people that drive by think the worst of us, because all our neighbors know us well. Sorry about this to be so long, but I needed to take it off my chest. Life is a learning process.
I’m Euro American. I always liked the look of cotton, and I went out and bought some at Hobby Lobby, but felt embarrassed carrying it in the store when I saw an African American store clerk. I brought it home, but then returned it. Our American history is fraught with too much blood and tragedy for me to feel okay with that as decor.
My maiden name is Cotton. When I got married I changed my middle name to Cotton. My heritage is from the Southern states and yes. I have a bouquet of cotton branches in my home. I am not sure if my ancestors had slaves, but probably so. However, I was taught from my grandparents who told me that their parents were very kind and generous to everyone. stories can be told of how kind they were to those less fortunate. The cotton plant is not a symbol of evil. Unfortunately evil did exist then and terrible things did happen. Let’s not lose sight of how far we have come and should still go. With that being said, we have a son-in-law who is African-American. He is a great man and we love him. Please don’t let history cloud the future. Someday our grandchildren may think something that we do now is terrible too. Be kind, humble, gentle, patient and most of all have compassion and love one another. That will get us where we want to be.
I actually searched the internet to see if this was a common thought, and I didn’t know there was so much controversy. I searched this after seeing so many Pinterest posts on farmhouse style home decor with cotton and it seemed blatantly obvious there’s a slightly racist tone about it. . I think most people don’t realize it and it comes from ignorance. I’m Caucasian, I’m not a huge “liberal”, and don’t usually partake in many of these debates, and even I can see the irony in it. Farmhouse : cotton. Seems like a pretty textbook relation to American slavery. I’m aware that this generations common population did not partake in that era’s wrongdoings in the literal sense. But it seems like a pretty large disregard of respect to those who still feel afflicted by those events.
I feel the exact same way you feel. The exact same way. I live, was born and raised in southwest Georgia. When I drive by fields of it, it saddens me. I cannot fathom how people decorate and take portraits with cotton. I understand that cotton is needed and there is a demand for it but adding it to your home decor is (in my opinion) very insensitive.
I have often asked this same thing every time I see it in a store. Who could possibly think this is a decorative accessory? Why would this be displayed earnestly in any one’s home. I remember visiting Magnolia in Waco. Myself and two other customers saw the cotton at the same time. She shook her head and said to me, “Well, we don’t need any of this do we Sister?” The other shook her head and nodded in agreement. I responded, “No we do not!” Both women were older Anglo women, but they knew what this stalk of cotton truly symbolized and all the lives that were lost to bring wealth to those who grew it, processed it and sold it.
Thank you for your article. My first opinion of the cotton wreaths was the same as yours. (I thought that I was the only one until I saw your article). I’m pretty sure that none of my ancestors picked cotton. Even so, knowing the history hurts to think that anyone would celebrate by placing a wreath made of raw cotton (even if it isn’t real) in their home. I think we have enough flowers, greenery, and grapevines to make wreaths with. Not sure who came up with the cotton wreath. I certainly won’t buy one. Your attitude is better than mine. It certainly isn’t the fault of the cotton itself. I have seen these wreaths in the stores, but I’ve never seen one in anyone’s home. And, if there are a lot in the stores, then perhaps no one really buys them.
Thank you for your article and sharing your personal and natural response to seeing the cotton wreaths. I live in the Pacific NW and have seen many of these wreaths and also stalks as decoration. A few years ago I decided to get some of my own and I really enjoyed the natural beauty. Now that I’ve learned more from reading your story, I am taking it all down. I would never want to offend or make others uncomfortable. I actually feel a bit guilty for not thinking it through myself. Thank you for the education.