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.