Unfortunately, Catherine McKinley’s “Indigo” is another one of those books that could go grossly overlooked because it’s informative. Truly her search for indigo revealed the severe tie between cloth and world history everywhere.
A reader will get much more than the story of indigo in the world of textiles. In this narrative ethnography, full of desire and color, the reader will be introduced to the Nigerian medical doctor who discovers a cure for AIDS but then just a few pages later the reader gets folded back into cloth while learning that the Netherlands was the fourth-largest, slave-trading nation whose Dutch textiles made up 57 percent of the goods exchanged for human lives during their slave trade. Cloth constituted more than 50 percent of European exports to West Africa on a whole by the late 1600s—so that we see the incredible importance of cloth to West Africans that they would exchange lives for it. Concurrently, abolitionists over in America were staging boycotts of indigo and all of this information goes very well towards feeding the reader with the zeitgeist of the times.
Cloth takes on its own persona in “Indigo.” McKinley makes cloth come alive as she explores its processes and its history in pre-colonial Africa as well. She effectively runs through the various types of cloth that were exchanged from East to West and North to South. Everyone around the world loved cloth in all its colors and textures. She also succinctly points out on a general note that the making of the ‘beauty’ during colonialism is also the making of the crisis that consumed many West African countries post-colonialism.
Every bit of indigo McKinley can find not only furthers her Fulbright research but furthers her insatiable desire to ‘feel’ the history of the people when it is not readily communicable from its owners. She believes in understanding by osmosis so that when she lacks the information to steer her in the right direction for more culture, rather than assuming there is no more knowledge to be gotten, her self-determination, sheer faith, and belief in the power of cloth pushes her straight through to the places she needs to go and the people she needs to meet over and over again throughout her West African journey.
The textile cultures McKinley discovers have been in West Africa for a very long time and as the needs of a global economy loom, she explains how that has necessitated that many West Africans start to place the pursuit of financial gain over the maintenance of laborious yet ancient and rare textile traditions. These cloth traditions do more than impart beauty but also translate generational heritage as indigo has been included in dowries passed down from mother to daughter and the symbolism embedded in the cloth itself expresses the various cultural values from ethnicity to ethnicity and country to country that she explores.