In 1997 I moved from my college apartment in Baltimore to Itta Bena, Mississippi, a town of just over 2,000 people in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. I was there to teach French and social studies at Threadgill Junior High in Greenwood, twenty minutes down the highway.
In the center of downtown Greenwood is a cottonseed oil mill that makes everything smell like popcorn. Parts of the year the edges of the roads are white with stray cotton fibers blown off the huge industrial combines in the cotton fields. Often you have to roll up your windows so as not to inhale pesticide being sprayed by low flying crop dusters.
When I arrived I was 22 years old and full of idealism. I’d written my senior thesis at Johns Hopkins on public school desegregation. I wanted to go to the Delta to fight injustice, to follow in the footsteps of Freedom Summer, to see where the civil rights movement originated (Greenwood was where SNCC was headquartered).
I was totally unprepared.
The train tracks in Greenwood literally divide the town’s black residents from white and overtly racist comments are an accepted part of everyday conversation. A few weeks after I moved in I was at a faculty party when a teacher described the high school home coming queen to me as a monkey. The school where we taught together, where she’d taught for ten years, was 99% African American.
The kids at Threadgill Junior High were almost all very poor. Their lives were so different from mine; their language was so different. I had taught in inner city Baltimore before coming to the Delta, but this was like another world to me. They’d never seen a bookstore or an airport, never met someone who didn’t grow up in town. They had very few last names between them – the same names as the plantations that surround the town. The secretary in the public school’s central office thought I was from France because of my Yankee accent.
Teachers and the principal paddled kids in school – one lick for a small offense and five for something more egregious like talking back – with a wooden paddle to the backside. As a teacher if you wouldn’t paddle (which I wouldn’t) the parents got angry with you for not upholding high enough discipline standard in your classroom. At the end of the day the kids went home to shotgun shacks on unpaved roads in neighborhoods ruined by crack addiction. Two of my sixth grade girls gave birth during my second year there. When I asked them about the fathers of the babies they both said, “He ain’t claimin’ it.”
I had two roommates that first year. Sarah was from Chicago and taught kindergarten in Ruleville and Terrill was from Ames, Iowa and taught high school math in Greenville. Each morning we’d go out our front door to face the violence and sadness and overwhelm of our jobs. In the evenings we escaped from it all by crafting. Sitting on a hand-me-down floral couch in the house we rented for $150 a month we made things with our hands. Sarah crocheted a gray afghan for her boyfriend back home. She made an intricate collage from images in a vintage exercise pamphlet. Terrill knitted a thick blanket of sampler squares and sewed her own dresses. I made a life-sized cloth doll that sat next to me on the couch. We joked that I’d sewn myself a friend.
At a time when I felt totally powerless, making things gave me something tangible that I could control. I know that I’m not alone in seeking crafting for this purpose. I chatted recently with Melanie Kindrachuk, a librarian who crafts for similar reasons.
“I work in a public service position at a public library,” she told me. “This can sometimes be very stressful. When you face unexpected situations with the public or with your organization, sometimes that stress also feels very much like powerlessness. And of course, sometimes those days can make you wonder if you’ve actually chosen the right profession!”
After days like this Melanie turns to crafting to regain a sense of herself. “When I feel that kind of helpless stress, I can pick up my embroidery hoop and focus on stitching up a positive or encouraging quote with something pretty alongside – my favorite combination. I make my pattern, choose my colors, and then as I stitch, listen to the thread pulling through the cloth. This slows down my breathing and lets me focus on the positive words I am stitching. I find this a very soothing practice, and of course, when it’s done, I have something concrete that I have made with my own hands, which is quite empowering.”
Rachel Linquist faces a different kind of challenge. She suffers from fibromyalgia, which she says “involves achy muscles, intense fatigue, and sometimes ‘brain fog’ which includes mild confusion and a general feeling of muddled thoughts.” Crafting helps her fight a sense of powerlessness over her own body.
Craft “is a declaration for me,” she explains. “It says I’m not giving up, I’m not giving in. My body can still do good things, even if I can’t always keep up on the housework and cooking for my family, at least I can add a row to this scarf today, or add another layer of color to this leaf. It can be a thing to hang my sense of worth on, when that feels scarce. I can still leave a mark on this world through the things I create.”
I’m grateful that making things is part of my life. In the happy, easy times it’s enjoyable and satisfying to be creative. In the hard times it’s a way to remember who I am. As Rachel put it, by crafting “I am declaring that I am still me.”