Rebecca Jamieson – “Sewing White Supremacy”

I’m standing in front of a Ku Klux Klan hood. It floats at eye-level, disembodied in the glass museum case. The plaque reads: “Found in East Montpelier, Vermont. Cotton, c. 1920.”

The hood is mended. The seam above the brow is hand-sewn with delicate, precise stitches. The eyeholes are carefully zigzagged by machine. The seam at the nose is crudely made, and a few big, clumsy stitches gather the corner of the right eyehole, threads dangling into the empty socket.

My maternal great-grandfather, Jesse Lincoln Baker, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. His middle name, I can only imagine, was taken from the man who freed the slaves.

My mother taught me to sew. She learned from her mother, who learned from hers.

Faint, yellow stains on the hood could be food, sweat, or faded blood.

Nearby, another plaque reads, “Ku Klux Klan Celebration, July 4th 1927, Montpelier, Vermont.” A glossy black and white photograph shows a pickup truck covered in white flowers, a marching band dressed in crisp uniforms. The American flag is proudly displayed everywhere, draped around the circular shield with the Klan’s emblem proclaiming, “Klansmen we greet you.”

How did the hood get ripped?

My mother sewed me a ghost costume for Halloween when I was about eight. Instead of a sheet draped over my head, she made a pointed hood. It was supposed to droop over to one side in a squiggle like the ghost from Ghostbusters. But it didn’t. When my older sister saw me, she shrieked, “You look like you’re in the Klan!” My mother’s face went white. She pushed and pulled the hood, but it kept standing.

Memories of sewing could map my whole life: I am five and holding a fat embroidery needle, making long stitches with bright blue thread in a circle of cloth held tight by a wooden hoop. I am ten and spinning around and around in the new blue and purple dress my mother made me. I am twenty and sewing my own dresses. My friend Kathleen tells me that I’m the only person she knows who’s in front of a sewing machine ten minutes before a party, trying to finish what I’m going to wear. I am thirty-five and sewing masks for all my friends during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing my face covered by the delicate gray and white floral print, it strikes me that a mask is similar to a hood: it can protect the wearer or conceal their identity.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, I saw a video of two Black men being escorted out of an Illinois Wal-Mart at gunpoint because they refused to take off their medical masks. Masks that the Center for Disease Control had encouraged all Americans to wear in public, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, told 911 dispatchers that the seventeen-year-old was “wearing a dark hoodie” and looked like “a suspicious guy,” before Zimmerman shot him.

In America, hoods and masks were never designed to protect Black people.

I think of her, the woman who mended the hood I’m facing, sitting at the window with her sewing basket. Her fingers drawing the thread through the white cloth one stitch at a time. Or sitting at the treadle machine, her hands moving the cotton under the needle, foot working the pedal.

I have never made a hood, but I easily could. I have sewn so many other things. It might seem daunting at first, but it’s easier than you think. All you need to do is follow these simple steps:

Start by determining which garment you wish to add the hood to. Will you find the garment, or will you create it?

The museum plaque reads “found in East Montpelier, VT.” But one does not simply “find” a Klan hood from 1920. Finding implies innocence: a white blur tossed from a horse-drawn wagon, perhaps plucked from the mud by a child’s fingers, kept safe for decades in a box of curios: baseball trading cards, silver dollars, locks of hair. More likely: the hood’s owner squirreled it away in the attic while his children grew up, had children of their own. Until they found it again, years later. They couldn’t throw it away and they couldn’t keep it; they couldn’t donate it to the museum and have their names engraved on the plaque. So it was simply “found.”

If you choose a found garment, it should have a neckline that sits comfortably around the base of your neck. Lay it on top of the fabric. Fold in the arms, then outline the body.

What else is living in my hands?

My great-grandfather Jesse Lincoln Baker was born in Arkansas on April 17th, 1892. He became a Pentecostal preacher, and he and my great-grandmother Eunice went to Egypt on a missionary trip, where my grandfather, Jesse Ardon Baker, was born. Eventually, he moved the family to Iowa and worked in coal mining. At some point, he joined the Klan.

The fabric for your hood should coordinate with the base garment in both fiber content, weight, and color. Think about the effect you want the hood to have. Will the color stand out, or will it fade into the night?

I ask my family for the details, but so much remains unknown.

Witnessing the way hatred twisted his father into something monstrous, my grandfather Jesse Ardon made a different choice. In the 1950s, he and my grandmother Helen joined the growing civil rights movement and campaigned against red-lining in Chicago. Their son, my mother’s brother George, was even more active in the movement. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, his feet inching across the pavement of the Edmund Pettus bridge on Bloody Sunday. He was entrusted with getting Amelia Boynton safely home after violence was unleashed on the demonstrators. At a different protest, he was beaten by white men and thrown in jail.

When I ask George about my great-grandfather, he waves a hand, “Everyone was in the Klan back then.”

Hundreds of Vermonters joined the Klan in the 1920s. They persecuted Blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, supposed Bolsheviks, and union members. In Montpelier, cross burnings and Catholic cemetery raids were frequent.

I moved to Vermont in August, 2018, to attend graduate school. It is the second-whitest state in the country. Several days before I arrived, Kiah Morris, Vermont’s only Black state representative, withdrew her reelection bid. She and her family had been repeatedly harassed and threatened by a man who identified as a white supremacist, and the police had done nothing to protect them.

How many faces are looking back at me through history, through the hood’s sightless eyes?

Sketch out the bottom edge of the hood on a large sheet of blank paper, then draw the front opening edge. This opening should be at least as tall as the distance between the top of your head and the front of your collarbone. How large you make the opening depends on how much of your face you want to reveal.

What about my great-grandmother Eunice Baker? I barely know anything about her, too intrigued by the horrible secrets of her husband to bother asking. Yet she most likely sewed my great-grandfather’s clothes. Her hands must have helped create the Klan, stitched it together. Did she resist the pattern laid out for her, or did she follow it to the letter?

Carefully cut around the marked pattern. This step may feel strangely familiar. Although you are creating your own pattern, remember that others in your family likely did this before you.

Researching the origins of the Klan, I come across an article in The New Republic called “How the Klan Got Its Hood.” Reading the piece, I stumble across the very hood I’m writing about, the one owned by the Vermont Historical Society.

The hood wasn’t just made by a woman; it was made for a woman.

Allison Kinney, author of the book Hood, writes: “The new Klan [of the 1920s] courted mainstream Protestant, nativist, white supremacist respectability; senators, Supreme Court justices, and governors joined up. So did white women: Shortly after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Klan auxiliary organization, ‘Women of the Ku Klux Klan,’ formed. The Vermont Historical Society owns a celebratory women’s hood from that time, made not of denim but of softer, finer muslin; it’s mended in several places, as though it had seen hard wear.”

Pin the exterior pieces together, “wrong” sides facing out and “right” sides facing in. It’s always important to keep in mind how your work will appear to others.

My mother worked in fashion in the 1970s. She sewed dresses at a boutique in Chicago called Mrs. Peel’s, after the popular TV show The Avengers. The boutique was hip and glamorous; its owner, Judy, was frequently featured in the style section of the Chicago Tribune. My mother’s job allowed her to get out of the house, away from her abusive first husband.

Wally was an aspiring writer with big brown eyes and fashionable, wide-wale olive-green corduroys. My mother always had an eye for detail, but it was the important ones that she missed: how he would fly into a rage and slap her, threatening to do worse. Instead of the important details, my mother paid attention to the manageable ones. She became obsessed with makeup and fashion. She started wearing false eyelashes and platform heels, raising her closer to the scraps of sky that glimmered between the tall buildings. Clothing gave her another identity. Clothing transformed her from the timid, mousy girl she’d always been. The one with no friends. The one with bad grades. The middle child who stopped speaking for an entire year after her brother George was born. She buried that girl under blue eyeshadow, plucked off that girl’s eyebrows and drew them back on in jaded, Greta Garbo arches. She made swishing paisley dresses and long velvet capes to conceal any trace of her former self. Sewing became a way to find power, a way to hide.

Wally was multiracial and passed for white.

I thought about omitting that part. I didn’t want to risk summoning the specter of the violent Black man, eager to attack white women what Ida B. Wells famously called the “threadbare lie” that white people used to justify killing Black people. Black men raping white women: it’s a story so commonly invoked by white people that it’s a pattern. The materials are simple, but the results are monstrous: torture, lynching, segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration.

I want nothing to do with repeating that pattern. Yet this is the complex cloth my family is woven from, and I want to examine every stitch.

They got married when my mother was nineteen, in 1963, four years before Loving v. Virginia overruled the law against interracial marriage. Although Wally’s family had mostly passed for white, he was the darkest one, the one who might at any moment give them away. After he showered, he fashioned a hood from cut-off pantyhose, which he pulled over his head to straighten his hair.

Throughout Wally’s childhood, the phone would ring in the middle of the night. There was only heavy breathing on the other end, then dead silence. Who was trying to scare them? Who knew their secret? Wally’s family lived in constant terror, always expecting to wake to gunshots, or a burning cross on their lawn. Their mask of whiteness was a way to survive, even as whiteness was the force that sought to destroy them.

My mother finally left Wally after he tried to kill her.

I didn’t want to write that either. My words could so easily be used to reinforce the lies of white supremacy. Yet it’s part of the complexity.

Wally died of heart failure in 2014. Survived by a second wife of forty years and three daughters. Wally wasn’t my father, but he could have been if my mother had made slightly different choices, if she hadn’t altered the pattern she was following.

Should I hate him, be afraid of him, pity him? Should I pretend none of it ever happened? Or speak about it openly, let the whole complicated mess unravel? They may be small choices, but the small choices mean everything.

Pin both lining pieces together, then straight stitch along the curved top-to-back edge. Remember that the lining is the only part that will actually touch your skin. Although no one else will see it, you will have to live with its weight and texture every day.

In addition to the laws against interracial marriage before Loving v. Virginia, even more horrific legislation was widely passed in the U.S. Thirty states passed eugenics laws, including Vermont in 1931. “Idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons,” and Abenaki, French Canadians, those who were multiracial, as well as poor whites in rural communities were all sterilized against their will. It was a project the U.S. had invested in since its very beginning: controlling women’s bodies and with whom they could reproduce.

In the early colonies, white indentured servants, African enslaved people, and Indigenous people banded together in solidarity against white elites again and again. They married each other, ran away to form their own communities, and fiercely fought to overthrow the rich landowners. Bacon’s rebellion almost succeeded in doing just that. A multiracial group of slaves and indentured servants in Virginia fought for an entire year, from 1676-1677, before the white landowners succeeded in violently suppressing them. After Bacon’s rebellion, a host of laws were passed to strip Blacks of the few small privileges they’d had, such as the right to bear arms or marry who they wanted. Laws were passed to make slavery contingent on race and to make sure that a slave’s children and all their descendants would also be enslaved. At the same time, fewer white people were forced into indentured servitude, and they were given more privileges: the right to bear arms and own land. But they were barred from marrying Black or Indigenous people, and there were violent punishments for anyone who disobeyed. The idea of whites as a distinct and superior racial group didn’t happen naturally, and it wasn’t accidental. Creating and implementing the idea of whiteness took time and planning.

Frankensteined together stitch by careful stitch.

Stitch the hood to the lining. Pin the pieces together and sew a straight stitch along the front portion of the perimeter. Notice how your creation is gaining shape, gathering form. Beginning to take on a life of its own.

Inside the woman’s hood is netting to hold it upright. So much careful thought was put into creating a monster.

Did the woman who made the hood take pride in her work? Did she hold her chin up when she went to Klan rallies alongside her husband, proud that although they were poor, they were still better than Black people? Was she pleased with her ability to get the stains out, scrubbing them between her raw knuckles, or against the metal slats of a washboard? Pleased to wash away the smell of smoke, or remove blood—the hardest stain of all?

Turn the hood right-side out through the bottom opening. If needed, use an iron to press and flatten the joined front edge of the hood. Sometimes force is necessary to get it into the desired shape. At this point, the hood may begin to look like a human head, but remember that it is only fabric.

My mother told me that she regrets how absent she was as the civil rights movement unfolded around her. I heard the grief in her voice as she talked about how self-absorbed she was, too cocooned in privilege and her own troubles, including her abusive marriage, to participate in what was happening. As she spoke, I judged her, swearing to myself that I would never make the same mistake.

Attach the hood to the garment. Pin the hood to the neckline, matching up the center and endpoints precisely. Joined in a circle, it is now clear that what seemed like an end was only a beginning.

When my mother taught me to sew, the first thing she showed me was how to make a stitch. The second thing she showed me was how to take it out.

Sew around the shared seam. Sew a straight stitch from one endpoint and around the back of the neckline, stopping only when you reach the other endpoint. There is no going back now.

From the time that I was six years old, when my mother helped me memorize portions of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have held two opposing forces within me: the overwhelming desire to be a good white person, and the crushing terror that I am not.

Work back over the exposed raw edge with a zigzag stitch. This will keep any unsightly threads from view. It will keep the hood from unraveling.

I am standing in a crowd of people on the lush grass of the statehouse lawn in Montpelier. If someone were to compare this scene to the photo in the Vermont History Museum, it might look eerily similar. In July 1927, hundreds of white people stood shoulder to shoulder, faces obscured beneath white hoods. In June 2020, five thousand mostly white people stand six feet apart, faces covered by masks. Yet instead of white, we wear black, at the request of the teenagers who have organized this protest. Instead of a banner saying, “Klansmen, we greet you” we hold cardboard signs saying, “Black lives matter” and “Defund the police.” Instead of gathering to murder an innocent victim, we have come to honor that person’s suffering. When the Black woman standing on the statehouse steps requests that the white people in the crowd lie down, we do.

“Men, I want you to lie on your stomachs, because that’s the way George Floyd died. Women, I want you to lie on your backs, because that’s how Breonna Taylor died—sleeping. My nonbinary and non-Black POC siblings, please remain standing. You will remain in these postures for eight minutes and forty-six seconds—the length of time that a cop kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck.”

I spread my body on the damp green grass. There are a few moments of shuffling as five thousand people settle themselves, then silence. I look up at the soft gray sky and imagine sleeping as the bullets enter my body. A wave of sadness grips my throat and a heavy stone settles in my stomach. My breathing is loud as I inhale and exhale through layers of cloth. I sewed this mask by hand, white flowers on a gray background. One hundred years ago, my great-grandmother could have stood in such a crowd, wearing a hood she’d stitched by hand.

Try it on. The project is now complete. Put on the garment and flip the hood over your head to test it out and admire your own handiwork. Do you recognize yourself?

How can we repair the harm of so many generations?

Repair: another word for reparations. Without reparations, repair is impossible.

Professor, researcher, artist, and journalist Chenjerai Kumanyika asks, given the intentional creation of whiteness as a tool of oppression, if being “a good white person” is even possible. He suggests that we must go far beyond trying to be “good”—we must dismantle the very construct of whiteness itself.

Dismantle: To divest or strip of (any clothing, covering, protection, or the like). To divest of a mantle or cloak; to uncloak.

Sometimes repair is mending. Sometimes repair is tearing apart what should never have been created.

Rebecca Jamieson’s writing has appeared in publications such as Entropy, Mid-American Review, The Offing, and Rattle. Her chapbook of poetry, The Body of All Things, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. She is the founder of Contemplate Create, where she teaches creative writing with a mindfulness lens. Rebecca holds an MFA in Writing & Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her two cats on Ho-Chunk land in Madison, Wisconsin.