Curating and Celebrating the Culture with Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye

0.75x 1x 1.25x 1.5x 2x 0:0000:53:14 Curating and Celebrating the Culture with Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye

Episode Summary

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye, an Interdisciplinary Visual Artist/Maker, cultural scholar, Principal investigator, and Curator of the Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity. She developed and led the African American Crafts Initiative. Also, she was awarded the Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prize for Curatorial Conversations and Curated Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs and exhibitions on Senegal, Maroon communities, African immigrant culture, Bermuda, Haiti, the African roots of Virginia’s culture, and African American. Dr. N’Diaye talks about how she started and sharpened her sewing career, her project of the Bermuda festivals, the Smithsonian Senegal program, the Will to Adorn project and, African American fashion cultures styling. She also shares some insights on what curators do and why they are essential for keeping cultural records and the crafts of African fashion. Tune in to learn more on this and other exciting topics!

Episode Notes

Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye

Instagram @dndaiaye

gorgeous website:

Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited or HARYOU

Mamie Phipps Clark  and Kenneth Clark

Cyril deGrasse Tyson led anti-poverty programs inside and outside of government

Zelda Wynn Valdes, American fashion designer and costumer

Arthur Mitchell, American ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of ballet companies

Gladys Knight

Eartha Kitt, American singer, actress, comedian, dancer and activist

Diahann Carroll, American actress, singer, model, activist

Mae West, American stage and film actress, playwright, screenwriter, and singer

John Whittington Franklin, historian

The Will To Adorn, African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity and at the Museum of the African Diaspora

The Crown Act

The DuSable Museum of African American History

Institute of Texan Cultures

Madaha Kinsey-Lamb, Mind Builders Creative Arts Center

Crafts of African Fashion

Camila Bryce-Laporte,  “Black In The Land of the Piscataway”

Kibibi Ajanku

Michael Twitty, Tastemaker

James Beard Award

BlackWomenStitch Instagram, homepage, Patreon

Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork 0:09

Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast. With more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together..

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork, and I am honored and delighted today to welcome to the program Dr. Diana Barrett N'Diaye. She is somebody that you cannot fill in one blank for, right. So I could say she is an artist. I could say she is a maker, a sewist and a creative. I could say she is a curator, as in a Senior Curator for the Smithsonian. I could say she is a scholar and a cultural worker. I can say she also has touched history, while also making history and preserving history. And so you're gonna learn why and a bit from her own words about how amazing she is and why I'm so excited to talk with her today. So Diana, welcome so much to the program.

Diana 1:24

Thank you, Lisa. I'm just so happy to be here and talking to you. And I enjoy your podcast. I listen and wonderful to join that very special community of people who have been on your show.

Lisa Woolfork 1:40

I am so delighted. I am just so delighted to have you on and to talk with you. And I wanted to ask you to share with us a bit about your early sewing days. And when I said y'all that she has touched history, I mean that. I mean that really, mean it. This is someone who trained at the Harlem Youth Opportunity core group that was started in the late 1960s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who are Black psychologists who kind of helped us to understand how anti-Black racism was so damaging in the lives of Black children. And so in addition to doing scholarly and academic work about it, they helped to create a program in Harlem called the Harlem Youth Opportunities United or HARYOU, an American social activism organization that they founded. And one of the first directors was Cyril deGrasse Tyson, who was the father of the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I mean, it's just like, "What!?" And you were right there for some of the earliest days of that, like amazing, exemplary program. This is someone who's learning couturier techniques from this program with Zelda Wynn Valdes. And if you don't know who that is, you need to get on some reading. Okay, you need to read. I will put some links in there for you to read. But this is an amazing Black woman pioneer in fashion and design and sewing who sewed for celebrities, who could look at somebody's body- like Ella Fitzgerald- Ella couldn't come in for a lot of fittings. So she would look at her and say, "Oh, okay, let me just make these adjustments." and send her a beaded gown that fit. And I think she's like most known nowadays for creating the Playboy bunny costume. Like that's one of the major things that she often is referred to as, I think a lot of folks don't know that she did that. But she did so much. So, Diana, tell me how you got started. You said that your mom was a sewist and a tailor, and so did you fall in those footsteps voluntarily or were you draftedinto the life?

Diana 3:46

Okay, well, first of all, I was always around my mom. The elder people in my family all sewed and they all made stuff. And it was with textiles. And I actually was born in Harlem. I was born at Columbia Presbyterian. My mom actually at the time, and my dad was in school, and my mom had worked in factories, sewing bags, but she also did a lot of other stuff. So she sent me to live with my grandparents, you know, that whole story. So rather than going back to the south, and a lot of folks do, my family is from the Caribbean. And a lot of my older relatives had migrated to Bermuda. And so I ended up from the age of about five months, going back with my great aunt who was like my grandma to live with her. And one of the things with Bermuda is that not only after everything was done, I remember my elders sitting around the dining room table and she had her Afghan and she had all of this sewing. So they gave me a straight pin and some cloth to try sew. A thread tied around a straight pin. Now you know how hard it is to pull thread.

Lisa Woolfork 5:10

Were you an especially bad child? Was this like some elaborate punishment?

Diana 5:13

Oh, no, no. I mean, I was persistent. But this is how they were keeping me busy. And I'm like trying to pull this thing through. (crosstalk) So when I was around- I must have been around eight or nine- there was a couple of women, some sisters, and they had a sewing school for young ladies. My auntie sent me to the sewing school. I had to take a ferry to get there. And so I remember bringing home my very, very first made outfit. It was a little top and a little skirt. No, it was a culotte.

Lisa Woolfork 5:27

Oh, my word.

Diana 5:49

It was a culotte, and it had a little bit of embroidery on the pocket, right? And so that hooked me although, I mean, I made so many mistakes that it was ridiculous. But it got me hooked. And then there was the France's. Then there was a farm. Believe it or not, for me it was so small, but it has a farm, right. And we had friends down there. And I remember going over to these folk's house and one of the elder sisters, she was getting ready to go to school. And she was ready to go abroad to go to school. Cuz for me was just like, so big, right? And so she used the dining room table, and she was sewing every one of her outfits. And I said, "Wow, one day I want to do that. I want to sew everything I make." So fast forward, my mom ended up having a dry cleaning. So I have to boast about her because she was one of the first Black women to have a dry cleaning business in New York, in Brooklyn, right. But everybody in the family got drafted to work there. And so I ended up- because I had a little bit of sewing skill- I was the repair lady. So people in the neighborhood would bring their pants be hemmed, the zipper done broke it, all that kind of stuff. And so I did that. I was in high school. And in summers I found out about this wonderful program that was in Harlem, HARYOU ACT. I didn't know anything about who founded it, who was in it, but I knew that it was a great place. And there was this really kind of tiny lady but with gosh, so much power, Zelda Wynn Valdes. And we used to call her Miss Wynn. We had about I guess it was about maybe 15-16 of us who were in her school. And she taught us everything. The first thing we had to do, we had to make a cocktail apron. And I remember it had zigzag, and we had to do it by hand. There were machines there but she wanted us to learn handwork. So we also sewed there, and her favorite thing was- and she told me later, this is what her own grandmother taught her- "rip it out and do it again." If it was not completely right, you had to rip it out and do it again.

Lisa Woolfork 8:23


Diana 8:25

She taught us flat pattern making. She taught us draping. She taught us all sorts of things. I mean, we had to come up with a collection.

Lisa Woolfork 8:33


Diana 8:34

By the end of the summer. It was, it was amazing. Just such an opportunity, you know, being trained by the best. Like we didn't even know that she was so famous. We didn't even know that she was so famous, that she had done all this stuff. She still had her place on 57th Street and Broadway. And she would make things for Gladys Knight. She made Earth Kitt's Paris wardrobe. Can you imagine that? She made Eartha Kitt's Paris wardrobe. She made Diahann Carroll's dress- I think for her wedding, Nat King Cole's... I think it must have been Nat King Cole's daughter's wedding dress. I mean she did just amazing things. She also made Mae West's first sequined gown. A lot of people don't know that. So she was just amazing. And so this was like her second career being an educator passing her stuff, passing her skills on. We ended up at the end of the summer- It was 1964 and it was the World's Fair was in Montreal- wouldn't you believe that we got funds for us to all go up on a bus and to present our collections at the Montreal 1964 World's Fair. I mean, we didn't even know. We did not even know what this was all about.

Lisa Woolfork 9:58

I guess I'll go on this bus trip. It seems like it's gonna be a long way but maybe it'll be fun. I don't know.

Diana 10:03

Right? Right, right. You know, so we ended up staying in touch. And she, you know, she got to know my mom. And, you know, I had, again the really good fortune of, you know, after being involved with HARYOU ACT until I graduated from high school. And by that time we were actually at her house, sitting down for dinner. And she got this call on the phone, and it was Arthur Mitchell. And she came back to the table and said, "Arthur Mitchell has just asked me to be his designer at the ballet," which was amazing. And so we were there, actually, for history. And, of course, you know, she left HARYOU ACT and so on. But she stayed there until she was 95 years old.

Lisa Woolfork 10:57


Diana 10:58

And after she was not as active as a designer, she was still the wardrobe person. And so I had the opportunity to go and visit her- I was now at the Smithsonian- and to talk to her, and to interview her just before she passed. She passed about a couple of years later, but just an amazing, amazing-

Lisa Woolfork 11:24

I'm getting chills hearing this. I mean, you were saying how the school was located right next to the Apollo Theater.

Diana 11:33

That's right. It was right next to the Apollo.

Lisa Woolfork 11:37

You are a Harlem born girl, Harlem born Caribbean girl who was got to, to be there and to be in the New York art scene as part of your adolescence.

Diana 11:49

That's right. That's right. By that time we'd moved to Brooklyn. People who we knew as a young adult was like Brenda Conner-Bae and a lot of the folks like right near Flatbush Avenue. And my mom's store was called "Afro Caribbea", "Afro Caribbea Dry Cleaning and Boutique". And I was the boutique.

Lisa Woolfork 12:16

And you would do, you were in there doing repairs and helping people get, you know, their broken, busted zippers fixed and. It sounds like participating like not only just meeting history and witnessing history, but creating it too in the same way that your mother created and made history by being the first Black woman to have a dry cleaning service. And you helped to sustain that as it helped to serve you. I mean, it really is a beautiful story about community, and about what it means to grow deeply attached to and be fortified by these bonds. And it's such a beautiful story. And it seems like that shaped your career as a curator, as someone who continued to do cultural work. I know one of the projects I was reading about one of your projects was about at the Smithsonian was you did a Bermudan festival that was able to kind of bring in diasporic folks. People were able to come from all over the US who had connections to Bermuda, but also, I think that Bermuda itself was involved in it. So can you talk about how that works? It felt like you were kind of like tracing your steps a little bit, going back to your roots. So say more about that. I'd love to hear about that.

Diana 13:35

Oh, yeah. Well, that was that was called "Bermuda Connections." And yes, it was really interesting, because I had not been back to Bermuda for a really long time. So this program came up and really, we moved to Brooklyn. And we'd moved back to Brooklyn by the time I came back from Bermuda, but, you know, it was really responsible for my really early years. And so it was wonderful to get back there. My elders had passed on, but I actually have people I'm still in touch with who I have literally known for almost 70 years. And, you know, so that was great. And so what we did was that we really started to think about, "okay, what's, you know, what is Bermudian culture?" And Bermudian culture it's very largely, you know, people think of it as English, British, but it was as much or even more shaped by Black Bermudians. Yes, when Bermudians play cricket, it's a whole other thing. It's not like the cricket that you hear about because the interesting thing- Cup Match is like the big national holiday in Bermuda, okay. And Cut Match was shaped by Black Bermudians who could not play on the white Bermudian teams and they also had- the way that Bermudians protected themselves from some of the racism that was rampant, obviously, you know- it was that they had lodges. And everybody belong to the lodge. And the lodges had colors. So there was the Somerset Lodge and the colors were red and blue, and St. George's, and their colors were light blue and dark blue. And around Cup Match time, you either were St George's or you were Somerset. There was nothing in between. And people would dress for a Cup Match. I mean, that was a major thing. You know, they'd dress in their blue and blue or the red and blue and stuff. And so we were able to bring Cup Match to the National Mall and talk about the whole importance of the lodges in terms of African or Black Bermudian self-sufficiency because the lodges helped people to build houses. They help people to bury, you know, bury folks. It was really a life of community.

Lisa Woolfork 16:10

Like a mutual aid society. It was a mutual aid.

Diana 16:13

That's exactly it.

Lisa Woolfork 16:14

and reinforcement. Because, you know, the white folks and the colonials aren't going to do anything that meets our needs. Only we know what our needs are. So that's why it's important to have these formations. Yeah, absolutely.

Diana 16:26

That's right. That's right. So, you know, we looked into that. We looked into all the different things, including Bermudian architecture. Bermuda takes rainwater, rainwater, in fact, everybody has a tank on their veranda- not their porch but their veranda. And you know, you have to save that rainwater. So the roofs were limestone. So because the houses were built out of the island. And so when it rained, it would go down these stepped roofs, and go down the spout, and it was saved. So it was ecologically important too, you know,

Lisa Woolfork 17:03

It's sustainable. I'm telling you, Black folks have been doing pro-environmental work long before they had a name for it. We've had to repurpose things and reuse things and collect and make do for quite some time.

Diana 17:14

That's right. That's right. So with the housing in Bermuda, you know, people would build each other's house. When my uncle was building his house, the community would get together, the guys would get together and help him build his house. And then they'd go on and build another house, and then they go on and build another house. So that was an important part of the society and the community. So these are all things, are just a hint, what we did in Bermuda. I guess the other thing that from Bermuda is that I actually got to the Smithsonian, because, you know, my husband was Senegalese we met in, in New York in school, but I got to know Senegalese culture, first of all, through the immigrant community, Senegalese community, and then, you know, coming to Senegal to meet his family, and, and so on. So I was at New York State Council on the Arts. I had left my first my curatorial position, which was at the News Community Museum. And that's a whole other story. But I was at the New York State Council on the Arts. And then we heard that the Smithsonian wanted to do a program in Senegal. John Whittington Franklin, who is John Hope Franklin's son, was working at the Smithsonian, but he had taught in Senegal, and he convinced, the folks at the Smithsonian to do a Senegal program. And so they had hired me and my husband to come and to do that program. And I was supposed to be on a one year leave and then thirty two years later, you know...

Lisa Woolfork 18:55

They're like, "You think she's coming back? We don't think so." (laughter)

Diana 19:00

Yeah, yeah. So you know, it was just wonderful. It was like a dream come true. We visited all over Senegal. My husband came from a very, very old family of oral historians, grios, musicians, and so he knew all the traditional folks. In fact, his father was a traditional healer and hunter and a tailor. His sister had a show about tradition in Senegal, and just like a really wonderful opportunity. So we learned a lot.

Lisa Woolfork 19:39

What I appreciate about this so much, Diana, is how thoroughly reciprocal how thoroughly invested and reciprocal your work seems to be in the same way that you are scholarly and studying these things. You are also getting to live them as a practice and to see how everybody is participating in making culture. Right. And so I wanted to slow down a little bit, just ask for a few definitions, it might be helpful for folks who are listening. What does a curator do? What does a curator do? I mean, because you know, I'm coming from a background that I'm familiar with museum studies. I'm familiar with, you know, that this is a field, but for people who aren't necessarily in the academy or in the art space, but are just interested, how would they understand, what a curator does, and why a curator is important for keeping cultural records?

Diana 20:39

Okay, well, that's a great question.

Curating has become this word now that everybody uses, you know, curating my whatever, you know. So curators are charged with two sides of things. And the word was originally used with objects primarily. And that becomes important because I want to talk about what I do, which is a little bit different. In museums, curators would be charged with the care of objects, but also the interpretation of objects in a museum. So you have a collection, and a curator may acquire things for that collection and they may make sure that they're well taken care of, along with the conservator and other things, but they also would create exhibitions. They curate exhibitions. And curating exhibitions means taking from those objects and looking at the pattern between those objects and what the meanings of those objects are, and putting them together in a way to tell a story. So a curator is in a way a storyteller, a storyteller, using elements and, in the past, using objects to tell a story. Now, the word curating as far as what I do at the Smithsonian, we curate traditions, not people. We bring traditions together, and we talk about what's living culture- not again, to put people on exhibit, and that was done a long time ago- but to curate dialogues between people who have different stories to tell. So what we do with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which has been around since 1967, is to bring people together who represent a tradition, who represent a culture, and try to tell that story or not, we don't try to tell that story. But we try to, like, facilitate that gathering so that people can tell their own stories about what the culture means to them. Okay. So when the Bermudians came, how we started then, this is a really good example, when we were talking about Bermudians, the very first thing we did was to bring everybody together, in one place -well, not everybody, but lots of people together- who represented different parts of Bermudian culture and Bermudian society, and we'd say, "Okay, tell us how do you see your culture? And how can we represent that to the public, to other people who don't know anything?" And we had journalists. We had researchers. We do training of people now, especially from the community. And we say, "Okay, these are the things we need. We need to have you look into the traditions that make Bermuda Bermuda. And then we need you to tell us who are the people who are the masters at this tradition. So who are the great cricket players? Who are the great kitemakers?" Bermuda has a big kite culture. "How do you tell this story? Who are the masons who make the buildings?" And then bring them together to talk and to demonstrate what they do. And so every year, we do program and my role is curator, along with bringing people from communities together, is to facilitate community curation, something that represents the culture. And it's really important that just be, you know, people's voices. I mean, I have some skills, but those skills, you know, I want to make sure that people have those skills to tell their own stories. So that's it.

Lisa Woolfork 25:13

It's wonderful because I can absolutely see why you thrive in this role, and why it's so important to have you in it. Because I can imagine that there are curators and curatorial practices that act as gatekeepers and barriers to keep people out. And your practice seems almost the complete opposite of that. It's about how can we build and create, how can I amplify what's already there? So people know that what they're doing is valuable and important and part of a larger history. Right, that they are also making.

Diana 25:57

Exactly, exactly. And, you know, I think that, there's that whole tale, you know. They say that whether it's the hunter or the lion that tells the tale depends on who's the prey and who's the predator.

Lisa Woolfork 26:11

Exactly, you are right.

The proverb is, it goes something like, "When the lions write history, the hunter will cease to be the hero."

Exactly. Exactly

Putting that story, you know, shifting the emphasis and the focus of power. I was also thinking, I was thinking about the way that you have talked so beautifully about how everyone has this opportunity to kind of to weigh in, to play in, to participate in culture. It's not just one thing. It's a lot of processes. And I wonder if you could talk a bit about the wonderful Will To Adorn project. Because one of the things I was thinking about with it was, this was a few years ago, Beyonce in the Homecoming album that she did, a visual album in a documentary, and she was talking about her working with all these young people from HBCUs, the dancers. She was like, "You know, between the haircuts the way their bodies move, it's just so much damn swag." And what I see in what Beyonce was doing with Homecoming, and trying to kind of present that as something to people who might not have known about it is also what the Will To Adorn did and also kind of curated and pulled together. And could you talk a bit about the Will To Adorn project and about African American fashion, culture, styling, as something that the Smithsonian would be interested in and have a need to record and write about? Because it's really amazing.

Diana 27:48

Oh, wow. I like being in the same sentences. Green Bay here. (laughter) But no, no, no, but actually, you know, how that started, was that I've always been interested in dress, obviously. And you know, boast as a maker, and I thought I was gonna be a designer, and I ended up in anthropology. But one of the reasons why I ended up in anthropology -and this is connected to the Will To Adorn- is because remember, I was saying that I was a little Caribbean kid growing up in New York City, and didn't understand where I fit in. And I remember even in college, the beginning of college, in the middle of the, the Black Power movement, and we'd get together at the BSU. And there was a big cultural component to that. And part of it was that people would talk about the foods they grew up eating, and I remember them talking about grits and talking about, you know, chitlins and hog maws and all that, you know, like the song and all that stuff, right? And I was like, "Oh, my God, I grew up eating curry and peas and rice and, and, you know, beef patties."

Lisa Woolfork 29:07

Sounds delicious. Also, also delicious. You're making me quite hungry right now. I love some (unintelligable) and rice. And I'm actually thinking, "Oh, it's Friday. I can get oxtails today." That's what I'm thinking.

Diana 29:19

That's right. Oh, my goodness. Well, you know, the thing is, though, at that time, there was only you could be Black-or you could be Oreo, you know- you could be Black or you could be white, right? And at that time, there wasn't a lot of space for those of us who, you know, had a bit of, we knew we were Black -or African American, I should say because my dad, that was a very important thing. And he was a socio-linguistics which is a whole other story. So we knew that, you know, we had our culture. Yes, it was a culture of African descent, but it was different.

Lisa Woolfork 29:58


Diana 29:58

And so one of the things In my mind that made me go into anthropology was to tell that story. And to figure it out for myself. Yes. So with the Will To Adorn, it started out -and my mom had such great style. Until 85 she was in fashion shows and things. So that was the other part of the culture. And so I realized that we talk about fashion, but a lot of folks don't talk about that vernacular culture, how we curate our closets. We curate. We choose by what we decide we're going to wear. We choose.

Lisa Woolfork 30:37

That's right.

Diana 30:38

And it's a cultural choice. It's a folk art. It's an art. It's a tradition, right? And there are also these people without which we could not implement that tradition. Know, where we're gonna get our hair. Yeah, did you know, where are we gonna have all of this stuff?

Lisa Woolfork 30:55

Outfits. Someone's got to make the outfits. We're not getting outfits off the rack at JC Penney.

Diana 31:00

Right, right. And even if we do, we're gonna do something to them, you know. It's throughout the culture. And the other thing was, from the time that when we were enslaved, they had to make sumptuary laws. Because as soon as we got any kind of opportunity, we were dressing flyer that anybody else around.

Lisa Woolfork 31:23

Yes, yes.

Diana 31:24

And even when, you know, when in the sceneries in, in New Orleans, you know, they tried to say, well, you know, folks couldn't, the Creole ladies couldn't wear their hair down with their hair out. So they said, "Okay, we're gonna do something with-

Lisa Woolfork 31:42

You all have to wrap your hair. These women have to wrap your head. "You have to keep your hair covered, because we don't want to see all that colored hair. We don't want to see the evidence of all our race mixing, involuntarily or not. We don't want to see it on your head. So we're gonna cover that up." And then you're like, "Okay, we'll cover it up."

Diana 32:01

Right, right. Right. So you know, and that was some of the most elegant, elegant ways of dressing. So the other part of that is that I realize that, first of all, the first thing that people see of us- and it's the source of our joy, but it's also been the source of discrimination against us- is what we look like. Yes. And so we have a choice. You know, we have always used our clothing as a way to express ourselves, to resist, to show our joy and to really do the best, you know, that we can do. But they're also communities of style. So not all of us dress the same way. So many, just like in our music. We have so many types of music. We have just as many types of dress. And so the Will To Adorn was shaped around, it was a phrase from Zora Neale Hurston. And she said, you know that one of the- I'm paraphrasing- but one of the most important parts of African American culture is the will to adorn. And she talked about dress. She talked about the way we adorn our words. She talked about the way that we embellish. You know, we just love to embellish, right?

Lisa Woolfork 33:29

Hey, friends, hey. What are you doing on Thursday around 3pm or so? You got 30 minutes to hang out with Black Woman Stitch? You got 60? If so come through for Thirty Minute Thursdays, Thursdays 3pm Eastern Standard Time. You can chill with Black Women Stitch on Instagram Live or talk with us through the two way audio on Clubhouse at 3:30pm Eastern Standard Time. That's Thursdays for 30 minutes. Come hang out, chill and have fun with us. See you Thursday.

I'm just so excited that you mentioned Zora and her work a little bit because she also trained as an anthropologist. Right that she's studied by Boas and all these big folks. But one of the things that her language is also so great at is its adornment, the way that she has such a beautiful ear for dialogue. And I'm reminded of the Black folks that you know, that I'm in community with which is mostly with Black people. The way we even talk about COVID-19 as a pandemic. I have heard so many different ways that we as Black folks talk about this. People call it a panini, they call it diorama. They've called it a personal pan pizza. We are in the middle of a global planapoli. We are in the middle of a global I mean, you know, again we're in the middle of this big old paparazzi going on here. (unintelligible) But that is again - and I don't know if white folks are doing it too, because I'm not in community like that. Right. But I know I have you heard that too or am I just buzzing?

Diana 35:12

Miss Corona. (laughs)

Lisa Woolfork 35:17

"Miss Corona, won't let me go on vacation this summer."

Diana 35:20

Right, exactly. No we do words. We do.

Lisa Woolfork 35:26

Words. We do, and I know your dad is a socio-linguistics, a linguistic dad. We do words. And so I love that idea of the adornment, the embellishment, the, you know, bringing good energy around something that's bad. Like that's how we thrive in a country not made for us, you know.

Diana 35:44

Exactly, exactly. And so, you know, when I started the project, I was thinking, Well, is there an overall African American aesthetic? And if there is an aesthetic, what is it? Right? And then I realized that it's not one. It's quite a few. Yes. And, you know, and it comes out of really different, these different communities. But the things that I realized at the end- because I've written about this, and actually there will be a book. There will be a book soon, it will be a book very soon. Yes, the manuscript is done. The images are going in.

Lisa Woolfork 36:23

I can't wait to get on your list for an interview, please, to talk about it when the book comes out.

Diana 36:28

Okay. Okay. That's, that's great. Yeah. So with the, with the Will To Adorn, what we were looking at is the aesthetic, which ends up being around value- and aesthetics means values, values, relating to beauty. How do we look at beauty, right?- But there, underneath all of the diversity in our dress are values of freedom, and values of community. And also the right to self-define. Because what we're doing is we're defining ourselves through our dress. And don't think that people don't realize that, you know, in the dominant white society and try to squash it. Because in doing the research, if you think about all of those lawsuits that were brought against, or all of those rules that were made, and still, you know, are being made to keep us from wearing our hair the way that we wear our hair and dictating. Right, right. Right. So, you know, things like the Crown Act had to be passed, you know, things like that. But then, also the variation. So it turned out to be the Will To Adorn project. First of all, we did a Folklife Festival program. That was wonderful, because we were able to show. Every day we had fashion shows on the mall. And we had people talking about from various communities, what the meaning of the clothing that they were wearing, meant. So we had everything from, we had designers. We had designer makers, sewists and so on. We had milliners. We had tattoos. Wow. We had I mean, we brought everybody down there. Barbers, braiders. Yeah, and, and from many different communities. So like one day we help we focused on makers of faith, for example. So we had fashion shows from people and designers in the Muslim community. We had a Sunday hat fashion show and the milliners there. Another time we had folks from the Gay Ball community. And, I mean, we had all sorts of folks come together for The Will To Adorn.

So after that, we did a project with young people. The research for it was like nine cities and then after The Will To Adorn program, we were able to get a grant to work with different museums across the country to train interns to do their own research on their dress, dress in their community. We had the DuSable in Chicago was involved. MoAD was involved. We had San Antonio, the Institute of Texan Culture. We had my very good friend, Madaha Kinsey from Mind Builders in the Bronx in New York, and she had her young people. She has a wonderful program that has gone on for many, many years that started by my mentor, Beverly Robinson, at UCLA, and she had kids, you know, interviewing people, interviewing the makers, and then giving that back to the community, doing programs back in their communities. And they each did it in their own way. So that came out of the project. We have an app which is still good, I think, if you have an iPhone. You can tell your own story about dress in that, you know, you could download it. I'm not sure you know, the problem with apps is that you have to keep them up every time and so you have to have money to keep them up. And so and so. But yeah, these are all things that had to do with The Will To Adorn. One last thing, you know, that we have, there were artisans, and here we come to the African American craft initiative.

Lisa Woolfork 40:59

Look at you, forecasting already. Keep going.

Diana 41:04

You know, one of the sections of The Will To Adorn was looking at style artisans, those people who keep us looking good, whether it be our hair, whether it look, you know, be clothing, and that kind of whether it be designing for our specific communities.

Lisa Woolfork 41:20


Diana 41:23

After that, after The Will To Adorn Yeah, I'm still right. I'm still finishing on that. But when the pandemic hit, I was actually getting ready to do something while I had done something called the Crafts of African Fashion. The Crafts of African Fashion, was looking at those African artisans who create, Kente weavers and people who create wonderful, wonderful things. And then when the pandemic hit, we had to pivot like everybody else. And I said, "Well, what I am interested in as a maker myself, because I was still sewing and making and stuff like that is why don't we look at why there are only about 10 people in our craft community that get all the attention." And it's not that they don't deserve a lot of attention. They deserve their flowers. But then, you know, it seemed like all of the mainstream white-dominated craft organizations, they only knew these 10 people. They kept on going back and forth. And if they ever had exhibition, you could count the people who are gonna be in it, because you knew who they were right. And it turned out they were self-referential. So I said, "Well, what we need is a project that will do some research, create a database of a lot more folks who are doing stuff. And what we need to do is to start convening, but start with the idea that no folklore without the folk." You know nothing about us without us. Start from makers ourselves within the African American community, and then maybe maker organizations and get that down and talk about what are our priorities? What do we want to see done? What do we need, right? And then we can have something with the mainstream organizations that are trying to do their DEAI thing. And I'm not mad at them, cause they're really, you know.

Lisa Woolfork 43:33

It's an idea whose time has long passed. Needs to be done.

Diana 43:37

Exactly, exactly, but they need to be kind of directed by us in the African American community. And for the African American community writ large, those of us who are again with the diversity, I have to say a really quick thing. I have a colleague, Camila Bryce-Laporte, for instance, she's doing this wonderful project called Black In The Land of the Piscataway and she's interviewing Black people who also have dual heritage as being people of African descent as well. And there have been projects like Indivisible who have taken it from the indigenous point of view, indigenous and Black, but this is Black and indigenous. So she's working with other folks, fellow maker and scholar and so on, Kibibi Ajanku from Sankofa, who is also wonderful Indigo artists.


Oh my god, she should (unclear) But also Kimberly Kelly, who's an incredible maker and also scholar. She is pulling together collectives of indigenous, Black and Black folks to keep those skills alive, you know. So anyway, so all of this is about keeping the idea that we're a diverse people, but who are linked together by our African heritage and by, you know, by our situation here in this society. We also, as makers, need to have our stories told not just to people but as big as it can be. The biggest surprise with this program, this project so far, which is still ongoing, is how this is such a big movement. Lisa, you know, I was surprised at how many organizations collectives, oh my gosh, there's so many, many people that I've found out about and learned and all the connections. It's just really wonderful. In fact, I have to admit, I didn't know about Stitch Please until we were doing the work for this. But wow, you know.

Lisa Woolfork 46:17

I'm so excited. I'm excited that you're excited by, and being surprised by this, because what I'm learning is, if we let the dominant culture tell our story, they will always go back to the same 10 people, right, because it's self-referential. And they feel like they've done all the work they need to do by identifying the 10. And it gives the impression that there is scarcity, right. One thing that I loved about being part of the African American Craft Initiative and the think tank was the abundance. It was so many like, we couldn't even all be in the same session. Like you had six or seven different sessions of different people in different groups. And I met folks in the group that I was with. I got to connect with Michael, the chef who does.

Oh, Michael Twitty.

Michael Twitty. I connected with him. I was reading his articles in my class. And I connected with him after being in that session. And he came and spoke to my students, you know?

Diana 47:23

I have a Michael Twitty story. You know he was my intern?

Lisa Woolfork 47:26

No way, what!?

Diana 47:27

He was my intern in his last year at Howard. And I mean, I mean, just amazing. Such a wonderful, bright, incredible, incredible historian.

Lisa Woolfork 47:41

He's so great. Doesn't he have like two James Beard Awards?

Diana 47:44

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 47:45

They don't just shovel those out to people, like this is incredible. You have done such a wonderful job. And the way that you are so connected to so many different folks. And one of the things that I really appreciate about your work, your vision, your perspective, is that you want to be an amplifier. You want to make sure that other folks are being heard, and that we're all being recognized and documented. And like you really, truly believe that there's no folklore without the folk, you know. And that big shift from curating objects to stories, to people, without the gatekeeping- it really is a beautiful, beautiful gift that you are giving to posterity, to our community, but to just the world of knowledge in general. And that is so vital, because there are so many ways that we might say, "Well, I don't see this, and I don't see that." And it's hard to become something you've never seen, you know, but the fact that you put so much out there for us to see and to learn from is just incredible. It's just really, such a powerful and permanent and ongoing gift that you have given. And that I want to give you props for right now. And I hope that you continue. I hope that people are telling you this all the time.

Diana 49:14

Oh, well, thank you so much. I mean you're doing the work. You're doing the work yourself, what you're doing both as a scholar and, you know, with your students, but also through this podcast and the other stuff that you do. I mean, I think that it's amazing and you know how important it is for our young people to recognize that the things that they do and these traditions, yes. And you know, continuing to do that you can be a scholar and an artist. Yes. And you don't have to start, stop being one you could, you can so if you can write even you can do all these things. I mean, I think that that's, you know, you show that all the time and in your work so I really do. Yeah, we all in there together, you know,

Lisa Woolfork 50:05

It's a big time mutual admiration society. I'm gonna have to close this out. So but I want to ask you this question I've been asking this question of folks. The slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together. Okay? That's what it is. So if I were to ask you for advice, and what would you say? What would you offer from your interpretation, your work as a curator, as a maker, as a scholar? What would you say to help someone get their stitch together? What kind of advice would you offer?

Diana 50:35

Wow, well, first of all, talk to your aunties. Talk to your, get the stories, get the stories and even sit by the side of your grandma, your aunties, your uncle's and stick to you know, all those boats. And really, it continued to do it, you know, if you don't get it right, first, do what Miss wind said, you know, rip it out and do it again. So that would be my story. You know, just keep on keep on at it. Don't think you have to be one thing. Like, don't think you have to be a scholar and not an artist. You could do both those things. You have to be one thing and not the other. So that's, that's my big advice.

Lisa Woolfork 51:23

I love it. Oh, my gosh, I am so grateful to you, Diana, for taking the time to talk to me all the way from Senegal today. I am so so grateful for our first conversation, our first time on the podcast. Because like I said, y'all I have barely scratched the surface in this conversation, and I am so grateful for you for being with us today. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Diana 51:50

Thank you for inviting me, and have a great time.

Lisa Woolfork 51:56

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month you can help support the project with things like editing, transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really, really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews, but for those who do, for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us the Stitch Please podcast that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

You may also like...


Discount code SEWBLACKQC for 20% off at Spoonflower and 10% off at Crimson Tate.