Writer, Photographer, and Fashion Historian Catherine E. McKinley

Americans Don’t Understand How Much We Have Inherited Intellectually from Africa

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

Catherine E. McKinley is a former Fulbright Scholar in Ghana and the author of Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World, among other books. Before joining the panel at a Zócalo/Getty “Open Art” event titled “What Does Blue Mean?” she chatted in the green room about parrots, buckets, and her great-grandfather.

Q:
What do you miss most from your time in Ghana?

A:
The late afternoons and the sound of water and buckets, people fetching buckets. That happens a lot towards the end of the day.

Q:
What is your most treasured photo?

A:
I have a photo of my great-grandfather from my father’s side of the family. It’s the only photo that is remaining. He’s a very handsome man, Choctaw Indian and African American, and dressed in a suit.

Q:
What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Africa?

A:
They misread things and don’t understand how much we have inherited intellectually from Africa. How much, for instance, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was an intellectual and creative inheritance, and not just an extraction of labor.

Q:
What sound do you wake up to?

A:
A bird. My Senegalese parrot.

Q:
What’s the best film about fashion?

A:
There’s a little film, Mama Benz and the Taste of Money. It’s a documentary about cloth traders in West Africa.

Q:
French fries or onion rings?

A:
French fries.

Q:
What’s your favorite season?

A:
Spring.

Q:
What are you reading right now?

A:
I’m reading images. I’m reading tons and tons of archival images. And Instagram images. A lot of them are related to African fashion and photography.

Q:
What keeps you up at night?

A:
My children.

Q:
What salad dressing best embodies you?

A:
Sesame ginger.

Q:
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A:
If you believe any of it, you have to believe all of it.