When Degree Clothing reached out to tell me about their sustainable, organic clothing line, I hopped on over to their website to take a look at their offerings only to find that I couldn’t understand the product descriptions! Degree is a German brand that caters to a German market and yet, despite the language barrier, I appreciated their design approach and ethical priorities (plus, they have an Etsy shop in English). With the help of Google Translate and my German literate husband, I narrowed in on this beautifully hued graphic tee that says:
Weil bayern berge hat
According to our German church organist, this means “Because Bavaria has mountains.” The phrase is meant to conjure the nostalgia, warmth, and culture of mountain-side living. I was drawn to it because I know a thing or two about the beauty of the mountains, nestled as I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Did you notice that the shirt just happens to be Blue Ridge Mountain Blue?
As fate would have it, I wore this shirt to take my very first tour of nearby historic landmark, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home. While I enjoyed viewing Jefferson’s unusual and eclectic home, I was deeply moved by the 45 minute tour about the enslaved people who called Monticello home.
The thing that stuck with me the most was a comment the tour guide made about personal agency and family life. You were owned from dawn to dusk, but when night came, you finally had the chance to cultivate your real identity among friends and family who grounded you in cultural traditions and reminded you that you had a right to exist on your own terms. Historians of slave documents note that slaves often ranked fear of family separation above fear of death. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and someone telling you that your husband, wife, or child was going to be sent away, never to return?
It’s brutal, and yet it was commonplace for our founding fathers and their contemporaries. In the retelling of these stories, we are reminded that deeply rooted, terrible injustice can be – and is – normalized. We can know something is wrong, as Jefferson knew about slavery, and continue to benefit from it. It’s not enough to know. We have to f*ing change the systems that allow cruelty to be perpetuated, condoned, and institutionalized.