Hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Those were the conditions we worked in at Bollag International Corporation, a textile recycling plant in Charlotte, North Carolina. I photographed and interviewed the women I worked with in 1989 and 1990. The women spent long days standing at tables, sorting scraps of textiles by color, content, and weave, or extracting bits of pattern paper and then bagging the fabric so it could be baled up and resold in countries such as Spain, Italy, and Africa to make new fibers and textiles. It was hard work, and the community of strong women became my role models. I began the project thinking I was going to explore African American folklore, but the photographs and voices of the women tell another story, a story of deeply independent and caring women whose lives weren’t easy. But they were doing what they had to do: taking care of their families and one another. Their voices reveal the love, courage, despair, and optimism of their daily lives. [End Page 97]
Irene Givens: “I came here as a temporary, and it was so cold. I started to turn around and I said, ‘I’m going to be strong ’cause I know I’m strong.’ I always bet on myself. See, the little episodes that I have to go through, it just makes me stronger, and I like testing myself.
Everybody else was walking out like at ten o’clock, twelve o’clock, nine o’clock. I said, ‘I’m gonna stay. I’m gonna make myself like this job.’ And I feel so good about myself. I made myself like this job. And honestly and truly, it looks like I have advanced more with this job than I have with any other job I’ve had.
One time I tried to go to work when Kim was about seven weeks old. So I said I was going to work. So I had a very good neighbor. My other kids were about twelve and thirteen, you know, little girls, so they would clean up and everything. So the lady in front of me that was hitched to my apartment, the lady named Elsie, she says, ‘I want to keep him for you.’ I said OK. I went to this lady’s house and she had a baby about three months old, which I had to hold in my arms and feed it. I worked for those people I bet you about two months, and I was feeding that baby, and I just burst out and started crying. I could not stand it! I said, ‘I need to be home with my own baby.’ My baby needs me, and I was there feeding her baby.” [End Page 98]
Lilly Ruth Barber: “I don’t want to marry him. He’s too possessive. I don’t want to marry him. He likes to keep check on me, ride by the house when I’m at home in the bed, make sure I’m there, call, come by here and bother me, aggravate me, fuss all the time for no reason. I’m gonna get me a new boyfriend.”
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Marie B. Whitten, with her daughter Gwendolyn A. Barr: “I’m real close to my kids, ’cause that’s all I have is my kids. I have two sisters living, but that’s not like your children. It’s a special bond between mothers and kids. The onliest thing I can tell you to raise your kid is to love him dearly, and don’t let nothing come between you and your kids.” [End Page 100]
Dorothy Fleming: “I wonder why women have so much pain. You know, you don’t find too many men who have pain like we do. And I hate that four-letter word: pain. I hate that word. And we was talking about it...