Book review: ‘Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World’ by Catherine E. McKinley


Indigo is something of a mystery. It sits between the more familiar purple and blue of rainbows. And it’s the elusive center of Catherine E. McKinley’s “Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World” which like its eponymous shade, falls somewhere between more familiar poles. As history, it wanders, sometimes too hastily, through millenniums and contents to trace the reach and power of indigo dye and fabric. As memoir, it gorgeously recounts McKinley’s journey to West Africa’s teeming markets and churning factories, through funerals and uprisings, to find “the bluest of blues.”

McKinley’s prologue quickly relates indigo’s history, and hers. The deep blue comes from harvesting, drying, and fermenting small leaves plucked from a shrub. Across millenniums and continents the color symbolized royalty and divinity. It served in mourning rites, shaded eyelids and hair, stimulated healing and sex, tattooed bodies and deepened ornamental scars. Like gems, it became a currency. Like silk, it was coveted, commercialized, and expensively resold to people who once created it. Indigo’s legacy became McKinley’s own: Her adoptive parents’ Scottish ancestors likely wore indigo tartan; her birth parents’ antecedents were Jewish “rag traders” and African slaves, “traded along the same routes as indigo, where a length of blue cloth was a common exchange for human life.”

McKinley, seeking a purer connection to the purest blue, finds in Accra, Ghana, a relationship to indigo as complicatedly post-colonial as her own. Its synthetic version appears in clothes everywhere, while the real thing and the people who wear it, who are marked with its running color, are dismissed as backward or even sinister. The slang used to signal quality imported or Ghanaian fabric is “Holland”; the next fabric in the hierarchy, produced by Nigerians, Chinese or Indians, is “small Holland.” Designs bear names that run from the age-old aphoristic, like “Fine beads don’t make noise,” to the newish political, like “Nkrumah’s pencil,” after Ghana’s first president. At the store where McKinley’s guide, a welcoming woman named Eurama, introduces her to the names, McKinley buys a fabric called City Hotel. Eurama tells her that it is named after a place in Sierra Leone “where people used to go and dance high-life and enjoy after independence,” but for McKinley, it has meaning for once having housed Graham Greene during his colonial service.


It is her only innocent purchase. After this, McKinley’s spellbinding urges to buy — strong enough that they seem at times to be the guiding force of her journey — are weighted with guilt. Her indigo seduction uncomfortably implicates her, as it did many a European and African trader, in a long history of extraction. Much of “Indigo’s” power comes from her willingness to confront her consumptive need, and her foreignness compared to those around her. In a crowded market, running an errand for Eurama, McKinley sees a man wearing an indigo turban that shines “like fresh pencil lead” from the goat fat mixed into the dye. She asks him where she might buy such cloth, and realizes, when he names a price equal to a professional Ghanaian’s monthly salary, that he wants to sell it to her. While everyone in the market gawks at the impropriety of both parties, McKinley buys the man’s sweaty shroud, feeling “a desperate, mercenary desire for this one dirty, brilliant cloth” and leaving the man to don a baseball cap.

Eurama cautions her against prizing the fabric over the person, a lesson that doesn’t quite land, even when McKinley is swept into mourning at an indigo-tinged funeral when Eurama’s husband dies. After this, McKinley continues to collect in weighty encounters successive fabrics, traveling along roads and through outposts that she notes were built for imperial extraction. McKinley’s description of indigo’s history, which often arises as overly deliberate exposition, is best when it appears like this, as it is — underfoot, in the air. Her most difficult procurement comes in the middle of an attempted coup in the Ivory Coast, where she sees herself mirrored in an upper-class African woman carrying, amid chaos over control of wealth, a Chanel purse: “I’m just like her; I’m unable to give up the ghost of the things I hope will fill me with meaning.”

McKinley does find her ghostly indigo — in the studios of contemporary artists whose works sell at auction, in the work of one of the few remaining dyers, at a place McKinley describes as an overly self-aware “Disneyland for the Yoruba arts,” where she makes no purchase. But indigo, like so many obscure, searched-for objects, remains elusive, and is not quite the thing McKinley hoped to find. As for meaning, it arrives hastily, with too comfortable a clarity after a story most compelling in the murk.