Radical Tea Towels Offer a Graphic Crash Course in Progressive American History

Those of us who are deeply dis­ap­point­ed to learn we won’t be see­ing Har­ri­et Tubman’s face on a redesigned $20 bill any time soon can dry our eyes on a Tub­man tea tow­el… or could if the revered abo­li­tion­ist and activist wasn’t one of the fam­i­ly-owned Rad­i­cal Tea Towel’s hottest sell­ing items.

The pop­u­lar design, based on one of Charles Ross’ murals in Cam­bridge, Maryland’s Har­ri­et Tub­man Memo­r­i­al Gar­den is cur­rent­ly out of stock.

For­tu­nate­ly, the com­pa­ny has immor­tal­ized plen­ty of oth­er inspi­ra­tional fem­i­nists, activists, civ­il rights lead­ers, authors, and thinkers on cot­ton rec­tan­gles, suit­able for all your dish dry­ing and gift giv­ing needs.

Or wave them at a demon­stra­tion, on the cre­ators’ sug­ges­tion.

The need for rad­i­cal tea tow­els was hatched as one of the company’s Welsh co-founder’s was search­ing in vain for a prac­ti­cal birth­day present that would reflect her 92-year-old father’s pro­gres­sive val­ues.

Five years lat­er, bom­bard­ed with dis­tress­ing post-elec­tion mes­sages from the States, they decid­ed to expand across the pond, to high­light the achieve­ments of “amaz­ing Amer­i­cans who’ve fought the cause of free­dom and equal­i­ty over the years.”

The descrip­tion of each tow­el’s sub­ject speaks to the pas­sion for his­to­ry, edu­ca­tion  and jus­tice the founders—a moth­er, father, and adult son—bring to the project. Here, for exam­ple, is their write up on Muham­mad Ali, above:

He was born Cas­sius Clay and changed his name to Muham­mad Ali, but the name the world knew him by was sim­ply, ‘The Great­est.’ Through his remark­able box­ing career, Ali is wide­ly regard­ed as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant and cel­e­brat­ed sports fig­ures of the 20th cen­tu­ry and was an inspir­ing, con­tro­ver­sial and polar­is­ing fig­ure both inside and out­side the ring. 

Ali start­ed box­ing as a 12-year-old because he want­ed to take revenge on the boy who stole his bike, and at 25, he lost his box­ing licence for refus­ing to fight in Viet­nam. (‘Why should they ask me to put on a uni­form and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bul­lets on brown peo­ple in Viet­nam when so-called Negro peo­ple in Louisville are treat­ed like dogs and denied sim­ple human rights?’ He demand­ed.) It was per­haps the only time he sur­ren­dered: mil­lions of dol­lars, the love of his nation, his career… but it was for what he believed in. And although his views on race were often con­fused, this was just exam­ple of his Civ­il Rights activism.

Ali became a light­ning rod for dis­sent, set­ting an exam­ple of racial pride for African Amer­i­cans and resis­tance to white dom­i­na­tion dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. And he took no punch lying down – nei­ther inside the box­ing ring nor in the fight for equal­i­ty: after being refused ser­vice in a whites-only restau­rant in his home­town of Louisville, Ken­tucky, he report­ed­ly threw the Olympic gold medal he had just won in Rome into the Ohio Riv­er. So, here’s an empow­er­ing gift cel­e­brat­ing the man who nev­er threw in the (tea) tow­el.

The Rad­i­cal Tea Tow­el blog is such stuff as will bring a grate­ful tear to an AP US His­to­ry teacher’s eye. The Fore­bears We Share: Learn­ing from Rad­i­cal His­to­ry is a good place to start. Oth­er top­ics include Abi­gail Adam’s Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion advo­ca­cy, the bridge designs of rev­o­lu­tion­ary philoso­pher Thomas Paine, and Bruce Springsteen’s love of protest songs.

(The Rad­i­cal Tea Tow­el design team has yet to pay trib­ute to The Boss, but until they do, we can rest easy know­ing author John Steinbeck’s tow­el embod­ies Springsteen’s sen­ti­ment. )

Lest our edu­ca­tion­al dish­cloths lull us into think­ing we know more about our coun­try than we actu­al­ly do, the company’s web­site has a rad­i­cal his­to­ry quiz, mod­eled on the US his­to­ry and gov­ern­ment nat­u­ral­iza­tion test which would-be Amer­i­cans must pass with a score of at least 60%. This one is, unsur­pris­ing­ly, geared toward pro­gres­sive his­to­ry. Test your knowl­edge to earn a tea tow­el dis­count code.

Begin your Rad­i­cal Tea Tow­el explo­rations here, and don’t neglect to take in all the rad designs cel­e­brat­ing the upcom­ing cen­ten­ni­al of wom­en’s suf­frage.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

2,200 Rad­i­cal Polit­i­cal Posters Dig­i­tized: A New Archive

11 Essen­tial Fem­i­nist Books: A New Read­ing List by The New York Pub­lic Library

Down­load 834 Rad­i­cal Zines From a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Online Archive: Glob­al­iza­tion, Punk Music, the Indus­tri­al Prison Com­plex & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Decem­ber 9 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain cel­e­brates Dennison’s Christ­mas Book (1921). Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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