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Book Review: A Different View of African-American Quilters

By Nancy Cameron Armstrong


A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and their Stories
Roland L. Freeman
Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill, 1996
396p. 7 x 10 color photos throughout, biblio, index.
ISBN: 1-55853-425-3
Hardcover w/dustjacket.
$49.95CAN, $34.95US
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As a folklorist, one involved in documentation, and a collector of African-American quilts, Roland Freeman gains credibility for his authority to carry out his near-national survey (38 states and Washington, DC) in Part One, and for his own personal story from the age of three in 1940 — with his first vivid childhood memory of quilts and their central place in his life — to 1992, when he made the decision "to transform [his] work into a national study."

The focus and approach to the "work" — through valuing and reporting the words of the quilters speaking about their connections to quilting, their personal family histories and African-American heritage, and their beliefs — had already been established and well begun in the 1970s when he was a field research photographer in folklore for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies working in Mississippi. Part One ends with "A Summary of Fifty Years of Study of Quilting By African Americans."

Perhaps some will find it inappropriate for me to find fault with Freeman, but I do wish that he had come forward in 1981 with his first catalogue for his exhibition Something to Keep You Warm to add his considerable voice to those who have objected to the stereotypical view of African- American quilting as promulgated by the Thompson, Leon, Vlach, and Wahlman camp. Even his text for the catalogues for his second exhibition More Than Just Something to Keep You Warm [1989-1992] focuses on the "strip" quilt, "the specialness of African-American quilters and their improvisational and applique quilts" and "the continuities between African-American quilts and West African textiles." Freeman states in The Summary of this volume that by that time [the 1980s] it was clear to him that "the African-American community is a host of many varied traditions, and within it there are different tastes and a remarkable variety in how these tastes are expressed." He gives credit to Cuesta Benberry as one of the few who understood "the dangers of oversimplifying the study of quilts made by African Americans." Well I remember her quiet and dignified presentation that looked broadly at A-A quiltmaking and its relationship to the totality in February 1992 at Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt. Perhaps if we had heard from Freeman sooner about his own recognition of stereotypes, they might not have become so entrenched.

But, now we have what Benberry described in the Foreword as his "long-awaited book." With the considerable help of Carolyn Mazloomi and the membership of the Women of Color Quilters' Network, including Kyra Hicks, and Freeman's many connections with folklorists, historians, artists, and countless others (such as Victoria Faoro at MAQS) he was able to tape interviews and photograph hundreds of quiltmakers — old and young, women and men, from all walks of life, and all parts of the United States.

Some might prefer a more statistically analytical approach to the Conclusion. (Mazloomi, when interviewed by Freeman, estimated that the improvisational strip quilt represents only two to three per cent of the work being done by WCQN quilters. She also pointed out that some of the contemporary random patterning work is from "a conscientious study of West African woven fabrics . . . not something inherent.") However, even from survey results published here more or less as raw data, surely even the least discriminating of reader must see that the stereotypes are totally invalid. (The project results will also by made available through an exhibition produced by The Group for Cultural Documentation. A selection of the photographs and surveyed quilts, interpretive panels, and other artwork related to the quilters opened in January 1997 at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and will tour for three of more years.) Highly recommended.

Nancy Cameron Armstrong, one of only three named from Canada for inclusion in 88 Leaders of Today's Quilt World (Nihon Vogue, 1995), is Chairperson for the Canadian Quilt Study Group. She dedicates considerable time and effort to this locally-based organization with members in 11 countries. A quilt researcher and retired library science professor, she curated the respected exhibit of Gulf War quilts, "Women in the Eye of the Storm," which appeared at 1992 IQF (Houston) and 1995 MAQF (Williamsburg). She lives two miles from the US/Canada border, and can be reached at narmstr@ibm.net.

(c)Copyright 1997 by Nancy Cameron Armstrong. All rights reserved.

 

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