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BOOK REVIEW: Two Books on African-American Quilting

Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad
By Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.
Doubleday, 1999 Hardcover, 208 pages, MSRP $27.50
Use this link to purchase at a discount of 30%: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385491379/planetpatchworkA/

It has been believed in quilt history circles for a long time that quilts played a crucial role in one of the great escape stories of American history, the fleeing of slaves from captivity through the network of supporters that became known as the Underground Railroad. Quilts, it was said, were used as signals to slaves planning escape to communicate important information about times, routes, and safe houses. By placing a quilt with a certain block pattern, color, or stitching on a fence or doorstep, supporters sent a silent signal to those who knew the code: "Tonight's the night." "This is a safe place." "Go north."

Up until now this has been an unsubstantiated, if very appealing, belief. With the publication of Hidden in Plain View, the insights of deep historical research into African American culture, combined with a little mystery, have been brought to bear to prove the case. Whether the arguments made in this book constitute actual proof may in the end reside in the mind of the reader, but it makes fascinating reading.

For author Jacqueline Tobin, the genesis of the book was an encounter with Ozella Williams, a street vendor of her own hand-made quilts in the Old Marketplace in Charleston, S.C., in 1994. During their conversation, Williams shared with Tobin a story about a "Quilt Code" passed down in the oral tradition of her family, that she claimed held the key to the Underground Railroad connection. While she didn't pursue it at the time, Tobin continued to be haunted by the Quilt Code, leading her to re-contact Williams and, after a period of research on her own, learn more about this story. Meeting with Williams again in 1997, in the marketplace, and being admonished to "Write this down," Tobin was given a cryptic "poem" that begins "The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear's paw trail to the crossroads."

After gleaning everything she could from Williams (who has since died), Tobin enlisted the aid of art historian and quilter Raymond Dobard, a professor at Howard University, to help unravel the mystery and provide the historical connections necessary to put this new information in context. Tobin and Dobard do a masterful job of bringing knowledge of African culture, African American history, quilt history, and other influences together to make a plausible "patchwork quilt" of their own. One of the difficulties of this kind of research is that the documentation for it is largely in the oral tradition, since slaves weren't signing important national documents or participating much in the written legacy of the young nation. Likewise, slave quilts, which might have been another source of documentary evidence, have largely perished from use. But there remained such sources as African American music, including slave songs and spirituals, African symbology and textile traditions, documentation on the Underground Railroad, and other materials, from which the authors have drawn careful, educated conclusions about the role quilts played in this historical movement. They make a convincing, if not quite airtight, case.

If you have any interest at all in quilt history, this is a book that belongs on your shelf. It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of the American quilt.

Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts
By Carolyn Mazloomi
Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1998 Hardcover, 192 pages, MSRP $40.00
Use this link to buy at a 30% discount: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0609600915/planetpatchworkA/

Fast-forwarding 150 years, we are blessed to be given a comprehensive and cogent view of contemporary African American quilting in Carolyn Mazloomi's Spirits of the Cloth. Lavished with hundreds of full-color quilt photos and an appreciative, generous, and erudite narrative, this is the definitive book on the riches that reside in the community of African American quilters.

The book begins with a section entitled "Visions of Africa," which explores the work of artists who "are consciously seeking a reconnection with Africa." The quilts here are filled with the wonderful bright colors and African themes that are often associated with African American quilting, but the range of styles and treatments even within this one theme area is remarkable. I am especially taken by Myrah Brown-Green's "Khemetic Paradise," based on Egyptian mythology and making stunning use of machine embroidery.

From African influences the book moves on to the domestic scene in "Memories from Home," stressing in quilt art the importance of home and family to these quilters. The style in this section, as one might expect, becomes much more representational and narrative, the quilts depicting scenes from everyday life in the black community. Of particular appeal is "Saturday Morning Cartoons," by Barbara Pietila, depicting the artist's granddaughter asleep with the poodle on the sofa, in front of the TV.

Other themes include healing, sacred space, social and political protest, praise songs, and the empowerment of black women. In each of these chapters the author gives commentary on a dazzling array of quilts, and each photograph is also accompanied by an artist's statement about the genesis or particular significance of the pictured quilt. In the back there is a thumbnail biography of each of the quilt artists.

In her introduction to the final section, "The Gallery," Mazloomi argues that the range of styles among African American quilters is limited only by their imaginations. There is no "authentic" style and in many cases it is not possible (or perhaps even desirable) to identify the quilt as the product of an African American simply by its style or subject matter. She cogently dissects the debate within the black community about what constitutes "true" black art, concluding simply that quilt artists "refuse to be narrowly defined." The greatest proof of this argument lies in the profusion of wonderful quilts presented throughout the book. Highly recommended.

See also our profile of Carolyn Mazloomi.

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