Sunday, November 9, 2008

African American quilts past and present

I never ever thought that I’d like history–something I’ve always disliked–in a million years. (No pun intended.) But for reasons that I may cover in another blog entry, I find it absolutely fascinating to know how things came to be, how civilizations rose and fell, and how we have doomed ourselves to repeat our past mistakes, simply because we refuse to learn anything from them. But don’t worry; I’m not about to hold a deep discussion about history, and some of the past mistakes that we have made.

One aspect of history that I have studied is that of quilting. One of the specific areas which I have found fascinating is that of African American quilting. Quilting itself is believed to have been practiced as long ago as Ancient Egypt. Also somewhere in our past, quilted armor-type garments were worn by soldiers as they went to war. The form of quilting with which we are most familiar appeared perhaps sometime in the 15th century. It is quite possibly because of the need to keep warm in pre-electric, pre-gas homes that people began to take two layers of fabric, sandwiched with some type of filler, and stitch all three layers together. Over the next few centuries, the art of evolved, as did the uses for quilted items. Quilts came to be used for other reasons that bedcoverings, and quilts were raised to an art form.

African-American quilts are no exception. In their pre-quilt form, African textiles created in Africa were noted for using very bold, striking colors arranged in very graphic patterns. As Africans were captured, enslaved, and transported to America, they naturally brought several cultural elements with them, textile arts notwithstanding. As they became assimilated into the Eurocentric American culture, they turned their textile-making skills into quiltmaking, incorporating design elements they brought with them to this new art form. It is important to note that these enslaved Africans did not have a wealth of time or resources at their disposal to practice their art form. When they were able to make quilts, it was often for the white mistress of the plantation, who gave materials to the particular slave who had been pressed into sewing and quiltmaking. A number of these quilts needed to conform to the mistress’ requirements, as they were intended to grace the palatial home of the manor; very few were created as per the design and desire of, and for the use by, the slave.

Some quilts, however, were able to be designed by the slaves. With pilfered or leftover scraps and materials from their owners, slaves would use stolen moments late at night, once they were allowed to retire for the night, and create quilts. Slaves would especially have been in need of warm bedcoverings, living in the ramshackle or improvised dwellings that their owners provided for them almost as an afterthought. While the design of the quilts had much to do with the materials available, slaves were still able to incorporate elements of their own African culture, although for most, this culture was fast becoming a distant, dim memory.

This emerging African-American art form of quilting went largely unnoticed, especially by the quilting world, which chose not to acknowledge what it considered to be sub-standard work unworthy of qualifying as true quilting in the classic sense. Yet African Americans continued to quilt on into the post-slavery period of Reconstruction, and into the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that so-called experts finally began to recognize and acknowledge the work of African American quilters. However, only those quilts which fit within very narrowly defined parameters, or were created by quilters of a specific geographic region, were acknowledged as quilting or as art, so the majority of African American quilters were still largely ignored.

During the 1980s, African American quilters as a whole finally began to come into their own. No longer narrowly defined by a particular style, or as natives of a particular region, African American quilts, at long last, were being recognized as true quilts and true art. African American quilt guilds were formed. Exhibits featuring African American quilts were now being shown at various galleries and museums across the country. The beginnings of the art form, once arrogantly ignored, were now being researched with zeal and at great length. The African American quilt, after centuries, finally came into its own.

As I am a researcher and writer myself, I cannot close this blog entry without acknowledging the trailblazing work of, amongst others, three incredible women, who are both quilters AND researchers and writers. Many thanks to:

Cuesta Benberry, Carolyn Mazloomi and Faith Ringgold.

Their contributions to the field of African American quilting are more valuable than mere words can express. A heartfelt thank you.

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