Friday, January 29, 2010

A Communion of the Spirits: A book review

My friend, E, loaned me one of her copies of the book, A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. I was not prepared for what I found when I opened the cover and began to read. To say that Roland Freeman put a lot of work into this book over the course of several years is inadequate, and cannot even begin to describe this book. It is more accurate to say that this could very well be his life's work--his life's masterpiece. If he had never published anything prior to this, and if he never published anything afterward (but he, of course has numerous publications to his credit), this comprehensive work serves for all.

After a foreword written by Cuesta Benberry, and a preface written by David Levine, Freeman's work is separated into two parts, the first of which he entitled, Something to Keep You Warm. In this part, Freeman traces his own life's story, and the role quilts have always played in it. Even before he became conscious of how important a place quilts would ultimately have for him, he chronicles their significance in his life and in the life of his family and friends. He discusses at length the spirits he senses in them--the spirits of departed loved ones, spirits that bring healing during bouts of illness, spirits which have messages for the person who sleeps beneath it.

Sometime in the 1970s, Freeman began work for the Smithsonian Institute in his career as a field research photographer in folklore. While in Mississippi, he teamed up with fellow folklorist Worth Long, and they discovered a shared interest in chronicling the traditions of elderly craftspeople. Even though they were working on a different assignment at the time, it is at this time that they began to lay the groundwork for the research that would eventually be included in A Communion of the Spirits. As if to confirm this project, they discovered that other black scholars were researching similar topics with the Smithsonian. So, in the midst of researching and publishing other books, the informal research for this book began.

In the second part of the book, More than Just Something to Keep You Warm, Freeman picks up chronologically where the first part left off, which was 1992. He formally begins work on this project at this time, continuing with the interviews which he had been conducting over the course of several years. Over the next four years, he toured several states, spoke to several quilters, and took scores of photographs, all for the express purpose of chronicling a dying generation of black quilters, and their quilts and traditions. As he had observed several years prior, as these artisans passed on, they were not necessarily being replaced by the following generation. Thus, their stories, their traditions, and their quilts were dying with them. This 385-page volume honors their work and their memories, by sharing their stories, their faces, and their quilts.


  1. Sounds like a very beautiful book. Will have to share it with Callie someday when she will appreciate it...

  2. First, I want to say that I think you either have a degree in Literature or you are a natural at writing book reviews. That was excellent. I will try to find a copy of this book! I learned to quilt from a woman in a nursing home in the very early 1960's who didn't talk much, but worked on quilt tops all day long with only needle, thread and sometimes sissors, and sometimes ripping. Her daughter supplied her with brown bags of old cotton dresses. This is one reason why I don't buy fabric, but try to use what is given or in clothes. That is the way I learned. I have one quilt top she made, and my mom quilted in the early 80's, and I FEEL her/Mrs. Oliver in this quilt!


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