Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Underground Railroad Quilt Block Code?

I have been reading about the Underground Railroad and the “secret quilt codes” controversy for the past few days. It is very intriguing to me to read different opinions. It seems that a book was published in 1999 called Hidden in Plain View. It was written by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, based on the stories told to them by an elderly quilter named Ozella McDaniels. I haven’t read that book, but from reading the reviews on the Amazon site linked above I think it is a collection of family stories, songs and theories about how quilts might have been used by slaves to pass on oral history and tradition about escape pathways to the North. Scroll all the way down to the bottom and read all the reviews. They are very interesting! Many historians today are saying the code of secret quilt blocks is hogwash. There was an article in the NY Times last month discussing the tribute to Fredrick Douglas planned for Central Park that would have a mosaic tile at the base depicting supposed Underground Railroad secret code quilt blocks. I have read in a few blogs and historian’s articles that the ideas are being debunked as urban legend.

It is interesting to me because I am a quilter. Several years ago I attended an event at the Mercer Museum during Black History Month. An African American woman named Christina Johnson, who is a quilter, gave a presentation about the quilt blocks said to be used as signals for escaped slaves. She gave examples in photographs of quilts that contained blocks in some the patterns mentioned in the current critiques, along with the proscribed meanings. Some of the block patterns were Log Cabin, Shoofly, Flying Geese, and Jacob’s Ladder. I took a lot of notes because the idea was so fascinating to me. It seemed a bit of a stretch to me to use the Flying Geese pattern to point north when the quilt could be hung at any angle, but I thought she must know what she was talking about. She said she had years of experience researching African American quilts.

The thing is, a lot of these ideas are based on oral history passed down through families. The secrets of the Underground Railroad are by their nature hard to document with written text. It seems to me if you can take it as traditional folk knowledge you can give it some leeway and not need to have everything nailed down so tightly. The problem comes when school curriculums start teaching it as historical fact or romanticize the escape from slavery. Books like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, Under the Quilt of Night and Almost to Freedom are so beautifully written and illustrated the happy endings overshadow the horror of human beings in shackles. It is easy to teach them as the foundation of a slavery unit in black history month for young children without going into detail of how life actually was for those living in cruel bondage. Books like Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters give a better, more balanced view of the degradation and the heroes, in my opinion. Do you think there is a danger in making the study of slavery and the Underground Railroad too entertaining by using fanciful ideas and possible mysterious messages in folk-art? Do you think it is it a problem when pretty kid’s fiction books make escaping slavery look like an adventure? Or does it simply offer children a way to imagine themselves in the lifetime of previous generations, connecting with real historical events?


Gawdessness said...

thanks for your comment at my blog.
In a funny bit of coincidence we have been doing some talking at our house about this very subject.
I picked up a book on making a sampler quilt that has a block of each possible motif that was used.
I want to do a bit more reading on it and you have given me some good starting places.

PinkPoppies said...

I am late to this conversation but I read about this in Chiaverini's quilt series: The Runaway Quilt. Fascinating topic. Thanks for the links, pink

Amanda/MayhemMama said...

Thanks for the information. I'll have to go back and read more carefully about this.

I don't know enough about the subject to say whether the idea just romanticizes slavery, but I can very much understand the great appeal of having an avenue to talk about slavery in a way that is not gruesome and frightening to my children.

I also like the idea of talking about how slaves and all who worked on the underground railroad RESISTED injustice. It's a good way to talk about working against injustice, cooperation between Blacks and Whites, and the strength and determination of those who are oppressed even under the worst circumstances.

MotherReader said...

I do think that there needs to be a way to present things to children that isn't too harsh. There will certainly be time for them to learn more later, but I do think there is harm in too much, too soon.

I like the idea that something of the history is presented early, and I don't think that the escape stories make it seem like a neat adventure. It gives them a part of the history that they are ready to grasp.

cloudscome said...

Yes, I agree. Children can and should learn the history without it being completely traumatic. I do like those books and the hero stories of resistance. I guess like everything else it is a question of balance and respect.

cloudscome said...

Also this morning I started wondering if some of the criticism toward the passed-down knowledge of the role of quilts as message-bearers is because it is black women saying their grandmothers told them the stories. Not scholarly enough or something. No hard evidence, just old wives' tales... In my book that gives it a unique and precious value, but it is not the way of the established historians...

Anonymous said...

I don't think there is any more danger in presenting a "softer" view of slavery to children when teaching history than there is is presenting a "softer" side of any period in history. Many periods in American history are painted with a more pleasant hue -- the American Revolution, the westward migration, the industrial revolution. Perhaps the trick is to focus on individuals, rather than dates/events. Especially with younger children, it is important to open that door of curiosity in a way that invites them to walk through and explore. Perhaps the Underground Railroad Quilt Code never really existed, but the story could still be used to open discussions on how slaves were able to communicate, why they had to communicate secretly, what things that were from every day life could be used to communicate & etc. Since quilting belonged primarily to women, the "legend of the Underground RR Code" can open the door to discussions of how people who are not on the front lines can influence history/make a difference.