HART

COTTAGE

QUILTS


What we think we remember:

Diaspora-era African textiles and 

African-American quilts

- a multipart series -

LEIGH FELLNER

 

Introduction 

Asked to describe a "typical" African-American quilt, many people envision ones like those shown at  right. They may point to characteristics they say are aesthetic choices inherited from the quilter's African ancestors. Called "Africanisms," these are commonly said to include

  • vertical strip organization
  • bold color
  • large design elements
  • asymmetry or "spontaniety" of design; "rhythmic" composition
  • multiple patterns

For evidence of these Africanisms, Maude Wahlman, Eli Leon and others find similarities in the dramatic, "spontaneous" or "rhythmic" ways in which Africans and African-Americans combine color and pattern and the fabrics used today in Africa.

It is often assumed that the style of 20th century African-American quilts derives from African sources. (From Wahlman's book Signs & Symbols.).

The flyleaf on Eli Leon's recent Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts goes even farther, proclaiming that "Afro-traditional attitudes and methods are antithetical to the standard American quiltmaking tradition - practiced by both whites and blacks - in which great value is placed on precise measurement and exact pattern replication. Instead they bear a keen likeness to the improvisatory practices of the textile-makers of Kongo and West Africa, regions from which American slaves were taken.  These antipathies and affinities suggest an enduring African influence on the Afro-traditional quilt."

Like most African-American quilts made before 

WWII, the ones above are indistinguishable from 

quilts made by European-Americans.

Of African-American quilts not fitting these criteria, folklorist John Michael Vlach (a white, male, nonquilting academic) described them in 1978 as "reflect[ing] a lesson well-learned rather than a heritage well-remembered," and flatly declared that "the only thing African or Afro-American about" such quilts is their makers' race. (Within a decade, Vlach acknowledged that this sweeping pronouncement had been made without a regional or national study of quilts generally, but by comparing Southern black "utility" quilts made for warmth with Northern white "show" quilts.  What had been presumed to be "Africanisms" appeared to derive more from region and income level than race. ) 

Beginning in the mid-1980s, quilt historians began conducting extensive, detailed surveys of thousands of quilts in every state in the US, noting the designs, techniques and materials used and any apparent regional or ethnic trends.  Special efforts were made to encourage African-Americans to bring in their heirloom quilts for cataloging.  

The data revealed that not only is there is no such thing as a "typical" African-American quilt; the characteristics claimed as Africanisms are most common in quilts made after WWII, and are also typical in quilts made in regions such as rural New Mexico and Australia where African-American culture is virtually nonexistent. 

Researchers also began uncovering the critically flawed methodology at the basis of the "African-American" stereotype.  

  • Although African-American quilts were available from virtually every state and era, the sample that had been studied was small and unrepresentative, consisting almost exclusively of quilts from a single region or made after the US civil rights and African nationalist movements of the 1960s. 

  • Ignorance of African history resulted in the erroneous presumption that African material culture is basically unchanged from two centuries ago.  

  • Ignorance of the Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath caused mistaken comparisons between the United States (most of whose slaves arrived before 1805, and were actively discouraged from perpetuating their native culture) and other countries such as Brazil (where slave importation continued until 1850 and slavery until 1890, African textiles and other products were imported for the use of free and enslaved Africans and their descendants, and freedmen and their Brazil-born children visited relatives in, and traded with, Africa).  

  • Ignorance of quilt and textile history led to further mistakes:  mid-20th century quilts were described as "slave-made", common quilting errors were assigned intention and meaning, and quilts made from popular commercial patterns were assumed to be the maker's original, Africa-inspired (and usually symbolic) design. 

     

Traditional quilts made by an Anglo-Scots Floridian, a Pennsylvania Mennonite, and an Anglo-Australian all about 1930.

Ignorance and superficial or careless research led to dismaying results:

  • Maude Wahlman's preconceived notions about race caused her to presume two different white quilters were black.  

  • A quilt a respected dealer provided for a museum exhibit of African-American quilts was later discovered to be a mass-produced import from the 1998 J.Peterman catalog - itself a copy of a well-known19th century original whose maker was a young white teen. 

  • A new quilting book written by a pair of white South African women states that Africans "invariably choose an unpredictable variety of vibrant and seemingly clashing colors," and recommends that in making an "African" style quilt that readers "not be too inhibited" and "introduce some startling 'uglies' [fabric]", with the reminder that "naivete looks great".

  • Quilters and schoolteachers snapped up more than 200,000 copies of a book claiming slaves were taught  escape north using coded messages hidden in quilts.  The book's sole source was the claim of one woman who used the tale to sell quilts to white tourists.  That "Underground Railroad Quilt code" contains numerous 20th century quilt patterns, and records show the ancestor said to have brought the "code" from Africa repeatedly stated she was born in Georgia in the late 1850s. Historians say the story is nonsense.

Absent from these discussions has been a critical look at the African sources from which black American quilters are claimed to have inherited their aesthetics. (Even the four-page bibliography for Cuesta Benberry's Always There lists only a handful of Africa-related books.) 

West and West Central Africa have undergone major cultural and technological changes since the US stopped importing slaves in the early 19th century; yet most of the African textiles cited as evidence of Africanisms date from the mid-20th century or later.  Did these fabrics look the same, or even exist, during the Diaspora (the years when Africans were brought to the US as slaves, generally 1650 -1820)?  Can the Africanisms claimed for African-American quilts be found in the textiles that would have been used by the Africans brought here as slaves? What "textile memories" would they have passed down to their American-born descendants? 

Early examples of African textiles in African and European museums, firsthand observations by European traders, correspondence from Diaspora-era African rulers, and traditional oral history indicate that most of the the textiles enslaved Africans would have remembered were very different from those common there today.  

Some of the African fabrics favorably compared to modern African-American quilts were not developed until after the Diaspora, or were made by people who were never part of the Atlantic slave trade. Others would have been unknown to all but a tiny fraction of the Africans brought to America as slaves. And while some Diaspora-era textiles have the characteristics claimed for African-American quilts, a great many did not.   Most fabrics were not pieced of narrow strips. Most strip-pieced textiles deemphasized or ignored the fabric's construction. Most patterns were arranged symmetrically.  Few textiles were in colors other than brown or blue; some were overdyed to decrease contrast.  Multicolored fabrics were luxury items whose colors came from yarn imported from Europe - ironically, often purchased with slaves.

Contents

Part I - African ancestry of African-American quilters

Part II - Cloth in subsaharan Africa and Europe

Cloth in subsaharan Africa

Cloth in Europe and America

West Africa and European textiles  

Part III - Indigenous subsaharan textiles

Barkcloth

"Women's cloth" - the wide vertical loom 

Men's cloth - the narrow horizontal strip loom

Raffia cloth

Part IV - Patterns on subsaharan African cloth

Resist dyed - Yoruba adire  Painted - Malian bogolanfini mudcloth
Resist dyed - Efik ukara Stamped - Asante adinkra funeral cloth
Resist dyed - Dida tie-dyed raffia cloth Woven - Bunu Yoruba aso ipo 
Embroidered - Kongo raffia embroidery vs. "Kuba cloth"  Woven - Ijebu Yoruba aso olona and Akwete Igbo ikakibite  
Applique and patchwork on raffia - Kongo vs Bakuba Still to come:
Appliqued - Sudanese Arab jihadi tunics Woven - Asante and Ewe "kente" 

Patchwork and quilted - Sudanese Arab

and Cameroon Fulani horse armor

Embroidered - motifs on Moslem-style men's tunics
Appliqued - Fante asafo flags Click HERE if you'd like notification of further installments
Appliqued - Edo (Benin) royal banners,and skirts, and "pangolin skin" robes

Part V - Color and color symbolism in subsaharan Africa and Europe

Conclusion

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