Quilting, Literary Symbolism, Cultural Knowledge, and Black History Month

Okay– I gave this little chat to my classes today.

It involved a copy of this book, which I held up and showed them, and then I gave the following talk:

“I haven’t quilted in a while–it’s tough to do with the four kids, and you need to keep your house clean, and usually, by the time I clean the house, I’m ready to do something besides work. But I loved quilting. You guys know how you make quilts? You piece them together–first you put together squares with a pattern–this is called a motif. The motifs are then repeated throughout the quilt, and the repeated motif makes a completely different pattern from a distance.

This is sort of like literature. In literature a repeated idea or symbol or conversation is called a ‘motif’–so is a repeated refrain in music. (Here I hum Darth Vader’s Theme from Star Wars.) Like this is the musical motif that introduces Darth Vader, right? You’ve all seen The Sixth Sense–what did the red objects represent? That’s right. they represented the gate between life and death, but the only reason we knew this is because this *motif* was repeated consistently throughout the work.

So, anyway, these motifs all have names–see here? This one’s the Friendship Star, and this one’s the Northwind, and this one’s the Log Cabin. Now, all these materials that go into making a quilt don’t have to be the same–back in the day, when America didn’t have first crack at the products of the London Textile mills, Americans got really good at scrounging material from places–dresses that had been turned and returned would be cut up and the good parts would be used for quilts. Grandpa’s military uniform, drapes from grandma’s kitchen–all of it could be turned into a quilt. Because quilts were the ultimate in recycling, they became the *perfect* art form for the slave communities. (Yup–I promised I’d pull Black History month into this eventually–I delivered.) The slave communities were only given hand-me-downs. Quilts–which were sort of a trademark American endeavor around this time–were great for artistic expression given only the materials at hand.

The thing is, that when the slaves gathered to make a quilt–just like when women of any race gathered to make a quilt–an entirely new community was born. The women knew the motifs on the quilts–they knew the names of the motifs, and even though the names would change from England to America to parts of America, each community kept their names consistent. And so the quilts made by the slaves became a PERFECT code.

You guys know about the underground railroad, right? Well, if someone wanted to signal that a place was a waystation in the underground railroad, they’d leave a quilt with a log-cabin motif hanging from the window. Anybody escaping along that route would see the log cabin and know what it meant. If there was a ‘Bridle Path’ motif, that meant to take the horses, a Northwind motif meant to go north, a Mariner’s star meant to go to the nearest port, and a Friendship Star meant that friends could gather and escape.

And this code was well nigh perfect. You know why? Because most of the escaping slaves were women and children. Women and children would know the code! They’d INVENTED the code, in their communities, as they gathered together to stitch the quilt top over the cotton batting over the back piece (this is actually the part called ‘quilting’) they talked about the motifs and about what they meant and about what they were called. So this code that they used to guide themselves would be universally known IN THEIR COMMUNITIES–but not outside of them. The white men CHASING them would be completely clueless.

Now this connects to literature as well. Most of the literature you read that features motifs makes the assumption that you KNOW THE CODE. And for the most part, it’s right. You know that red represents something important–most of you figured out that read meant death when you saw The Sixth Sense. You know that roses represent love, the sun going through the sky represents the day, kittens represent innocence, etc. etc. etc. You guys–just like those people escaping– have been steeped in the code since you were very little. You just have to figure out where it leads you.

And that’s it. That’s Quilting, Motifs, Cultural Knowledge and Black History Month all connected in one little chat. Get out your books now, we’re going to read about William Cullen Bryant and death. Won’t that be fun?”

The end:-)

0 thoughts on “Quilting, Literary Symbolism, Cultural Knowledge, and Black History Month”

  1. Louiz says:

    I never knew that about quilts, very cool.

  2. Very clever of them.

  3. Chris says:

    I didn't know that quilts were used as a code!

  4. roxie says:

    Motifs! That's what I'm missing! Must create motifs. Oh my gosh, I'll have to re-write everything!

  5. DecRainK says:

    I am so going to steal that and use it in my classroom when I start teaching. That is very interesting 🙂

  6. NeedleTart says:

    Oh, dear. I am so sorry to tell you this but quilt historians cannot find any contemporary (From the time of the Civil War) sources for the story of the quilt signals. There are diaries that show lantern signals and other signs, but nothing about quilts. Also the patterns that you name were mostly named after the Civil War. A quilt historian (Barbara Kingsolver, maybe?) tried her best to trace this down, but couldn't find any evidence. Seems there was a little quilt shop run by a black family and they swore up and down that this was a family legend. Maybe, but without some sort of historical proof, it's one of those nice stories. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it makes me crazy when a nice story is presented as fact, especially to innocent children. I've suggested to some teachers who teach this that they present it a unfounded rumor. *steps off soapbox*

  7. NeedleTart says:

    Sorry, it is a Barbara, but Brackman, not Kingsolver.

  8. Amy Lane says:

    Bonnie–I'll have to check my sources (I got this from a couple of them, including an entire quilt book dedicated to it–but it's been a few years since I started putting the schtick together so I forget which ones specifically)but even if my sources are discredited I'll stand by the old saw: No use getting rid of a beautiful story because of a couple of ugly facts:-)

    Too many good lessons in this one for that detail to get in the way:-0

  9. NeedleTart says:

    So long as it is presented as a nice little story, "wouldn't it have been nice if this were true", I have no problem, it's when it's presented as concrete fact that I get a bit ruffled. I linked to the historian's site on my blog. She gives lots of background.

  10. Amy Lane says:

    You know, it's funny–I just looked this topic up on amazon.com, and it seems to be hotly debated. There are several sources there that claim it to be true and several sources that claim to be debunking the myth. In all actuality, it sort of reminded me of Julie's article about the origins of knitting. She came to some sound conclusions based on some sound scholarship and common sense, but she got ripped apart because it wasn't what everybody else had assumed. I'll mention that the story isn't verified–but for my kids, it truly is the gist of the teaching moment that counts. They'll remember motif and cultural understanding now, when they wouldn't have before:-)

  11. Donna Lee says:

    I have had an urge to make a quilt for years. I have books with patterns and I pull them out and look at them longingly every once in a while. (like I need another craft).

    I like your lecture. I hope the kids responded well. It was brilliant.

  12. GrillTech says:

    Did you hear the news from CW? Supernatural (and Smallville) have both been renewed for another season. WOOT

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