Questionable sources 

The "Ross Code"

As evidence of a "quilt code", the authors of Hidden in Plain View point to what is known among historians as the "Ross Code".  This system of code words, well-documented as having been used by UGRR conductors, was named after white abolitionist Alexander Ross. who described it in his 1875 and 1893 memoirs.  But in their lengthy discussion of the "Ross Code", Tobin and Dobard never cite Ross.   Instead, they resort to two 20th century sources  - a book written in 1958 by an author known for her  "historical novels," and a 1993 children's book - one of fourteen children's books in the only list of sources Hidden in Plain View contains: 

The Ross code used numbers, pious phrases, and the times of the day to instruct slaves in running away.... Ross utilized numbers and poetic descriptions in formulating his code. We are told that Pennsylvania was recognized as number 20: Media, Ohio, was number 27; Cleveland, Ohio, was called "Hope"; Sandusky, Ohio, was known as "Sunrise," and Detroit, Michigan, was dubbed "midnight." The entryways into Canada were described by words of praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty: "Glory to God" meant Windsor, Ontario, and "God be praised," stood for Port Stanley (Buckmaster, p. 249). As such, one proposed message reads: " We hope to rise at sunrise; they we rest by midnight," (Hamilton, Many Thousand Gone, p. 117).  Translated, the message states:  Cleveland to Sandusky to Detroit. The final destination was Ontario ("Glory to God and God be praised"). Buckmaster and others missed a probable reference to the Buxton- Chatham area in Canada where several early Black settlements existed...

Had Tobin and Dobard bothered to read either of Ross's firsthand accounts, they would have discovered that among all the code words he mentions, not one is for a city or location.  The "city codes" first materialize in Buckmaster's book without any indication of her source, much like Fry's claim about Log Cabin quilts. Hamilton in turn apparently based her book on Buckmaster (who cheerfully admits to a "slight partisanship").  Since Hidden in Plain View cites only Buckmaster and Hamilton, not Ross, one wonders whether Tobin and Dobard neglected to check these books' accuracy against the primary source or whether, upon learning that Ross's own words do not support Buckmaster's assertions, they simply chose to ignore Ross's firsthand account.   (I am very grateful to Christopher Densmore for his excellent analysis of this subject, which you can read by clicking here.)

Stitched from the Soul

Also cited by Tobin and Dobard is Gladys-Marie Fry's 1990 book Stitched from the Soul.  But there are indications that the author - a folklorist, not a textile historian - accepted without question whatever oral tradition she was given without substantiating it with independent research.  

It is worth noting that Fry personally examined textiles only "when possible" and that (rather amazingly, since Fry is not a quilt historian), oral histories regarding the age of the quilts were often taken at face value. Apparently Fry did not think it necessary to routinely corroborate the ages claimed for the quilts by using a very simple process: examine the printed fabrics the quilts contain. That is the first step a legitimate quilt appraiser takes in dating a quilt, since printing and dye technology has changed in measurable ways over the past 200 years, and obviously a quilt cannot be any older than the fabrics it contains.

That omission in methodology may explain why, for example, the five quilts described as "made by Phyllis, a slave imported from the Congo in 1818 as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl" are quite visibly made from fabrics dating to the 1930s and 1940s (if the maker had been well over 125 years old, would Fry not have noted it?), and why those made by "slave Nancy Vaugn Ford" (described as "good examples of the utilitarian quilts slaves made by slaves for their own use in their own time") contain an op-art heart print in several colorways and a cheery apple kitchen curtain fabric, both from the 1960s.

But Fry's confusion is not limited to quilts with only oral histories. Among the quilts in Stitched from the Soul is an unusual figural appliqué quilt which Fry says was made c.1850 by "Jane Batson" and "her niece".  The quilt also appears in quilt historian and curator Sandi Fox's book Wrapped in Glory.  Fox discusses it in detail, with a very different conclusion about its age. In 1988, the owner of the quilt identified it as being made by Mary Jane Batson and her granddaughter Mariah Chapman, who passed it on to her own niece Malinda Spain in 1922.  Names aside, as to the quilt dating from c.1850, Fox observes:

Contrary to what oral traditional suggests about the quilt's provenance, the surface of the piece provides evidence (in detail and design) that the blocks could not have been worked in the antebellum period. Beneath one small foot the background fabric (a handwoven linen, slightly foxed) reveals that a small line of sewing machine stitching has been removed from what might have been an old garment [used to make the quilt]. The most telling evidence, however, is in the silhouette of the costumed ladies, who all wear bustles and hats dateable to the late 1870s or 80s...almost all of the articles of clothing on this quilt were available from 1870s mail order catalogs, and [the bowtie on one male figure, rather than a loose antebellum-style cravat] may represent a commercially available cravat....the shoes [on one female figure] are very clearly seen to be an 1870s style with tongues...she wars a cape similar to those popular in the 1880s.

Apparently Fry simply took the word of folklorist John Michael Vlach, who in his 1978 catalog for The African-American Tradition in Decorative Arts misdates the Batson quilt.  Vlach also declares unequivocally that "[t]here is nothing African or Afro-American about this quilt except its maker."  The Batson quilt does not fit neatly into the ten criteria Vlach devises for African-American quilts.   Thus, we are told, a masterpiece made by two generations of African-American women isn't truly African-American because to a white male academic, it just doesn't "look" black enough.  

A number of other "antebellum" quilts in Fry's book appear to be made from 20th century fabric.  If Fry simply took whatever the quilts' owners told her at face value, how reliable is the rest of the information in her book - particularly when (as with her claim about Log Cabin quilts), she cites no source?

Fry's analytical style is further illustrated in this video clip.  Among her claims are that floral garlands surrounding a quilt's center motif are "cleverly disguised snakes."  Apparently Fry is blissfully unaware of the 19th century popularity of broderie perse, in which floral motifs cut from expensive printed chintz fabric were rearranged into decorative designs including serpentine borders, particularly on center-medallion quilts - for example, the one made by a well-to-do Maryland woman 50 years before Fry's example.  (Note as well the handles on the vase.)  Such quilts are based on the images in the first palampore coverlets imported from India in the early 17th century, such as this one from Textiles in America.  Fry even sees "snakes" in the way four letters of the recipient's name are slightly slanted, apparently never considering that the maker might have worked without drafting tools.  (Video at 2:59) As "proof" of her analysis she holds up what she says is a modern, sequined "voodoo flag".  What might Fry say about the images in this coverlet, made by a white Tennessean of German ancestry in 1792, or this one, made by a white Connecticut woman in 1813?  

Fry then turns herbalist (video at about 5:00), describing the "medicinal plants" embroidered on another quilt she says was made by "a 16-year-old slave boy practicing to be a medical doctor". She points out "Star of Bethlehem" as "good for stomach ailments" (in fact, it causes digestive distress and heart arrhythmia), inexplicably confounds the irritant "Mother-in-Law's Tongue" (Sansivieria) with "Rabbit Tobacco" (Cudweed) as "a tea for herbs and salves", and identifies a carefully embroidered, five-fingered lady's gauntlet glove and White Oak leaf as immature and mature sassafras (sassafras leaves sometimes resemble a mitten, and have up to three lobes or "fingers").   

"Without it, HIPV could not have been written" 

One of the enthusiastic introductions to Hidden in Plain View was written by Maude Southwell Wahlman, a white professor of art history and author of Signs & Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts. Tobin returns the favor with a lavish encomium for the 2001 edition of Signs & Symbols, claiming that without Wahlman's "research and documentation, Hidden in Plain View could not have been written."  It is notable  that Ozella approached Tobin with her "quilt code" story not long after Signs & Symbols appeared in bookstores. 

Wahlman's book started out as a thesis, and then became a journal article; subsequent versions vary somewhat from the original edition of the book, so page references below may not be accurate in all cases. It is 141 pages long and contains hundreds of footnotes, but although its subject is quilts, citations of quilt historians are all but nonexistent.  (The author does, however, reference both Stitched from the Soul and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt.) Rather than reinforcing Wahlman's assertions, the few footnotes citing quilt historian Cuesta Benberry actually raise doubts. 

In the end,  the authority whom Wahlman points to most frequently is herself.  And although Wahlman repeatedly states that quilts "could have" or "might have" been used as signals on the Underground Railroad, she never provides any supporting evidence other than the unsubstantiated claims of Fry and Joyce Scott.    

Cultural retentions - America vs. Caribbean and Brazil

Few would dispute that every transplanted ethnic group hands down a variety of cultural preferences in everything from what is considered "tasty" to how closely people stand to each other when they are talking.  Surely African-Americans are no exception.  But as generations pass, these cultural norms tend to dilute, not intensify. Quiltmaking among the Old Order Amish is a prime example.  The Amish did not bring this craft with them when they emigrated to America, but learned it through contact with non-Amish neighbors in the years following the Civil War (the earliest reliably-dated Amish quilt dates to around 1870).  They adapted the craft to  their own needs, and for generations, Amish quilts were produced in a remarkably homogeneous, insular setting with strict design rules based in religious faith and a conscious desire for conformity.  Since WWII, however, Amish quilts have gradually devolved, thanks to greater contact with outsiders, particularly tourists. Collectors who want a "typical" Amish quilt now have to specifically request the makers use "old" colors and patterns, or they will receive one indistinguishable from quilts made by "mainstream" Americans.  (For more information on traditional Amish quilts, click here.)

But unlike the insular Amish, African slaves and their descendants were constantly exposed to the dominant, white (and primarily Anglo-)American culture.  As Jonathan Holstein observes:

The Lancaster Amish had remained since their arrival in the New World in discrete groups gathered in specific living areas, and their quilt aesthetics showed until recently a high degree of cultural homogeneity and conformity. African-Americans had lived everywhere in the United States and were as varied in circumstances, attitude and condition as any other Americans. 

As examples of her "signs and symbols," Wahlman points to folk art from Haiti and Brazil, implying that since Africanisms are often found in, e.g., the drapo vodou of Haiti, they must also exist in African-American quilts. But slavery in the US differed significantly from that in Brazil and the Caribbean in ways that had a direct impact on the transmission of Africanisms:

  • Demographics.  High mortality and low birth rates among slaves in South America and the islands demanded a constant influx of African-born slaves to replace them; such imports continued until 1860.  American slaves lived longer and had a high birth rate, and while some smuggling from the Caribbean into New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle did occur, importation was banned in 1808.  Thus Afro-Caribbeans have a much more recent, more direct experience of African culture than do African-Americans. 
  • Degree of cultural isolation. The average Brazilian plantation had hundreds slaves who lived in virtual isolation from whites.  After its 1804 revolution, Haiti was virtually all black; it then banned Catholic priests (and thus their significant cultural influence) until 1860. Well into the 18th century, Brazilian slaveowners were importing fabric from West Africa for their slaves.  Conversely, the average American plantation had fewer than 25 slaves, who had daily contact with the dominant culture and were actively discouraged from expressing their own, by 1860, 99% of slaves in America were born in the US.   The only African-American subgroup which can reasonably be compared to that of Afro-Caribbeans is the Gullah culture of the islands on South Carolina's coast, where African slaves and their descendants were much more free to continue African traditions without interference.  Among the Gullah, Africanisms persist in abundance; no scholarly reinterpretation is required to find them.

At first Wahlman seems merely to be addressing the roots of aesthetics which influence some (but by no means all) quilts made by blacks.  In her introduction, she even points out that while some African-American quilts have a different aesthetic from those made by their white counterparts, 

[similar designs in African quilted textiles and African American quilts might be coincidental, due to the technical process of piecing that reduces cloth to geometric shapes.

In other words, since a quilt's "building blocks" are squares, circles, and triangles, even if people have different cultural heritages they are likely to come up with similar designs.   

Then - having admitted the similarity might be entirely coincidental, Wahlman devotes her book to what she says are specific "signs and symbols" from Africa which black Americans have somehow passed down through ten generations. This comes as a surprise to the nonprofessionals in her book, who are blissfully unaware of the hidden messages in their quilts. Until Wahlman enlightens them, they think they are just being creative. (Some, like Charlie Logan, sound insulted by Wahlman's assertions: "I taught myself.  It doesn't mean anything.") 

It might also come as a surprise to Australian quilters.  The traditional Australian "wagga" coverlet,  made for generations by British and European settlers and their descendants,  blends in perfectly with the quilts Wahlman points to as uniquely African-American.  (For a look at more traditional Australian quilts, click here.)  Equally comparable in strip-pieced format, "spontaniety" and use of color are the "old way" quilts made by non-Anglos in New Mexicans in the first part of the 20th century.  

Traditional Anglo-Australian quilt, c.1920-40




An unrepresentative sample

Wahlman claims to own 5,000 slides of "African American quilters, their quilts and their environments." But of the 103 quilts Wahlman selects as evidence, only thirteen date from before 1975. A mere six quilts from 1900-74 are pictured.  Just seven date from the 19th century - presumably when African motifs would have been fresher in quiltmakers' memories than they would be a century later.   In fact, almost 90 percent of the quilts in Wahlman's copiously illustrated book date from after the birth of the "art quilt," the African independence movement of the mid-20th century, and the 1960s surge in the US of interest in African culture.  

Wahlman claims to have interviewed more than 500 black quilters, but all but a handful of the quilts in her book were made by two dozen individuals within the past 25 years. Several have art degrees or call  themselves "fiber artists."  (One has a series of quilts on "the aftermath of nuclear holocaust".  Another is paradoxically described as "an educated teacher who is a sophisticated folk artist." Another is an art professor and former painter whose first quilts "were inspired by Tibetan art".)  Three did not begin quilting until the late 1970s; others say they made traditional quilts for decades before developing what Wahlman sees as their "African" style - one only after she began to lose her eyesight. These late 20th century quilts have much in common with African and postmodern "gallery" art, but they share little with the few pre-WWII  quilts Wahlman selects for her book.  

It might be presumed that this imbalance results from a lack of documented African American quilts from earlier years, but Kyra Banks's survey in Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook shows this is not true. Of 585 quilts in museums alone that are attributed to  African Americans,  at least two dozen date before 1865, and more than a hundred are from between 1865-1949.  

It would seem Wahlman's examples are not even representative of late-20th century African-American quilts.  In the 1993 issue of Uncoverings, Women of Color Quilters' Network founder Sadra K. German reported the results of her demographic survey of African-American quilters.  She noted that more than two-thirds "utilize traditional European American patchwork and applique styles and standards"; only ten percent "worked in the improvisational style promulgated by [Eli] Leon as a standard trait of African American quilts. Clearly, these findings discredit some of the assertions that helped launch the current stereotype avalanche."  Her findings are borne out by statewide Quilt Heritage Projects, in which quilt historians surveyed extant pre-WWII quilts in their state for evidence of trends in style and construction techniques.  Just as Cuesta Benberry had earlier observed, researchers in Mississippi noted that pre-WWII "quilts made by women of color look just the same as quilts made by white women - the same patterns were used, the same materials, and the same way of working."  So did researchers in New Jersey (see below). So why does Wahlman virtually ignore examples from the first 175 years of African-American quilting?  

Quilt history, or armchair psychology?

Wahlman shares with Fry a puzzling unawareness of quilt pattern history. Her description of one 1985 quilt (p.47):

By manipulating small triangles often used to create symmetrical geometric patterns, Alean Pearson has created a bold, modern design called Rattlesnake.

Quilters might be forgiven for pointing out that the "bold, modern design" is in fact an unmodified rendition of "Pickle Dish" (Brackman #305), a Wedding Ring variation first published by the Kansas City Star in 1931.  The only other quilt shown by this maker is in another  "mainstream" pattern known as Ocean Waves.  

"Strips and strings," says the author, "are sometimes used in Anglo-American quilts, but as one of many geometric patterns,"  and the pattern of a 1983 quilt  (p.37) "derives directly from West African textiles made by sewing narrow strips of woven cloth".  These statements might be surprising to those familiar with Log Cabin quilts (which apparently originated in the North), Amish "bars" and "Chinese coin" quilts, and the ubiquitous frugal "string" quilts of the Depression era. 

A 1981 quilt by Lucinda Toomer is 

[a] classic example of improvisation [in which the maker has] taken the basic pattern for Drunkard's Path and manipulated it to suit her own unique vision, yet it is constructed from strips, as in West Africa.

Forty years earlier, this "unique" pattern appeared in the Kansas City Star  as "Chain Quilt" (Brackman 1455).  

An undated (probably c.1980) quilt on p.61 has "forty-eight variations of the Cattle Guard pattern".  The "variations" in the 48 Half Log Cabin blocks result from their being made of an assortment of fabric scraps. 

To Wahlman the art historian, a cigar is never just a cigar. A 1979 split 4-patch made of men's pajama and shirting material (p.100) is 

remarkably sophisticated if one interprets the various symbols appliquéd and incorporated from selected printed fabrics, which could refer to secret African scripts...The large light and dark circles, as in Harriet Powers's quilts, could be derived from a memory of the Kongo sun of life and the midnight sun of the ancestral world....The small hand may be a reference to the African American charm called a mojo or hand.

Also appearing with the "small hand" are a guitar and microphone. This is because the fabric is part of a "Hootenanny" style men's shirting print.  Wahlman does not discuss the symbolism of the guitar or mike.  

Of the two quilts Wahlman shows from the 1930s, one (p.78) is an elaborately appliquéd pictorial quilt made by "Mrs. Cecil White, Hartford, Connecticut." Described by Wahlman as "one of the liveliest and best-known examples of American folk art in the quilt medium," the quilt contains more than 125 human figures.  All but a handful are white; the African-American and Native American figures are grotesque caricatures in stereotypical poses. Yet Wahlman claims that "some" (unnamed) scholars "believe the maker was black." One who Wahlman says does not is quilt historian Julie Silber. Silber had good reason.  According to the 1930 US Census, Mr. and Mrs. Cecil White of Hartford, Connecticut, are white; both were born in Maine.  (Another couple by the same name lives in nearby Enfield; both are white, born in "French Canada".)  

If Wahlman has mistakenly identified this quilt as African-American based on its aesthetics, how reliable is her ability to determine just what aesthetics are uniquely African? 

Of the few pre-1920 quilts Wahlman includes:

  • The 1775 appliqué "Bible cloth" pictured in Florence Peto's 1939 book Historic Quilts, says Wahlman (p.71), has appliqués' whose "raw" edges recall those she claims are on "many" African-American quilts and "the leather cutouts" found on "Yoruba egungun costumes," one of which appears - upside-down - on her website (it should look like this).  But appliqué in Africa uses a variety of methods; on kuba cloth, for example, the edges are carefully turned under.  And Peto describes the panel's appliqués being "outlined with a thin, round, black-and-white braid or cord held in place with couching stitches."  

Compare the "Bible cloth" in Peto's book (above, right) with two quilts made in 

southern Germany during the same period (above, left), pictured in Schnuppe 

von Gwinner's The History of the Patchwork Quilt. Click to enlarge.

Wahlman also says the panel is "from" New Orleans and points to Peto's statement that it was made by a Creole woman. In fact, Peto says only that it is "said to derive" from that city and notes that "no available history" exists on it; to Peto, it has "a Latin, old-world appearance" that "suggest[s] the fingers of a Creole woman". (italics mine)  

The term "Creole" is vague, but it seems unlikely Peto was using the word as a euphemism for "black," since she follows by noting that the needlework "recalls the technique used in Europe.".  Peto's instincts seem to have been correct. Two date-inscribed applique quilts remarkably similar in style are pictured in von Gwinner's The History of the Patchwork Quilt (pp.61-62); one of them also appears Baird's Quilts (p.8-9), where the author describes how the appliqués' edges are "covered with cord". Both are from the same period as the "Bible cloth," and were made in southern Germany.  

Wahlman admits there is "no way to prove" that the "Bible cloth's" maker was black, but includes the quilt in Signs & Symbols anyway.  

  • An appliqué quilt made c.1854 (p.75) has provenance to a New Jersey black woman, Sara Ann Wilson. But it is a classic example of a mainstream American style known today as "Baltimore Album".  Other than its human figures being made from black cloth, the quilt is indistinguishable from other "mainstream" album quilts (compare the "Farrington" quilt on p.180 of Bishop's America's Quilts and Coverlets, made the same year). Wahlman includes the quilt but never discusses it.

  • Although the maker of a Virginia quilt c.1865 (p.74) is unknown and the figures at its center appear white, Wahlman claims it as African-American. Her argument?  Since "it cannot be proved" the maker was black, "that possibility cannot be denied."  (Skeptics might read that as "You can't show me it's not, so I'll say what I want.")  Wahlman points to what she says is the quilt's "Haitian vevé"  design; students of quilt history might observe the pattern is remarkably like the "Pomegranate" design appearing in myriad variations in hundreds of mid-19th-century appliqué quilts.

  • A quilt made c.1870 (p.76) by Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, is made of hexagons in a perfect rendering of the traditional English medallion style. Not even Wahlman finds anything uniquely "African" about the design, and in fact the 20th century quilts pictured in the book have nothing in common with its careful mid-Victorian symmetry.  She mentions the quilt only in passing.

  • The last 19th century quilt is shown at top left.  Wahlman dates to 1898, and says it exemplifies the "African American principle of protective multiple patterning, because evil spirits would have to decode the complex mixture of many patterns before they could do any harm."  Quilters will immediately recognize this quilt as a "sampler", made by cobbling together an assortment of "sample" and leftover blocks of various sizes in whichever way they fit. All of the blocks in the quilt are readily identifiable from 1890s Ladies Art Company quilt pattern books.  Compare Covington's quilt, top left, with that made by a white woman from same region a few decades earlier. (Also see p.150 of Brackman's Clues in the Calico, made by M. Hettinger of Pine Grove Mills, Centre Co., Pennsylvania - probably Martha, born c.1866, who was white). 

As further "evidence" of African symbolism, Wahlman points out an appliquéd hand and foot - shapes that, along with scissors, often show up in 19th century appliqué and crazy quilts made by women of all races. The templates, after all, were right at hand.   

  • It could be argued that Harriet Powers's famous "Bible" quilts (p.72-73) are so unusual that we should look elsewhere for an example of typical late 19th century African-American quilting.  Even if Powers's style was common,  Wahlman is not content with Powers's own detailed descriptions of her quilts' subjects. Instead Wahlman plays armchair psychoanalyst to the long-dead quilter, using the "evidence" of the "creole Bible textile" described above.  Powers was reportedly a devout Christian and had no known connection to the occult, but according to Wahlman her quilts' themes are only nominally Biblical.  Instead, says Wahlman, Powers "was a powerful person who was encoding important cultural information into an art form that was acceptable for the 1880s and was not threatening to white people". This "information" included African cosmology, secret Masonic signs (which Wahlman strangely presumes must be African; she also thinks the apron Powers is wearing in one photo indicates she was a "conjurewoman"), and "the workings of the Underground Railroad" without any evidence that Powers ever participated in it or knew anyone who did.  But how could Powers be a "conjurewoman" conveying "important cultural information" if, as Wahlman then claims, by the time Powers was quilting, "the [symbols'] original meanings were forgotten"?  As to Wahlman's claim that Powers  might have been "an elder of a Masonic lodge" (echoed by Raymond Dobard), Prince Hall Masons historian James Abron said that the applique on Powers's apron resembles no Masonic or Eastern Star motif he has ever seen.  Wahlman's use of the term "elder" suggests she is not very familiar with Masonry.

In the end Wahlman presents two contradictory views of Powers.  One is of a powerful "conjurewoman" cleverly making quilts containing secret African messages whose nominally Christian form would "pass" among oblivious whites.  This requires the reader to accept that the Bible quilt Powers made for the president of Union Theological Seminary was actually a symbolic prank.  Wahlman's other view puts Powers in the passive role of living Ouija board: she only thought she was making a quilt depicting important scenes from the Bible, while in reality she was unwittingly transmitting powerful secret African messages (whose meaning had nonetheless been lost in time until revealed by Wahlman).   Seemingly unsatisfied with dry historical record, Wahlman also writes that she is working on a "documentary interpretation" of events that "might have" occurred when Powers was making her quilts.

In other words, of the handful of pre-1920 quilts Wahlman bothers to include in her book,  two are in a style apparently unique to one African-American quilter (but not unique enough for Wahlman to let them stand on their own merits); four are  indistinguishable from the work of white quilters; and the remaining two may not have been made by black quilters at all.   

Cultural retentions:  Liberian quilts

Beginning in the 1820s and continuing through the Civil War, the African nation of Liberia was settled by freed African-Americans only a few generations after their ancestors were first enslaved. Returning to Africa, these repatriates had a unique opportunity to preserve and reinforce the traditional culture Wahlman says was handed down from their native African grandparents.  At the very least, it would be interesting to see how their quilts, and those of their descendants, compare to quilts made by blacks who remained in the US.  But they are absent from from Wahlman's book.  

One quilt Wahlman could have included was made in 1892 by Martha Ann Ricks, who certainly had very close connections to her African roots. Her grandmother was brought to America as a slave; Ricks, her parents and grandmother emigrated to Africa in 1830, when she was just 13.  Yet her quilt has nothing obvious in common with the African fabrics, garments, and ceremonial items Wahlman shows in her book, nor does it meet any of her "African-American" criteria.   (For more on the Martha Ricks quilt, please click here.)  

Ricks's taste in design seems to have remained the norm among Liberian quilters.  The October 1995 issue of Quilters Newsletter Magazine features five contemporary Liberian quilts their makers say are typical; the designs were passed down from their ancestors who brought them from America.  Like Ricks's quilt made a century before, they could easily be mistaken for "mainstream" mid-19th century American appliqué quilts.  Even though they chose to return to Africa just a few generations after enslavement in America, Liberian repatriate quilters and their descendants seem never to have resumed using the "signs and symbols" Wahlman assumes are so much a part of African-Americans' cultural identity that even today they cannot resist using them, if only subconsciously.  

Such a phenomenon was not limited to Liberian expatriates.  Consider the appliquéd and pieced 19th century quilts in Always There, the exhibit and companion book of African-American quilts curated by Cuesta Benberry.  These are known to have been made by black women - but they do not fit Wahlman's stereotype of African-American quilts, and are conspicuously absent from her book.  And the authors of New Jersey Quilts, in describing the quilts surveyed for the New Jersey Quilt Research Project, note: 

the makers of all but one of [the quilts made by African-Americans documented by the Project] came from Southern states from Florida to Mississippi....Whether made before or after leaving the South, whether made for family or friends, all of the quilts recorded used well-defined blocks, familiar designs, and careful workmanship, rather than being of the "improvisational" style with the spontaneous and irregular construction that scholars and museum exhibition curators have sometimes presented as the "African-American style" of quiltmaking.

A collection of quilt tops made by a black Texan from about 1890 through the Depression is equally "mainstream".  Does the artistic vision of such black women somehow not count?  Compare these quilts made by blacks and whites in the 20th century, all but one before WWII. Based on appearance alone, can we safely assume a quilter's race?  If we cannot, how can we reliably assign to a quilt's pattern or aesthetics a particular ethnic identity - or particular symbolism? 

African textiles

For a detailed discussion of Diaspora-era African textiles, click here.

Wahlman says that African-American quilts can be identified by their "strip" or "bar" arrangements; this, she claims, is a dim memory of African textiles such as kente, made by the Asante and Ewe of Ghana by joining long strips of fabric into irregular, asymmetrical patterns.  But in Wrapped in Pride:  Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity (in which four pre-1850 kente are pictured), Doran Ross notes such asymmetry is not a universal feature in kente.  It is actually a particular style called mmaban; equally common are kente whose visual effect is that of a checkerboard or tartan, achieved by careful matching. And sometimes the asymmetry is the result of a repair: damaged strips in a symmetrical kente would be removed, and the remainder reassembled, sometimes with less than perfect results. It is also worth noting that not all the indigenous textiles from this region are made of narrow strips:  "women's cloth" is made by and for women on a different, wider loom, and generally consists of one or two comparatively wide panels which are striped lengthwise.  And other strip-woven African fabrics are printed with overall designs that completely ignore how the cloth is assembled.  

Mid-20th century  Ewe "kente" cloth made from  vertical strips of fabric.  Click picture for closeup 

of another kente.

The universal presumption today seems to be that kente was used throughout West Africa and looks the same now as it did centuries ago.   But it originated in just one region as the property of royalty,  and neither developed in a vacuum nor remained static in design. The earliest kente are believed to have been indigo and white; they got their later, vivid colors by trading with North Africa, then with Europeans. Ghanaian kente weavers - all male - would unravel the imported fabric (ironically, often received in exchange for slaves), then weave its exotically-colored threads into their own textiles. 

Not until the late 19th century were kente worn by average people.  Even in the 20th century, an authentic kente can take months to create, and are quite expensive; they are reserved for special occasions, the Asante and Ewe version of the tuxedo.  Outside those regions in Africa, broad familiarity with kente dates to the 1950s, when Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah (who was neither Asante nor Ewe) began deliberately wearing them as a symbol of Ghanian independence; between 1952 and 1966, Ebony magazine published 77 pictures of people wearing kente in 34 different issues.

All but one of the quilts in Wahlman's book are vividly multicolor, like modern kente cloth.  But as Wahlman herself notes,  traditional West African textiles were monochromatic - indigo on white, black on cream, or the combination of russet/brown/black on cream seen in kuba and mudcloth.  (The everyday Yoruba kijipa, for example, is simply striped in indigo and white.) Wahlman argues that African-American quilts echo what she claims is the "high contrast" of such traditional West African textiles; they are, she says, "best seen from a distance," compared to "New England quilts," which she says are both "meant to be inspected in intimate settings" (as opposed to African-American quilts?) and - inexplicably - "pastel".  If she is right, why is only one of the quilts in Signs & Symbols monochromatic, and why are the block patterns of so many of the multicolor quilts obscured by prints or similar tonal values? 

All but one of Wahlman's African textiles (when she bothers to provide a date at all) were made in the 20th century.  But can we really get a good idea of 18th and early 19th century aesthetics - the ones enslaved Africans would have brought to America - by looking at West Africa more than a century and a half after they left? During the years of slave trade to the US, how common were multicolored strip-pieced textiles among those who ended up enslaved? Even presuming they were the norm, their appearance seems to have evolved as, beginning in the 16th century, African weavers obtained new products from other cultures - just as intercontinental trade had a dramatic effect on European textiles and clothing. 

It has been centuries since West Africans produced their textiles in isolation.  In The Art of African Textiles, author Duncan Clarke notes they have a long history of exposure to fabrics from other regions and continents.  In fact, as early as the 17th century, European dealers complained they were having trouble keeping up with market trends:  by the time they brought a new shipment of European fabrics to Africa, fashionable West Africans had moved on to some other design. And in a cultural fusion that sounds positively 21st century, by the 1800s Manchester, England was producing imitation Madras cloth for sale to West Africans as a substitute for the genuine Indian Madras originally brought there by British merchants. 

The "dutch wax" prints we associate today with African clothing also began as imports in the mid-19th century. Dutch textile mills started producing a fabric they hoped approximated Javanese batik for export to Indonesia  - only to discover that Indonesians preferred the home-grown product.  So Dutch traders tried marketing it on the Africa's Gold Coast, where Indonesian batik had been popular for years.  The new look was an instant hit. One of the Dutch fabrics reproduced a stylized Javanese design of Garuda, an Indonesian sacred bird with long, curling tail feathers. West Africans adopted it as their own, renaming it "Bunch of Bananas".   

Other changes in West African textiles and costume during and after the Diaspora include:

  •  Adinkra cloth's hand-printed designs are claimed by the authors of Hidden in Plain View as models for the "Quilt Code". But according to the Asante themselves, adinkra's production dates only as far back as 1818.

  •  Adire is a patterned indigo fabric made by the Yoruba; some draw a connection between its elaborate resist and stencil designs as resembling American patchwork.  But adire produced with those techniques date to the 20th century, after the introduction of machine-woven imported cotton; before then, adire were made in simple tie-dye patterns on loosely-woven, locally-produced "country cloth".  

A final problem in comparing quilts and clothing textiles is the aesthetic image everyday users mentally record of them. Can we really compare a textile intended to be viewed on a smooth, horizontal surface with one designed be draped and gathered around a body? This draping significantly obscures or changes both symmetry (or lack thereof) and pattern. So do the colors typically used in modern West African textiles:  while they are often vivid, complementary hues, their tonal value is so similar that whether "seen from a distance" or up close, the effect is less one of discernible pattern than a sweep of sparkling color.  

Construction method

Another hurdle for Wahlman's assertion is that strip-piecing quilt tops was hardly limited to Americans of African descent.  Many of the earliest Anglo-American quilts were made of long strips or "bars" of fabric, a technique they brought from England, where it still can be found.   (These were the first quilts the Amish saw; conservative Amish communities retained the style, while more liberal ones eventually adopted piecing.)  Seam allowances use up precious fabric, an important consideration when fabric is scarce or expensive. Quilt historians note that in the 20th century, the strip format (and related "string" piecing) seems to be evidence of hard-times frugality more than of race.  In 1984, historian John Rice Irwin interviewed white quiltmakers in rural Appalachia for his book A People and Their Quilts.  Three born between 1885-1913 describe the quilts they made when they were young:  

I didn’t make no patterns like people does now. I’d just get me some cloth and tear it in strips, maybe that wide, and as long as I wanted the quilt to be; and I’d change colors and sew them strips together

They call them comforts - they’re tacked in. Well they wasn’t no pattern to them, just sew them in strips. 

All the old clothing that we had, we’d get down and tear it up, you know, and save ever little piece, and then we’d separate it into different piles, you know. And then like if we had enough to make a whole strip for the quilt, then we’d make strips.

For a look at Appalachian "plain" strip and bar quilts from Irwin's book, click here.

Second-guessing and pop-culture ignorance

Rather than treat the work of her artists as the creation of individuals, Wahlman persists in dehumanizing them in exactly the way contemporary African artists complain the West has treated their work:  as products of "the tribe" rather than of an individual.  Olu Oguibe angrily writes in Reading the Contemporary: African Art in the Marketplace:

The figure of individual genius, that element which more than any other defines enlightenment and modernity, was reserved for Europe while the rest of humanity was identified with the collective, anonymous production pattern that inscribes primitivism.  Until recently, works of classical African art were dutifully attributed to the "tribe," rather than to the individual artist, thus effectively erasing the latter from the narrative spaces of art history. In contemporary discourses....novel strategies are employed to anonymize African art by either disconnecting the work from the artist, thus deleting the author-ity of the latter; or by constructing the artist away from the normativities of contemporary practice.

As noted earlier, Signs and Symbols had earlier incarnations as a paper, then as a 1986 article (African Arts, vol. XX, 1: 68-76, 99).  Among the ideas it contained: 

  • In an interview in William Ferris Thompson's Afro-American Folk Arts and Crafts, octogenarian PecoliaWarner talks at length about her deep Christian faith. Born and then living in rural Mississippi, she had also lived in three large US cities including Chicago in the 1960s. Like rural Southern whites her age, she has two styles of quilts:  "plain" (utility) quilts assembled "real quick," such as "string quilts" made of every available scrap, and "fancy" quilts, such as her favorite star, whose piecing must be precise.  Some of her designs she has "kept in her mind" after borrowing quilt books: "That's why I knew how to name them."  Others are her own:  "You make it up by looking at something and imitating it." 

She describes how she designs and names her quilts:

And like that [tape recorder] wheel going around there - I can look at that wheel and imagine a quilt from it.  I can take me some paper and cut out a pattern and piece me up a quilt just like that...I guess I'd call it a Tape Recorder quilt. That would be my name of it, since that's it's name, ain't it? Many of my quilts I've pieced up just by looking at things that way. Now I did one of the initial of my name, Pecolia. I was just sitting around one time and didn't have nothing else to do. So I said, "I just believe I'll make me a piece that will be the start of my name."  I call it a P quilt. 

Warner makes a "US flag quilt"; she says she dreamed of the design after seeing the flag at her post office.  But this explanation is insufficient for Wahlman:

In her hands it has become an Afro-American version of the protective Haitian mayo, featuring strips, asymmetry, large designs, asymmetry, at least two patterns, and stars resembling the Ejagham symbol for speech. 

Elsewhere Wahlman explains that the mayo is a striped shirt worn in Haiti "as a protection against evil magic".  For this she cites a single line in an art curator's brief description of a 1962 painting (the shirt in the painting is particolor, not striped, and the word mayo is never used).  To date I have found no other reference to this custom; it appears "mayo" may simply be a generic term for any casual shirt.  

Pecolia Warner's "US flag quilt"

Worth noting is that according to a 2001 Observer article, in 1960 the US disposed of several million yards of outdated US flag fabric by selling it to Haiti.  Resourceful Haitians stitched it up into shirts - and  bedsheets, dresses, and tablecloths.  Perhaps the "protective charm" Wahlman sees was simply an exercise in practicality.

  • The yo-yo was known in the US as a "whirligig" until 1928, when manufacturer Pedro Flores sold a dozen of them labeled with the name they had in his native Philippines. Within a year Flores was employing 600 workers in two factories.   Capitalizing on America's latest fad, in 1932 the W.L.M. Clark company issued a pattern for a "yo-yo" quilt, made of gathered circles of fabric. Wahlman barely nods at the toy's existence, then suggests that for African-Americans, the name and the quilt are vestigal memories of "a 'Mojo' charm", the mayo referred to above, or the incantation "Go, yo devil! Yogo!"

  • Dolly Dingle first appeared in magazines in 1912 as a paper doll.  In 1981, 87-year-old Pearlie Posey made a quilt containing figures which bear a striking resemblance to Dolly Dingle. That is how museum catalogs refer to the quilt, presumably (as with her other quilts) because that is the name Posey gave it.  Wahlman spells the name "Dolly Dimple," oblivious to the possibility that Posey was inspired by the doll popular in her youth. Instead, she declares the quilt's figures "imply the survival of the form" of Kongo mbaka (or Haitian baka) and what she refers to as the American "Vodun" or "voodoo" doll which is "activated by pins".  

But by all accounts mbaka and baka are not interchangeable; neither are Vodun (a West African religion) andVodou (sometimes written "voodoo") is Haitian, rooted in Vodun but incorporating Catholic and Amerindian components. (A very rough analogy:  Roman Catholicism's connection to Judaism.) I can find no reliable source that says either religion uses the dolls Wahlman describes.  Hoodoo, on the other hand, does; it is a form of folk magic, not a religion, and originated in the Protestant southern US.  It draws from both the Congo in central Africa, and from Europe, whose medieval "poppet", say practitioners, is the source of the dolls. Some claim the word "voodoo" originated among whites as a disparaging catch-all for Vodun, Vodou and hoodoo. It seems that as far as practitioners of Vodou and hoodoo are concerned, "voodoo" is the purview of Hollywood, and attributing the dolls of hoodoo to Vodun or "voodoo" is akin to  claiming that Americans who wear a Sicilian "evil eye" charm are expressing their Christian faith.  Wahlman's failure to distinguish among these beliefs, or demonstrate that Posey was familiar with any of them, raises questions about how she determined they were the real inspiration for Posey's quilt.

Further demonstrating her limited knowledge of quilt and textile history, Wahlman asserts that the "bold colors and large designs of Afro-American textiles" derivei from African textiles whose "strong color contrasts...insure [sic] a cloth'' readability at a distance and in strong sunlight", compared to "pastel New England quilts meant to be inspected in intimate settings".  Thus in one sentence, Wahlman reduces two centuries of "New England" quilt history to the decades of the Great Depression, when "pastel" cotton fabrics first became available.  Also notable is that what Wahlman describes as "strong color contrasts" are not that at all; they are different hues of the same value. At a distance, the quilt's patterns become a blur of color; they are not "readable" at all.

How can we trace cultural retentions?

It would be unreasonable to say people express none of the aesthetic norms of the culture their ancestors left two centuries earlier; that would demand we ignore this nation's regional differences. But claiming to have found evidence of an ancestral culture by comparing a selected group of modern, exceptional examples with modern examples in the ancestral country, or to examples in other Diaspora cultures with radically different histories, runs contrary to the rules of careful methodology.  Such analysis would require we look at all documented African-American quilts. We might then ask, for example:

  • What do African-American quilts look like before the conscious revival of African culture among American blacks in the mid-20th century?

  • Can any differences among these quilts be correlated to age, socioeconomics, education, rural vs. urban, source of quilting knowledge, or prevailing quiltmaking fashion at that time?  

  • Can any examples be found of quilts made by successive generations of the same family?  What differences in such a group can be traced to changes in fashion? Which are the result of personal creativity, and which can be traced to family custom?

  • What did quilts of whites in these same regions look like?  Do any differences correlate to age, socioeconomics, education, etc.? Do their quilts have anything in common with quilts made in their ancestral countries of origin?  What about quilts made by whites and blacks in other regions?

  • What similarities exist between quilts made by blacks and whites from similar regions, socioeconomics, etc.?  Did these quilters have significant contact with each other?

  • Are there features that appear only in pre-1950s African-American quilts that cannot be explained by socioeconomics, etc.? 

  • What did West African textiles look like during the time slaves were brought to America? What did the average West African wear?   (I'll be exploring this in depth in 2007.) 

But Wahlman never asks these questions.  Instead, she repeatedly (and mistakenly) assumes commercial quilt patterns are original designs expressing a quilter's African roots. She presents a quilt as African-American even though she knows doubts were raised about its maker's race.  She ignores documented African-American quilts that do not fit her stereotype in favor of those that do:  overwhelmingly, those less than 30 years old, many made by professional "fiber artists".  She appears unaware that what she considers "African-American" attributes are also common to other, non-African traditional quilting cultures - one of which has no history of contact with Africans.  She claims deep, African meaning in objects their makers insist have none, and sets aside their makers' descriptions in favor of her own interpretations (which, not surprisingly, support her claims).  She apparently either disregards or is unfamiliar with the popular culture in which her subjects lived, or perhaps believes they were somehow impervious to it.  She repeatedly suggests a connection between quilts and the Underground Railroad, but never offers any evidence.  And all of the African textiles in Signs & Symbols are 20th century; they date to more than 150 years after the ancestors of American slaves were last taken from their homeland.  

As eye-appealing as Wahlman's book is, it is hard not to see in it the kind of work a distinguished scholar once described as  consisting of "poor methodology, a tendency to leap from unwarranted assumptions to foregone conclusions, and assertions stated without substantiation, many of which are contradicted by actual examination".

Tobin claims Signs & Symbols as a critical source for the premises in her own book, gushing that "without it, Hidden in Plain View could not have been written."

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