The picture is of a famous African American narritive quilt dating from 1886 and made by Harriet Powers. This Bible quilt is a part of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. I got the photo from a book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. I enjoyed the book very much, although the thesis has been often criticized and even the authors conceed that much of it is speculative. Here's a critique and a link to one of the author's comments on methodology. I suspect that the only people reading this who will be interested in those links are already aware of the book and controversy.
I first started reading blogs in the lead-up to the last presidential election. The local Dean Democracy For America group has a blog. I hadn't visited there for a long time because they also have a Yahoo Group that I subscribe too. And in visiting the site now I see they've trimmed the blogroll. What intriqued me way back when was that so many people interested in fiber crafts were bloggers. Anne's blogroll at Creating Text(iles) is a good example of that. Fabric crafters are serious.
The Underground Railroad is a difficult history to tell and one of the reasons is that it's such a good story lots of people want to get involved in telling it. On the PBS show Antiques Roadshow a standard bit is getting the owners of objects to tell the family lore about it only to have the expert appraisers tell them, "Sadly no." Who likes to be a villain? I think that adds to the motivation to tell family stories about their involvement to help escaping slaves. It's impolite to question such stories, so historians find them selves in an awkward spot. Another problem is brought out in the book, Hidden in Plain View and that is that the success and security of the Underground Railroad depended on secrets.
Patchwork quilts seem to be an Uniquely American craft. Certainly quilted coverlets were not the innovation, but rather the patchwork designs. Naturally the history of these designs is a ball strung together with lots of family stories. There were many influences and the craft was adopted in different ways. When living in Florida I was very interested that Seminole patchwork is a man's province. Seminole patchwork is more tangential to American patchwork quilt designs than is the tradition of African American quilt design. One of the very interesting and convincing aspects to Hidden in Plain View is the connections of traditional African designs and symbols in American patchwork patterns.
When I first went to the University of Pittsburgh there was a Black Studies department. What was once Black Studies is now Africana Studies a change that was accompanied with some acrimony. I hardly know the story about that, but was questioned vigorously by a Nigerian Pitt student while giving her a lift. The history of black people in America often seems as mysterious to Africans here as it does to many Americans.
The critique of the book I linked to earlier is made by Giles R. Wright is the director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton. And Wright makes this point:
Neither of the co-authors is a black historian. In order to write knowledgeably about the UGRR, you must first be a student of the larger black historical experience in which the story of the UGRR is located.It may be obvious, but when he refers to "a black historian" he's not making the case that the historian need be black. Although that's a condition that many seem to think is important. Wright's point is about the difficulty of interdisciplinary research; or maybe it's partly defending his turf as a black historian. I think Africana Studies is a good department for a University, but also have a great deal of sympathy for the hard feelings its creation caused. Too much of the history of black people in America is neglected or misunderstood.
Chicken Bones: A Journal is a wonderful online resource. I should mention that they are currently having a fund raiser for needed technical upgrades. There are very many good Web sites for exploring African American history. I particularly like this site dedicated to Uncle Remus. But a part of the difficulty in online adventuring about black history is crossing over the various academic boundaries.
One of the great aspects to many blogs is the comment feature. All the blogs about fabric crafts make a agreat deal of sense to me now. These crafts often touch on important history, not much written about, and these crafts retain stories told. Blogs are a wonderful place to discover voice, a point made at John Pederson's blog today. I linked to that blog for the first time today, and I saw this quote of David Warlick:
Rather than trying to master technology skills, I believe that teachers should be working to understand this new information environment and the new literacies that it requires. As they seek to understand and harness it, they should teach from that information environment and its literacies. Integrating that literacy will get us further toward making classrooms more relevant to today's students, than efforts to integrate technology.For those of us involved in life long learning, these literacy skills are important too.
I suspect that as people, not just students, use the Internet more for research and learning, that critiques like Giles R. Wright's pointing out basically "they're in the wrong academic department" are going to be harder to make. People who are interested in black American history are more likely now than ever before to read works from musicology, women's studies, African studies, literary criticism, and on and on. I don't have a clue about the ramifications of this for various academic disciplines and otherwise. But one thing for sure, the debates are extrodinarily interesting right now. And it's easy to find them an become involved.
I just love the Internet. Ha, ha, and many of you, my friends think I'm a little nuts for being so eager to hear you start telling stories online too.