On Race and Protest: The Whitewashing of Quilt History in the Quilt Industry…


You have no idea how important that word is to me. Without context almost everything will be misunderstood. Without context we are doomed to ignorance. Politics, media, education, even medicine have thrown context out of the window in search of concise, consumable solutions. We are virtually beset by information, yet have very little understanding. In many cases the fault lies with us, our curiosity, our openness to complexity is undeniably waning. But the fault is not entirely ours; all too often the deeper stories of our world are whitewashed, sanitized to feel more palatable.

The examples of this are nearly endless: the Texas history books that transform the evils of the slave trade into an “African migration,” the de-radicalization of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the near canonization of Ronald Reagan. The words and histories we share are important only when seen in context with all of the complexities; to tidy them up is not only a disservice to the truth, those transformations inevitable serve to erase the things we might not want to face, the sins we would rather not confess.

There is a reason for the term whitewashing in this country, beyond the self-evident material reference. Whitewashing is an effort to make history, and the present day, more comfortable for those who have historically held the levers of power, namely white America. The “African migrations” makes us partners with the millions we enslaved, ignoring the radical nature of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther Kings Jr’s protests allows us to sidestep the sins of our parents and grandparents, writing Reagan as a savior erases his manifold bigotries. And the quilt world is not immune to whitewashing; just look at the persistence of the mythology of Underground Railroad Quilts. The fact that this falsehood remains so alive lets us imagine our great-great-grandparents as freedom fighters rather than complicit bystanders.

This is perhaps the root of all of my concerns about the quilt industry, the way the things we now make have been so profoundly stripped of context. There are few phrases I dread more than Christmas in July. In the place of quilts that carry resonant connections to our lives, the vast energies of the quilt industry are so often unleashed to produce an endless march of seasonally appropriate appliqué projects.

In transforming quilting into a pursuit of technical mastery and aesthetic perfection we whitewash the deeper history of quilting, we erase the vital context that make quilts genuinely important. And that transformation has profound effects. Look around at your next quilt guild meeting, at the next quilt show you visit, the next time you stop by your local quilt shop, step back and just look at the people you see at Quilt Market. The quilt world is incredibly white and primarily middle class.

As the quilts ceased to be a material necessity with the rise of mass commodities following World War II quilting waned except in places of poverty, most commonly rural communities. But in the years after the American Quilt Revival a new possibility arose, the potential of quilting as a pastime, a hobby. But hobbies required two things: leisure time and disposable income, and that was the purview of the middle class, which was predominantly white just years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it was within this reality that the present-day quilt industry was born. Please understand that I am not making any accusations of discriminatory intent; rather, that it came forth within the economic realities of the time. What I am saying, though, is that an implicit bias toward something, a group or particular perspective, can be just as dangerous as a bias against. And it is in seeking out markets in those early years that has set the industry on a course that is still felt profoundly today.

Technique and aesthetics are a marvelous means for selling things: the latest fabrics, the newest tools, the finest machines. Social context and meaning do not require frequent updates to ensure precision. Those transformations of the practice of quilting are perfectly logical, and in themselves appear perfectly benign, but those erasures of context have implications, just as silence in the face of injustice is nothing other than complicity.

You see, when I see the quilts of Gee’s Bend I don’t see an improvisational elegance so different from the geometric precision of the European tradition. I see the story of remnants, of the fabrics cast off, outside of the mythos of progress and production. I see quilts the gave voice to those remnants, and in doing so gave quilting one of its most important metaphors. I see the story of the Freedom Quilting Bee, the struggle for civil and economic justice, and the ways art dealers exploited their labor and their genius. I see protest, I see a refuse to conform to, to submit to the standards of a white hegemony and a refusal to silence essential stories and an extraordinary history.

Annie Mae Young, born 1928. "Bars," ca. 1965. Corduroy, denim, polyester knit, assorted synthetics, 81 x 79.

Annie Mae Young, born 1928. “Bars,” ca. 1965. Corduroy, denim, polyester knit, assorted synthetics, 81 x 79.

When I look at Amish quilts I do not see reductionist abstraction, a minimalist simplicity. I see a radical refusal of all that is unnecessary. I see an active protest in the face of modern excess, even if that modernity was that of the late nineteenth century. I see a commitment to austerity, family, and community. I see a spiritual devotion that can only be kept true in shunning the trappings of vanity. I see a genius that can only be understood in context, one that is desecrated through aesthetic adoration.

Amish Bar Quilt, c. 1890. Pennsylvania

Amish Bar Quilt, c. 1890. Pennsylvania

When I see Temperance quilts I do not see blocks designed to illustrate a movement, signatures added in exchange for a contribution for a nickel or a dime to fight the wickedness of libations. I see a profound struggle for justice in the face of abuse. I see women fighting for rights and survival in a time when men held extraordinary power and women were barely recognized as having standing in the courts. Alcohol was not simply an abstract sin; instead it fueled violence, abuse, rape, and untold horrors on women who had little legal recourse. I do not see the moral protest of prim teetotaler; I see a profound protest that is still being fought today.

The Crusade Quilt, 1876. Woman's Christian Temperance Union members, Hillsboro, OH

The Crusade Quilt, 1876. Woman’s Christian Temperance Union members, Hillsboro, OH

But these stories are not easy. These stories are not readily transformed into products. Yet these stories are essential to the understanding of quilts. It is in the whitewashing of this history that quilts become mere things. It is in the erasures of this heritage that quilting becomes a hobby, becomes a middle-class pastime, and becomes overwhelmingly white. And I cannot help but wonder about the effects of the contextual whitewashing of quilting, and what it will mean for the future of quilting.


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