Friday, January 26, 2007

The quilt code: fabricating history

The so-called "quilt code," by which, supposedly, slaves gave each other directions to the Underground Railroad, first got my attention over a year ago. I thought that historians on the H-Slavery listserv had successfully debunked it. It flared back up about a month ago when listserv members learned that the faculty member from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who had posed the question to the list in the first place had gone ahead, despite the answers he got, and directed a master's thesis that assumes that the "code" did exist. (See Ralph Luker's report of this development.)

Then, more news. On Tuesday the New York Times had a p.1 story about a proposed monument to Frederick Douglass, at the base of which is to be a "coded" quilt made of granite. There are also to be plaques to explain the "historical" significance of the quilt. Once again, historians weigh in. Writes David Blight, author of a book on Douglass and editor of his autobiography, "To permanently associate Douglass' life with this story instead of great, real stories is unfortunate at best."

Responding to the controversy, New York City commisssioner of cultural affairs Kate Levin has said that the inclusion of the plaques would be reconsidered, but that the granite quilt was set in stone. “Something can inspire an artist that is not be based in fact,” she said. “This isn’t a work of history, it’s a work of art.”

So many questions are raised by this controversy: the lines between art and artifact, fact and fiction, history and imagined memory, issues peculiar to black history (given centuries of oppression, with many traditions truly lost, why not believe, especially if it alleviates white guilt by sowing a success story as children in classrooms sew cozy new quilts?), conspiracy theory (of course there is no historical evidence of the quilt codes; it was all a secret), the dynamics of popular vs. academic history (it was a popular book Hidden in Plain View, published in 1999 to scarce notice or response by academic historians, yet noticed by Oprah, that gave the myth its current authority), and even the history of the women's movement. For, as Leigh Fellner concludes in a thorough study of this whole phenomenon,

Along with many other myths involving quilts and subcultures (such as the Amish), the Code materialized in the 1980s during the post-Bicentennial revival of folk art, the popularization of women’s history studies, and Western notions of African culture comparable to early Hollywood depictions of Native Americans. The earliest mention of a "quilt code" is a brief statement in a 1987 feminist video: quilts were hung outside Underground Railroad safe houses. (No source is given for the assertion and it is conspicuously absent from the companion book.) In 1993 a white Massachusetts woman elaborated on the Code idea in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, a children’s fiction book; its heroine makes a quilt containing a topographical map she uses to escape from slavery.

The discussion on H-Slavery suggests that some are sympathetic to the quilt code's teaching in schools, especially elementary schools, as a "usable past." Under this view it's no worse than the legends of Betsy Ross or the Pilgrim Thanksgiving. Seems to me that's a pretty weak defense, as if in any of these cases the real history (or as close as we can come to it) lacks the power to hold a child's attention.

Or is it that the real history of slavery is too powerful, too graphic for tender minds? If that were ever true, surely in a world in which the evening news is likely to report another beheading, that's a tough argument to make. But let me not dwell on elementary school. I probably would have let this whole episode go unblogged, but for one thing: Tucker's 8th grade language arts class, this week, is learning about the quilt code!

Paul was quickly on the case with a note to the teacher citing the NYT story and the H-Slavery discussion, urging him to "teach the controversy," as Gerald Graff taught us 20 years ago to say.

Here's one lesson plan that does just that.

UPDATE: Paul cites the Amazon discussion of Hidden in Plain View for showing "the polarity between history carefully practiced and folklore wishfully constructed."

UPDATE 2/2: More debunking from the author of a book on the Underground Railroad; and an interview with David Blight on the CBC program "As it Happens."

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