Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Underground Railroad

The New York Times recently had a great piece by Fergus M. Bordewich on the popularity of underground railroad quilts.

If you have done any quilting at all, you know how wildly popular this idea is. The basic concept is that safe houses in the antebellum south hung quilts on the line or over the porch rail. Runaway slaves could read "codes" in these quilts through the colors, patch designs, even the stitching.

Quilt stores all across America began running year-long UGRR classes. There were workshops, more books, contests, lectures, and more. Elementary school teachers worked it into their curricula--history and a craft project! Perfect!

The term Bordewich uses is "metastasizing."

Yep, the whole thing is complete and utter horseshit. I've been known to write vitriolic letters to local quilt shops whenever I see an UGRR quilt class on their course listing. When I start talking about UGRR quilts, large veins visibly pulse in my forehead. I start into one of my patented rants and don't wind down for about 40 minutes.

It all began in 2000, with the publication of Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. After about the sixth person asked me about it, I sat down and read it. Obviously, the theories in the book met a deep need for readers, but many miss the main problem. This "theory" was developed by one woman, Ozella McDaniels, a quilt seller whom the author met on a trip to South Carolina.

The basic premise--that escaped slaves on the run would be able to decode the stitches and blocks on a quilt, particularly while fleeing on moonless nights--makes no sense. Who wrote this code? Any reader who has a basic understanding of research and scholarship would look at the book and realize it's all conjecture, with no documentation or collaborating opinion or evidence.

The contradictions continue. For example, some of the block patterns with these supposed "codes" weren't even popular until after the Civil War.

And it isn't just this white girl calling bullshit. The best critique is by Giles R. Wright, a historian in African-American Studies. If you filter through the reviews on amazon, look for and read the ones with one or two stars. They'll spell out the problems better than I can. What I like about the Bordewich essay is how he points out that the code theory minimizes the very real contributions of the heroes and heroines of the abolition movement. He states, "Myths deliver us the heroes we crave, and submerge the horrific reality of slavery in a gilded haze of uplift. But in claiming to honor the history of African-Americans, they serve only to erase it in a new way. "

He was nicer than I would be. I just call bullshit. It's either that or a 40-minute rant. Take your pick.


Up next, an uplifting piece on why you should give your dog preventative heart worm medication so that it doesn't die a horrific, depressing death with its little heart seething with parasites!


Carrie said...

Oh, geez, I knew that the whole UGRR quilt story must be too good to be true! But I believed!

Thanks for revealing the bullshittiness of it.

Also, I hope you don't know any dogs with heartworms - sadness!

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

I've helped rescue 3 purebred dogs, all of which fairly immediately died from heartworms: a bloodhound, a mastiff, and the latest was little Butterfly the pomeranian. It's so, so sad.

If you get a chance, do read some of the UGRR links.