Stories in the Cloth
Stories in the Cloth
An exhibition and a book of quilts honor 400 years of African American history.
“And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations” is an exhibition and a book chronicling four centuries of the African American experience through the medium of contemporary story quilts. Made by members of the Women of Color Quilters Network, the powerful works (a total of 97 in the book, many of which are on a national museum tour) commemorate milestones and famous figures, along with lesser-known but equally noteworthy people and events. Carolyn L. Mazloomi, distinguished historian of African American quilts and NEA National Heritage Fellow, curated the show and authored the book. She spoke with us about the concept and purpose of the project, and why it matters.
What was your mission in conceiving “And Still We Rise”?
To tell unknown stories about African American history. I wanted people to know about the contributions African Americans have made to American culture, as well as some of the ups and downs that have affected our culture and impacted it in such a way as to bring about important changes, benefiting not only African Americans but the nation as a whole.
And what better way to do it than quilts? It’s a soft place to land, a soft and safe place to discuss these issues. Everybody can relate to a quilt. Every human being has a relationship to the cloth. You know, it’s the first thing we’re swathed in at birth and the last thing on our bodies when we leave this earthly realm.
Why are quilts such a powerful medium to tell the African American story in particular?
Well, we as a culture have long been involved in quiltmaking. When Africans came here, they came with needlework skills. When scholars and historians think about artistic contributions made by African Americans to American culture, immediately they think of jazz and they think of quilts. So that art form is familiar to us black folks as artists.
Did members of the Women of Color Quilters Network choose their own themes?
I always start by writing an introduction and outline of how I perceive these shows that I’ve done, and this is maybe the 11th one. So I made a historic timeline of all these important events and people that I thought important to the culture. I gave it to members and asked those who wanted to participate to choose one of the topics and create a visual narrative.
On the opening day of the show [at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati], we had maybe 80 percent of the artists there, and I am telling you, it was so emotional for us, very gratifying. We had our oldest member there, Cleota Proctor Wilbekin, who made a quilt about the National Association of Bench and Bar Spouses Foundation. She’s 85, and has two PhDs and a law degree. Can you imagine going to school as an African American at that time? She’s now an attorney, but she studied anthropology under Margaret Mead. Not many people living today can say that. So it’s not only about the quilts and the stories behind the quilts, but about many of the makers of these pieces.
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition and book?
Many things. I wanted to start a conversation about race, and for people from outside of African American culture to come into the exhibit and leave with knowledge. Also, many young African Americans don’t know the facts we older folks know.
Sometimes I would go to the museum here in Cincinnati when the show started its tour and just sit on a bench. No one knew who I was, and I would listen to the comments young African Americans made. They would read the text panels with their grandparents or parents, and they’d say, “I didn’t know this; I never heard of this before.” It made me feel good that they left knowing more about themselves and their culture.
I’ve gotten many letters from people who are so emotionally invested in the show after seeing it. A young woman who saw it in Austin, Texas, brought her 2-year-old child to the museum with her. She said when she got to the Trayvon Martin quilt [by Dorothy Burge], she was so impacted, knowing she had this boy child in the stroller, and thinking, “That could have been my son.” On the opening day of the show, a man came in and was standing before a quilt [also by Burge] about his father, James Cameron [the civil rights activist and founder of the Black Holocaust Museum].
He said, “I never thought I would see my father in a museum, never thought he would be so appreciated.”
Your own quilt is about the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. Why did you choose that as your subject?
I was obsessed with making that quilt. I’m a Southern woman who grew up in Louisiana in the middle of the civil rights movement. Many of the quilts that I’ve made have been about my life in the segregated South. That march was one of the turning points of the civil rights movement and led to the Voting Rights Act. As a young person watching it on television, I distinctly remember a young man getting beaten down with a billy club, and the dogs biting him, attacking him. I will never forget that march and the bravery of the people who participated – that young man. I didn’t know until I was older that he was [now Congressman] John Lewis, and he has always been a hero for me. For 30 years I thought, one day I would like to meet him.
Did you ever get that opportunity?
In 2014 I won the National Heritage award, and I went to Washington to receive it. The day before I left, I was audacious enough to call the congressman’s office. I said who I was and why I was coming to Washington, and that I wanted to meet Congressman Lewis. They called me back and said yes. The day of the ceremony, I went to his office, and I met him. I brought my son and grandson and daughter-in-law and husband, and it was so emotional. And I gave him the quilt. We both cried. [Mazloomi pauses for a long moment.] It was monumental meeting this man, who had given so much. So much.
This is the specialness of “And Still We Rise,” to breathe life into these stories. I don’t care what race you come from – you cannot help but be touched. That is the power of the cloth.
And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations was released by Schiffer Publishing in 2015. The exhibition is at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, through April 24, and travels next to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, on view September 24 – January 1, 2017.
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.