Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sweet Clara And The Freedom Quilt

I have many books with audio tapes as a result of more than 25 years of elementary classroom service. I decided to digitize some so as to make "ebook read alongs for ."
It's pretty time consuming and I didn't want to post one in its entirety so as to violate copy write laws. I thought I's start with this one for this site. However, in doing online research to provide additional resources I discovered that there's quite a controversy surrounding this book and the whole concept of freedom quilts.
Here's one source

From Meme to Monument: How the Underground Railroad Quilt Code Ended up on a Statue of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fellner
Noted quilter, lecturer, writer and researcher Leigh Fellner presents an overview of a controversy which has evolved in the past eight years involving assertions that coded quilts were used to help escaping African-American slaves prior to the Civil War. For those not familiar with the myth or who want to know more, here are the facts ... and you can decide.
Ask anyone you know about quilts in American history, and odds are you will hear that in the first half of the 19th century, encoded quilts were used to help African-Americans escape north from slavery to freedom. You might be told no concrete evidence of an Underground Railroad Quilt Code has ever been found. But you are unlikely to hear that all the evidence argues against even the theory such a system either did exist, or needed to. The Quilt Code includes patterns known to have originated in the 20th century. It contains messages that either have nothing to do with escaping, tells fugitives to do things that would put them in danger, or are so obvious as to be insulting. Most fugitives headed south, not north; most traveled alone; few planned their escapes; and even fewer were assisted by the Underground Railroad. And neither quilts nor the circuitous route the Code describes appear in any first-person fugitive or Underground Railroad account, or indeed anywhere at all until the late 20th century.
The Code is so ahistorical that for years after the 1999 publication of Hidden in Plain View, much of the academic community dismissed it as harmless nonsense to which a scholarly response would only lend a sort of legitimacy. In the quilt world, some worried that doubting the story's veracity or the authors' scholarship would distress its proponents, who were often described as pleasant and well-meaning. One white quilter likely spoke for many when, mistakenly presuming both a widespread embrace of the Code by blacks and a dearth of recorded African-American history, she wrote me that "maybe they just need something to cling to". (In fact, most of those promoting the Code - and profiting from it - are white; Quilt Code Museum owner Teresa Kemp has complained that few of her visitors are African-American.)
Virtually uncontested, within a year of HIPV's publication the Quilt Code had become a common feature in teaching guides for Black History Month. In 2005, Ohio school board members commissioned a giant Code mural for their new high school. In 2007, the City of New York announced that over the objections of historians (including Douglass biographer David Blight, director of Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition) the Quit Code would be featured on a $15M, taxpayer-funded Central Park monument to abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. The project historian had simply assumed the Code was documented fact. (The design is under review; revision of the monument would require a complete overhaul.)
It is impossible to understand how the Code was so quickly transformed from meme into monument without knowing its historic context. It is often referred to as "old," but in five years of research, the earliest mention I have found of quilts-as-signals is in Hearts and Hands: , a feminist video about women and quilts: "They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves." Neither the companion book nor the filmmakers' original notes mentions this. In 1989, folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry elaborated, adding color: "Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)..." Two years later, warning that many stories about quilts are the product of "overactive imaginations," quilt historian Cuesta Benberry related: "A story, as yet undocumented, tells of quilts in the "Jacob's Ladder" pattern (renamed "Underground Railroad") hung outside houses as a signal to passengers on the Underground Railroad that the homes were safe havens for the fearful travelers." Neither Fry nor Benberry gives a source, and quilt historian Barbara Brackman says no antebellum examples of the Underground Railroad pattern are known to exist.
As interest in African-American quilts surged in the late 20th century, Jonathan Holstein (who in 1971 curated the first museum exhibition of quilts) observed that a mixture of fact, myth and speculation was "function[ing] as a dangerous substitute for missing history," and had "led to some recent fiascos of scholarship." Two years later, using the very methodology Benberry had decried as "myopic," yet another folklorist - Maude Wahlman - claimed to find specific African "signs and symbols" that African-Americans had unwittingly stitched into their quilts. Wahlman (who claims, contrary to evidence, that Euro-American quilts are historically "pastel") gets her ideas about African textiles from modern examples that would have been unrecognizable to the Africans forcibly brought to America: one type was nonexistent before the 20th century; another is unique to a region whose people were never enslaved. Likewise, 90% of Wahlman's quilts date to after 1980; census records confirm quilt historian Julie Silber's hunch that the maker of one of the few older examples was white. Wahlman suggests quilts may have been used as escape signals, but gives no details. HIPV author Jacqueline Tobin would later write that without Signs & Symbols, her own book "could not have been written."
Among the many children's books linking quilts and the Underground Railroad is 1993's Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, in which the title character escapes slavery using a quilt that is literally a map. Its author, Deborah Hopkinson, says she was inspired by a National Public Radio interview with art quilter Elizabeth Scott. But NPR says the quilter was never even interviewed for that report, and I have found no record that Scott has ever mentioned quilts being used in connection with escape.

1 Comment:

Mrs. Markwith said...

We are studying this text this week and we are looking for an online read aloud and we love what you have posted for "Sweet Clara and The Freedom Quilt." Is there any spot where we could hear the entire story read? The woman who read the story did such an awesome job! Thank you in advance, Angela Wiley 4th grade teacher

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