Monday, June 13, 2011

Life's Thread Stitched Into Quilts (1996)

The Daughters of Dorcas & Sons is named for a seamstress in the New Testament who made clothes for the poor. (They added "& Sons" after three men joined the organization.) It is the oldest African-American quilting group, founded 16 years ago by Viola V. Canady, a retired Army seamstress, whose quilted angel's wings shimmer with tiny, gold-thread stitches. At the time, Mrs. Canady recalled, "I couldn't find find any black people who quilted." She continued. "Most of the women I'd ask didn't want to quilt because they connected it with poverty, with the country, when everybody had to sleep on quilts."
Mrs. Canady, who was born in Goldsboro, N.C., and moved to Washington in 1945, persevered, convinced that without those tenuous bits of cloth a vital link would disappear. "We have lost so very much of what our people did," she said. "Quilting is what we were about. If you wanted to stay warm, you had to quilt."

"Within the African-American community, the quilt is perhaps the single most important image families have created for several centuries, and often the most lasting and permanent," said Dr. William Ferris, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
"Quilts connect to memory and constitute a bond between generations," he added. "They have roots in African culture, where quilt making and textiles are important. But they are critical to African-American history because much of the history of black culture has not been written down. Oral tradition and the world of the quilt constitute the most important record we have of black families."

"It has historically provided women an opportunity to come together to work, exchange ideas and share in each others troubles," Dr. Dobard said. In times of social fragmentation, it offers an antidote, common ground. "In many ways," he added, "quilting is a healing art."

The definition of an African-American quilt has been the subject of scholarly debate in recent years. Some historians have interpreted it strictly as a Southern rural utilitarian quilt, based strictly on "remembered" African precedents. Cuesta Benberry, a quilter and historian in St. Louis, has a simpler definition: "An African-American quilt," she said, "is one made by an African-American."

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