Stories of enslaved people using traditional quilt designs as codes or signals on the Underground Railroad have long been circulated in families, quilting circles and children’s books. The association of quilts with matriarchy and African-American heritage have helped them function as an unspoken lineage in the face of opposition. However, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard’s Hidden in Plain View popularized the story as “historical theory,” vying for archival legitimacy. This led scholars to attack the concept and others to spread it as a feel-good “American story” divorced from its racial origins. This paper examines these competing definitions of code quilts.
Enslaved people could have used traditional quilt designs as codes or signals on the Underground Railroad. While no primary source accounts exist on the subject, stories of quilts being used as markers of safe houses, maps of plantations, or some sort of code have long been shared within families and quilting circles.1 Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard’s 1999 book Hidden in Plain View led to the idea of a code to be presented as historical fact in textbooks and museums, after an elderly African American quilt maker named Ozella McDaniel Williams asked Tobin to write down her family story. According to the story, her enslaved ancestors would create quilts and hang them outdoors, in a sequence to remind them of elements of their planned escape. For example, a “bear’s paw” pattern would serve as a reminder that a route through the Appalachian Mountains followed the tracks of bears. Due to their lack of primary sources outside Williams’s narrative, and some issues with their secondary research on the Underground Railroad and quilt history, the authors have been widely accused of spreading unsubstantiated speculation, both by scholars of slavery and scholars of quilts.
Out of context, such a hubbub over some quilts may seem peculiar, but I argue that the social significance of a quilt positions it well for such a contestation of meaning. The past is not passive: to attempt to put words to it is to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”2 This makes the way we articulate the past intimately connected to present ideologies and their subversion, such that it is impossible to “reconstitut[e] the past free from the disfigurements of present conditions.”3 A physical way to envision this is that “what has come before is not contained in the past, but is continually erupting” in the present.4 Those espousing a strict adherence to proven, archived data may attempt to claim moral superiority, but any argument over factual accuracy is also an arena of conflicting beliefs and values. Ultimately, the code quilt conflict pits the role of the quilt in the formation of African American history and identity against the ideal of strict adherence to factual accuracy, which contains its own biases.
Historians attempting to debunk what they see as a myth don’t usually get very far. On an online forum shortly after the publication of Hidden in Plain View, quilt scholar Laurel Horton remarked that there were “some problems with the research.” The response was immediately defensive: “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe that slaves were smart enough to figure out a way to escape?”5 The story is clearly important to people, but in a way that is more complicated and variable than a single sentence can describe. It begins with the association of quilts to childhood, and the image of multiple generations stitching familial bonds as they stitch together the object.
This compelling picture has spawned a veritable genre of children’s literature on quilts, often in relation to slavery. In these books, the quilts themselves embody liberation, protection, and Black matrilineage. One popular example is Deborah Hopkinson’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, in which the young enslaved protagonist uses information pieced together from her whole community to create a coded map to freedom in the form of a quilt.6 When the quilt is used like a map, as the north star pattern is used in some stories, it encapsulates the wish to flee. The physical creation of these quilts is part of a tradition of enslaved people’s everyday unruliness, making up what Uri McMillan would call “the black art of escape.”7
In Courtni Wright’s Journey to Freedom, a particular quilt design is hung on the porch of an Underground Railroad safe house as an “all clear” signal.8 When used as an indicator of safe houses (often the log cabin pattern with a black center instead of an orange one), the quilt expresses the promise of welcome into a protective community. If freedom is literally within reach when the quilt is within sight, the quilt also becomes a material stand-in for freedom.
Valerie Flournoy’s The Patchwork Quilt describes a quilt that links three generations of Black women in the process of its creation.9 Meanwhile, Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way is a fictionalized account of her family history, in which quilt patterns that once aided escape on the Underground Railroad are sewed into the insides of dresses worn during Civil Rights marches, as a method of spiritual protection.10 In these stories, quilts function as an intergenerational, matriarchal bond, a “representation of Afrocentric motherhood.”11 They are a way to silently express culture in the face of oppression, “a covert manifestation of resistance through the object of storytelling,”12 which functions to preserve a cultural history.
Children, families and the formation of cultures are all sewn into the quilt, making it an agent of self-identification. In the context of race and slavery, it serves at once as a protector and an alternative codex. Though seemingly benign, the quilt provides more than just comfort and condolence, it “sets about to educate and transform young minds,”13 teaching what to accept, what to resist, and how.
These meanings are encoded when these stories are told in classrooms or quilting circles. Through quilts, the stories provide children with a space to locate themselves in relation to history, which in turn informs their actions in the present.14 Historian Robin Bernstein describes this sort of provision as “scripting,” in which elements of material culture – such as quilts – compel us to actions we wouldn’t otherwise have done.15 Bernstein provides this analysis in the context of the normalization of racial violence, but scripting can also create cultural identity and self-definition, as in the rhetoric of quilts. When scraps of patchwork are stitched together by experienced quilters, or a series of empty patterns colored in by preschoolers, they invest the quilt maker with a powerful bond to the quilts’ stories. But the maker is equally a recipient, their agency granted by the quilt itself: Unlike a passive object, the quilt is an active thing, the bringer of safety and freedom. This is one reason why proponents of the code story as a teaching tool claim that it liberates students. Folk art expert Maude Wahlman says, “It appealed to a lot of people that [African Americans] were partly responsible for their own freedom and their own intellectual ways, and they weren’t just dependent on other people.”16 By copying or coloring in a quilt design, then, Black students can reach into history to take control of their own autonomy.
This sort of cultural definition is at odds with the ideal of factual accuracy. According to the ethics of most historians, a story unsubstantiated by archival data should not be passed off as an event. Historian David Blight, for instance, calls the code story “a piece of folklore largely invented in the 1990s which only reinforces a soft, happier version of the history of slavery.”17 In the eyes of historians like Blight, the past can be known through logic and reason, and folklore is subservient to proven fact. Blight also writes off the use of quilts as “soft” and “happy,” his criticism coded in the perceived material nature of a quilt, and discounting the quilt’s cultural role outside an abstract sort of domesticity. In “official” history, it’s not permissible for the quilt to function as an agent or jump out of a purely aesthetic plane.
Adherence to factual accuracy, however, functions as its own dogma (much like how strict atheism functions as a religion). Many scholars shun emotion as non-objective, but as Laurel Horton observes, “we do not recognize in our own emotional reactions [to unsubstantiated belief] evidence that we too are acting from a set of deeply held beliefs… in the supremacy of factual truth.”18 Moreover, as Saidiya Hartman explains from her study of the violence of the archive, what we presume to be factual historic documentation is far from objective – it is actually biased toward the romantic fantasies of the teller. “Scandal and excess inundate the archive,”19 and the historical records of slavery function simply as gawker slowdown for the destruction of lives that were never known. Because of this, “there is no historical document that is not… a vehicle of power and domination.”20
Representing only what is preserved, then, is in the service of power, because power informs what can be preserved. “The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot,” says Hartman, “must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future.”21 From this perspective, quilts and their patterns function as a cultural history, although the malleable nature of their roles and symbolism are likely incompatible with today’s canonical history. “Quilts, in their patched and many-colored glory, offer not a counter to tradition, but, in fact, the only legitimate tradition of “the people” that exists.”22
If quilts are legitimate carriers of memory, then have Tobin and Dobard, the authors of Hidden in Plain View, liberated this memory by bringing it to a broader public as historical theory? Unfortunately, they haven’t. Their book appeals squarely to the logic of the archive, positioning the quilt code in relationship to existing narratives, and using historical information to drive long strings of unanswered questions about how quilts could have been used. Through this speculation, the book tries hard to codify the quilt tale as “legitimate” history, and it fails due to its lack of primary sources outside one woman’s uncertain memories.
Moreover, by presenting code quilts as a story for everyone, and failing to comment on the persistence of racial inequality today, Tobin and Dobard’s book easily lends its stories to be disseminated as feel-good kitsch. Though Dobard is Black, Tobin, who spearheaded the project, is white, and while she clearly feels a spiritual connection to the transmission of Williams’s story, I find her descriptions of this transmission to be problematically self-congratulatory. For example: “Ozella had taken the tradition of the African griot [storyteller] to a level where, like the realm of the spirit, there is no separation by race. In telling me the story, Ozella moved beyond the strictures of the past.”23 The jacket notes of the book say that it “shows how three people from completely different backgrounds pieced together one amazing American story,” equating freedom and America without considering how the story’s main characters use quilts to resist an American society designed to destroy their agency and identity. Tobin and Dobard’s unclear intended audience has helped the story take on a life of its own. When told by whites, it is not a Black story but an “American” story. Some critics, demanding factual accuracy, have likened it to the tale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, and other classic American mythologies, without considering the specifically racial and subversive original context of Underground Railroad quilts.
Rather than addressing these issues, reactions from the quilting community have simply made things more confusing. Prompted by the popularity of Tobin and Dobard’s book, quilt scholar Barbara Brackman tried to set the record straight in her 2006 book Facts and Fabrications. Setting out to research Underground Railroad quilts, but finding no primary source material, Brackman instead created a guide to quilt patterns that she uses to symbolically represent aspects of the experience of enslaved people. Insisting on strict adherence to fact, but unable to escape the romance of quilts, Brackman is careful to specify that her quilt patterns have no historical connection to slavery, but that she has established a symbolic connection. Furthermore, she insists that readers not interpret antebellum-era quilts symbolically, and “suggests that quilters make note of the layers of symbols on the back of quilts so that future generations will not misinterpret the symbolism.”24 Seeking the best of both worlds, Brackman (a white woman) creates a sanitized version of folklore that extracts it from its cultural context. It can be acceptable to historians only because it explicitly identifies itself as metaphorical rather than literal.
Neither of these books emancipates the legitimacy of stories that are not clearly true or false. Saidiya Hartman ends her archival analysis at a seeming impasse, unable to imagine the invisible lives of slaves without succumbing to her own romanticizations, but nonetheless acknowledging a need to try. The code quilt story reaches a similar paradox. Since the publication of Hidden in Plain View, quilts and the Underground Railroad have been unable to appear together in public without an impossible demand for historical accuracy. The facts are requested but cannot be provided, leaving a stalemate that ignores the cultural meaning of quilts and its relationship to this story.
Despite the unresolved issue of fact versus fiction, the code quilt story shows no signs of disappearing. Children’s books continue to be published on the subject, some of them now referencing Tobin and Dobard’s codes specifically. I argue that the quilt stories are important and should continue to be told, even if their more recent projection as American success stories is unfortunate. To demand truth misses the point of the telling. In context, code quilts function not as historical doctrine, but as an agent of definition for the ideals of African American culture, in resistance to the forces that have attempted to stamp it out. The ideal of fact, on the other hand, is tied to these very forces, as surviving historical information is biased towards the dominant. The simple, semi-representational designs of quilts blur past and future, a present-day eruption of history that encodes a drive for liberation.
Andrew Bartholomew. “Prof. debunks Douglass myth.” Yale News. February 1, 2007. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2007/02/01/prof-debunks-douglass-myth/ (retrieved February 20, 2018).
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (1940): 253-264.
Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27, no. 4 (2009): 67-94.
Olga Idriss Davis, “The Rhetoric of Quilts: Creating Identity in African-American Children’s Literature,” African-American Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998).
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1-14.
Yolanda Hood, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Children & Libraries 11, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2013): 29-34.
Laurel Horton, “The Underground Railroad Quilt Code: The Experience of Belief,” Uncoverings 28 (2007).
Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. NYU Press, 2015.
Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 1999.
Wendi Wilkerson. “Barbara Brackman. Facts and Fabrications: Unravelling the History of Quilts and Slavery” [book review], Interdisciplinary Humanities 25, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 121-125.