Friday, January 7, 2011

My Favorite Book: A Communion of the Spirits

Indiana Purdue University

Freeman, Roland L. A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. Nashville Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996. 396 p.
Freeman's life story is inextricably woven into the story of African-American quilters. His passion for quilts began with the spirits he met as a child, when he slept under a quilt made by a "spiritwoman". Freeman reveals, through the quilters he interviews, the special communion with the past and the present their quilts represent. African-American women, in some cases two and three generations, and a few African-American men across America use quilts to tell their families' stories. Maya Anjelou and Camille Cosby ( wife of "Bill" Cosby) are among the exhibitors in this book. Anjelou is a quilter and she displays a quilt that Ophra Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make for Anjelou. Some quilters use carefully cut pieces to make quilts more in the tradition of European quilters. Others continue the strip designs and appliqued story cloths of Africa. Original designs by Freeman, but made by other people are a part of this story. This new publication with beautiful color photographs is one of the best pieces of photojournalism on this subject. Freeman's text includes insights about his fieldwork and advice about traveling through the deep south to the far north and from the east to the west coasts. This beautifully illustrated book helps to bring a visual reality to other books about African-American quilters. The excellent index , A Bibliography of Influences in the Development of A Communion of the Spirits, and a Gallery of Quilted Photographs are great assets to this title. Jacket artwork is not repeated on the hardcover edition.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched From the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Dutton Studio Books in Association with Museum of American Folk Art, 1990. 101p.
A scholar looks at African American quilts made by slave and freed black women of the Ante-Bellum South. Fry's research into the history of the quilting traditions of African-American women relied on the following types of sources: (1) official historical accounts; (2) the testimony of former slaves from the WPA Federal Writers Project and other nineteenth-century writings by African Americans; and (3) oral tradition, and primary family accounts pertaining to the provenance of their own surviving slave-made quilts. According to Fry each type of source has its own strengths and weaknesses. This book is a must for everyone interested in slave quilts. It is essential that every reader notes "Link to Survival" and the epilogue on Harriet Powers: Portrait of an African American Quilter. Harriet Powers was born into slavery in 1837, and she died in 1911. Her two known surviving quilts are owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Fry's research also documents the contributions of slave women to textile production. Their contributions were essential for the maintenance of the big house and the slave quarters. Fry concentrates more on quilting, sewing, and knitting as crafts, giving special attention to the quality of the pieces she found in private collections and museums around the country. Fry also recognizes that color preferences and techniques were remembered from Africa, but the act of creation offered an opportunity for the women to leave a "powerful record - a hidden history, of their humiliation and tragedy, the milestones of their time and of their own lives." (p. 83)
Profusely illustrated with color and black and white photographs and daguerrotypes from southern university archives and color prints of quilts from American museums, the Smithsonian and private collections. Table of contents, Notes, and Bibliography but no index. 



Peterkin, Julia Mood. Black April. Brown Thrasher Book. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
The setting of this novel is a coastal South Carolina plantation called Blue Brook. Because of an agricaultural depression which drove all the white people away, and left "a settlement of African American to shift for themselves." Blue Brook is an all black town, comparable, for some critics to Zora Heale Hurston's famous Eatonville. Peterkin, a descendant of South Carolina's slaveholding aristocracy had first hand knowledge of daily activities and routines of the several hundred black tenant farmers who lived in the slave quarter at Lang Syne. Lang Syne was the cotton plantation woned by Peterkin and her husband. (p. 159 - 179)
Chapter 13, "The Quilting" describes slave women's preparation of food, selection of the right cabin, even a listing of all the dishes served, how they were cooked at the fireplace. Peterkin writes, "The choosing went on until eight women were picked for each quilt, four to a side. Then the race began. The two quilt linings, made out of unbleached homespun were spread on the bare clean floor and covered with a layer of cotton. Two quilting poles were carefull rolled on the poles and the pole-ends fastened with strong cords to the side-walls. She describes the quilting as a contest between the two groups who called themselves "Christians" and "sinners". These quilting activities, eating, pipe smoking and gossip are much like reports given to Gladys-Mary Fry.  

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