The Gee's Bend Quilters

A great example to begin a discussion of the materiality of literacy and varieties of literacy, especially in a multicultural setting, is the quilts and quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama . I define literacy for this essay as a communally understood format of knowing, and the women of Gee's Bend know quilting. Peter Marzio (2002), Director of The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston explains, "The women are descended from generations of slaves who worked the Pettway plantation at Gee's Bend . The ancestors of these artists were so firmly rooted in that place that they stayed put on that peninsula in Alabama after the Civil War and established a tightly knit community that during the Great Depression was declared one of the poorest places in the United States and singled out for federal relief programs" (p. 6).

Their quilts, often compared to works of abstract art, grew out of many factors, most importantly: their material need for warmth, the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers, and their individual desire for expression. This rhetoric of quilting is passed on from generation to generation in the community, with each new individual adding her individual mark. These quilts “are the products of both tradition and innovation: older women teaching younger women the styles and standards of beauty, a pedagogical process similar to that practiced in academic salons or formal art schools” (Marzio, 2002, p. 6).

The idea of quilting as a form of communication is not unique to Gee's Bend . In Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South , Gladys-Marie Fry (1990) affirms the idea that quilting on plantations was a means of survival not just to keep out the cold but for the expression that they were being denied in slavery. Moreover, in their controversial work Hidden in Plain View , Jacquelin Tobin and Raymond Dobard (1999) make intricate connections between African culture, slave quilting, and the Underground Railroad. Their text includes beautiful and useful pictures and drawings to visually stimulate the comprehension of how patchwork quilting can intimate meaning to those who are literate in the code found therein. They present the thesis that different quilt patterns and colors placed outside along the trail of the Underground Railroad communicate messages to those travelers. One pattern might mean that it is safe to continue; another, to stay put because progression would be dangerous.

Quilting is a form of communal understanding that also relies on the improvisation found in other important elements of African American culture: jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, and poetry. Alvia Wardlaw (2002) says that: “Two quilts made by the same artist using the same design can display enormous differences in execution and visual impact, depending upon the approach and creative attitude of the artist on a given day” just the way a jazz musician or singer may perform the same piece of music differently given different context (p. 14). In fact, in “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of An African-American Tradition,” Floris Bennet Cash (1995) says, “The voices of black women are stitched within their quilts” (p. 30).  Jazz literacy could be elaborated upon in a similar fashion, although I find the material necessity of quilts in the Gee's Bend community particularly interesting. Obviously, not every person is literate in the rhetoric of quilting, but, much like jazz, the members of the community know and understand one another.

A close study of the Gee's Bend quilts and their makers is a testament to material rhetoric. Quilter Loretta Pettway says,

I didn't like to sew. Didn't want to do it. I had a handicapped brother and I had to struggle. I had a lot of work to do., Feed hogs, work in the field, take care of my handicapped brother. Had to go to the field. Had to walk about fifty miles in the field every day. Get home too tired to do no sewing. My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, “You better make quilts. You going to need them.” I said, “I ain't going to need no quilts.” But when I got me a house, a raggly house, then I needed them to keep warm. We only had heat in the living room, and when you go out of that room you need cover.” (cited in Beardsley et al, 2002, p. 72)

The quilts were necessity—the poverty of Gee's Bend required them. In fact, “The quilt was a 'cushion,' in a very real sense of the word, against elements that invaded their log cabins chinked with mud against the wind” (Wardlaw, 2002, p. 13). By showing pictures from the Gee's Bend communities, budding new media scholars can see visual representations of the socio-economic conditions that required quiltmaking for warmth. Although some students may be familiar with quiltmaking because of their mothers or grandmothers (as I am), few, if any, will have encountered quiltmaking as necessity in the way the Gee's Bend quilters knew and know it.

When viewing the Gee's Bend quilts, a most striking attribute for discerning eyes is the “material” used for quilting; this also is the foundational element for understanding quilting as a form of literacy. Most of the quilts are made from old clothes and hand-me-down material. Quilter Loretta Pettway again explains, "I made all my quilts out of old shirts and dress tails and britches legs. I couldn't never get no good fabric to make quilts, so I had to get the best of the old clothes my peoples wore or old clothes I got from other peoples. I get the best of the shirt sleeves or whatever part of the pants wasn't wore out—like the back of the pants legs, 'cause the knees mostly be wore out. (We pick the cotton on our knees.)" (cited in Beardsley et al, 2002, p. 73).

Wardlaw (2002) says the women use “what is available among worn family clothing, household textiles, and the infrequently acquired purchased cloth or quilting bee cloth or precious cloth brought back from the occasional trip to the county seat of Camden” (p. 14). To Wardlaw, and I would argue many viewing these quilts, they are “genius emerging from want” (p. 14).


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