America's Quilting History
African American Quilting:
A Long Rich Heritage
BY THE SHOVEL FULL
Shines New Light on Slave Life
By Hoag Levins
from: Historic Camden County
Clearly, for slaves there was little opportunity for overt displays of creativity and, therefore, many African artistic traditions were destroyed in the West. However, because of the lack of skilled craftsmen in the colonies, there was, ironically, a demand for creative Africans working in the media of wood, metal, pottery and cloth. Indeed, some slave owners made money by hiring out their artisan slaves. Much of their work has disappeared with time, but recent archaeological excavations in the UnitedStates have revealed, for example, clay pipes engraved with traditional African designs. Much, though, was deliberately covert and subversive. It’s well known that many gospel songs derived from traditional African melodies and rhythms were used to convey secret messages to escaping slaves. Similarly, African women, used their skills to create patchwork quilts some with coded messages showing the route to freedom embroidered into their complex patterns.
The subject of slavery proved inspirational for many Western artists both contemporaneously and subsequently and, since there were none of today’s high-tech cameras, many of our internal images of slavery are informed by works produced by those artists, images that remain subliminally and indelibly engraved on memory. Thomas Wedgwood, abolitionist and member of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, suggested that an emblem on the title page of a pamphlet entitled 'An address to the People of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West India sugar and rum' would heighten its impact. He commissioned a woodcut that became the famous Slave Medallion. Thousands were distributed in the UK and the USA and they became a contemporary fashion statement, worn as hair ornaments and bracelets and used to decorate snuff boxes. Thomas Clarkson, fellow anti-slavery campaigner wrote: 'It is evident that through the success of the medallion, Wedgwood had achieved, at least in part, the desire to make known the suffering of the slaves…' Although achieving its laudable aims, it is perhaps unfortunate that the abiding image of the African in slavery is that of a black man in chains, kneeling, pleading to have his humanity recognised: 'Am I Not a Man and a Brother.'
Blake was totally opposed to slavery, both mental and physical, writing in 'Songs of Innocence and Experience',
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
Blake’s horror at the treatment of slaves again manifests itself in The Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave. The woman is placed in the foreground of picture and therefore provides a visually arresting image of anguish and pain. Her features are Europeanized, indicating her mixed heritage, but also allowing the audience a degree of connection. People are often more responsive to people and objects with which they feel most familiar. Her helplessness is clearly indicated through her bound hands and torn clothing. The presence of both slaves and soldiers in the background highlights the complicity between both parties in the punishment of female slaves. In this image, the slave has become the epitome of the noble savage, for any audience would be unlikely to condone such violence upon the fairer sex. He hallows the sanctity of the female form and the female persona – pointing to radical ideas of strong similarities in the way women must be treated, regardless of race.