Category Archives: Middle Passage

Corn guy and Womb

IMG_5131.JPGFunny to be weaving “fall” when it got so sticky hot here today. This guy got his start on a napkin-basket-loom.  I was trying out some things from the weaving class with Jude Hill (Spirit Cloth, side bar), and sort of having fun.  The warp caught in the grooves of the basket edges and stayed put well enough, but I could only use tape to secure it on the back, so it got loose in places — sometimes to the point of near unworkability.
IMG_0009 IMG_4746Mostly today I pieced rectangles of cotton together, pressed the seams one way or the other, and enjoyed the cool of my basement.  I ran the fan all day to churn some of the mildew smell out the back door. That sounds awful but it wasn’t. It was a nice retreat after two very intense weeks of travel and settling the boys in.
IMG_0278In fact, the cool quiet of the cellar was perfect for my first ‘official’ day of the empty nest — a day that found me tired, disoriented, a little sick, and in real need of silence.IMG_0295 I stitched a linen frond to the woven island piece (above, left) and excavated some of the sections representing Africa from the Middle Passage series (above, right)IMG_0297In the little square above, I put some of the ‘Ghost House’ remnants next to fabrics being used to designate ‘Strange Fruit’ in the ‘White House of Privilege’ series. A panel with a moon stitched on it is being blown sideways by the fan.  I like that almost more than anything else!IMG_0302 IMG_0308 IMG_0310Middle Passage scraps partnered with Ghost House piecing (above). Reading the recent ‘Atlantic’ article, ‘The Case for Reparations’ (by Ta-Nehisi Coates) has got me thinking about all this again (as if the events in Ferguson, Missouri weren’t prompt enough)…IMG_0316And all these tiny little ‘doodles’ wanting a home. The grid has one inch squares, so you get the scale.
IMG_5030I’ll close with a few pix from Vermont.  We camped at a state park located on an island in Lake Champlain.  We did this to save money, but it was really wonderful!  So quiet. So pretty.


IMG_0269The weather was perfect, and it was nice, as it turns out, to break up the drive and the border crossing over separate days. Since we’ve had some really nice visits to Montreal, including a few memorable dinners, there was no feel of a pauper’s compromise in this plan — none at all. IMG_5084IMG_5092Look at those skies!!

gratitude and slavery

“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it would be enough.”   
Meister Eckhart.

IMG_9153That shell and that driftwood came from Sullivan’s Island, SC. On the beach, which oddly reminded me very much of Martha’s Vineyard, I could look out to the east, knowing that Africa lay beyond the horizon. I wondered how many ‘recent slave imports’ did exactly that. I wondered what mix of bewilderment, rage, defeat, and sadness they might have felt. I acknowledged how little idea they had of what lay ahead.

Sullivan’s Island is where slaves coming into the port of Charleston were quarantined for a few weeks before being taken to the auction block. During the very busy slave importation years of  the late 18th century, yellow fever, malaria, and small pox repeatedly and vengefully swept through the Lowlands.  Any slave sick enough to die within the quarantine period was allowed to do so.  It is heartrending to learn that a ten percent loss of cargo (read: African life) was deemed an acceptable margin in the slave trading business.
sullivan-islandWith the obvious aim of fattening them up for sale, the Africans were fed better during quarantine than at any time during the Middle Passage. They were groomed, oiled, and if plagued by dysentery (but not sick enough to die), plugged up temporarily with whittled corn cobs. If punished, they were paddled rather than whipped, for welts on the back signaled a wayward, unmanageable African, and would reduce his value on the block. There are reports of the sailors miming monkeys scratching their underarms to get the Africans to wash themselves. There isn’t much you can read about this island’s history without feeling sick.

There is no memorial.  Toni Morrison saw to changing that. See images of the Memorial Bench here.  [Update: just learned on a website called African American Charleston that in 1999, “On July 3, a 6-foot historical marker is placed on Sullivan’s Island near Fort Moultrie to honor those enslaved Africans who arrived in bondage via Charleston Harbor.”

Right before I went to SC, I heard a sliver of coverage about how much slaves contributed to the building of the ivy league schools in the Northeast. Maybe it was a review of the following book by Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, & the Troubled History of America’s Universities:

Many of America’s revered colleges and universities—from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC—were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.

[from the Amazon page selling his book].


renovated slave shack, Magnolia Plantation

So — for the beautiful quads that populate this neck of the woods, with their stone edifices, filigreed ironworks, brick walkways, and carved doors: thank you slaves. Thank you.

It sounds lame to read this back. But how much MORE lame would it be never to say ‘thank you’. I am deciding to trust Meister Eckhart on this one.

house evolving

A muggy and grey day with a visit to the periodontist slated early (have no fear — only stitch-removal!)

The Trayvon Martin quilt (blogged earlier here) — “White House of Privilege” — and its intended background have both changed enough that they no longer partner well together. More on that later, but for now — how the house is evolving . . .


early stages of White House of Privilege

I added more strips of blue flanking the house, to make it stand out more. White pickets were added to the foreground later.


more detail on the house

White privilege is an invisible thing


My father, born in Fort Lee, NJ, raised in Queens, NY. Of Irish descent.

I have been wondering how to think about white privilege — how to acknowledge it, understand its parameters, and to notice the profound consequences of it in my life. It seems like the least I can do to honor Trayvon Martin. It strikes me as a more fitting tribute than wearing a hoodie to a rally.

Of course, wearing a hoodie to a rally is another way to express one’s grief at this shameful episode in American life and I’m glad that white people all over the country are doing as much. But one of the very first things to occur to me this week about racial privilege is that, in terms of the perception of menace, it doesn’t MATTER what I wear, or more to the point, what my 17 or 19 year old sons wear.

by-the-charlesHad my 17 year old been wearing a hoodie and acted in all the same ways as young Trayvon, either:  A) he’d still be alive, or B) Zimmerman would be in jail.  Further, if he HAD been shot and killed, the Stand Your Ground Rule would be dismantled in short order.

I was away during the trial and on a media fast, so I missed most of it, but I gather that the prosecution bungled the case pretty badly (perhaps the most obvious blunder being — AN ALL WHITE JURY, REALLY?!!)  A friend who is a criminal trial junkie (her term, not mine) stated it this way: “It was like watching a beloved sports team blowing it, over and over.”

Putting aside the nuances and complexities that populate most criminal trials, it is absolutely the case that there is real cause for outrage. And grief. And alarm. The Esquire piece by Charlie Pierce expresses that outrage clearly and poetically.

neworleans postcard

2005 – from Katrina series – “I am an American citizen”

What I have come up with regarding white privilege is only a threshold insight. It is this — when a cultural understanding is so assumed, so ingrained, and so supported by institutions, left and right, it becomes invisible. Part of the privilege of being a white American, then, is that my status requires no tending, examining, defending, or justifying.

2005 - Katrina series, close up

2005 – Katrina series, close up from another quilt

Put simply, one of the primary benefits of white privilege is not HAVING to think about race. What African American in this country has spent a single day of their lives similarly situated?

flower-of-youthWith all of this in mind, I started another White House quilt this week.

As some of you know, the White House quilt made earlier in the summer was, perhaps, about overcoming personal history — with white standing in for a state of peace or the absence of struggle.  And when I added a red thread, it became about protecting personal space.

The white in the White House quilt I’m making this week signifies a house in a protected, privileged, and not-necessarily Southern neighborhood. And the red signifies blood.

I placed red African fabric and a piece of a red floral handkerchief at the base of the white house — to represent the felling of a young African American in the flower of his youth — precisely because of his relationship to whiteness.  I built up the surrounding mantle with sections previously pieced (last summer) for one of the Middle Passage quilts.


White House, Blood, and Middle Passage

This really broke my heart. And here’s why.

Last summer, pairing up fabrics that represented African life in its sunny, beautiful, integrity with those that represented slave ships, ocean passage, and fragmentation of life, identity and culture, I thought of the Middle Passage, and even slavery, as history.

But the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman and the willingness to leave the Stand Your Ground Rule on the books, prove that slavery resides on a spectrum in this great land of ours, and that it’s not over yet. It is not over yet.

Any black person could have told me this.*

* As if to illustrate this point, reader Wendy sent this link in a comment below… It is a tour of Sanford, FL (where Zimmerman killed Trayvon) with a local African American and a visiting Canadian journalist. The tour guide tells of the long history of racism specific to and still-in-living memory of his town — including the lynching of his uncle for whistling at a white woman.  It is well worth the eight minutes viewing time.

Experimenting with quilt series

It is hard to think about anything but the election or the Nor ‘Easter rambling up the coast, but before too much more time goes by, I wanted to catch up my dear readers on the the Middle Passage quilt experiments.  You may recall “Middle Passage I” after its first dunk in the indigo vat:

It looked  more like blue fog than rising water, so I dunked the entire bottom half.  But first, I used corn syrup as a resist.  I slathered it on with a paint brush, hoping to preserve some of the color of the floral green shapes, the green hut, the turtle, and a few of the red stripes of the batik.
The corn syrup worked as a resist, but it will take some quilting to make it ‘work’ as a visual treatment.  And maybe it won’t.  We’ll see.  Not sure what the sugars did, if anything, to the indigo vat.
The back shows how much dye the quilt has absorbed.  Some dye landed on the upper green/white linen area by accident, so with a paint brush I applied more dye just to the surface (techniques learned in Glennis Dolce’s Indigo Class).  I also shadowed the edge of the moon with indigo.

Last week my fingers turned blue while quilting those floral green areas and the turtle.  And, I was disappointed with what the stitching accomplished.  Between the transfer of dye to my fingers and the presence of batik (notoriously difficult to poke a needle through), I may opt to draw with thread on one of my machines.

Also, it occurred to me that if this quilt is to live on someone’s wall in the future, it will need to be backed with fresh cloth, because I think the dye would transfer to the wall as well.  Maybe I could rinse in vinegar?  Then wash in soap and water?  I did this for the first time with one of the rectangular pieces of linen that I hemmed into a scarf.  Not a trace of blue came out in the rinse, which means success – I think!

I am prepared to be disappointed with these experiments.  It is the very nature of an experiment that the outcome is unknown.  In a way, every quilt is an experiment.  But, sometimes we add new techniques or color choices that scramble things more than usual.  If this one bombs, I will cut it up and try to use the pieces in another way. 

What do YOU do with failed experiments?  And, how do you talk to yourself while trying something utterly new and possibly terrible looking?

Middle Passage reveal

This is ‘Middle Passage I’ after dunking the lower edge into the indigo vat.  By adding more resists, I managed to retain more of the original fabric than I did with the other Middle Passage piece (where I turned the bottom four inches of the quilt into a solid band of dark blue).
I like how some of the dye concentrated on the stitches.
I also like how some of the indigo visually ties into the hand-dyed fabric that I had purchased and pieced right above the yellow-dunked print (they’re the ivory, ecru, and blue rectangles).  But, overall, this experiment might have proved more satisfactory had I dyed the cloth prior to attaching the three layers together – the batting absorbed a lot of the dye that might have otherwise saturated the quilt top.  Some of the indigo streaks don’t appear to fully saturate the threads. Below, is a view of the quilt that did NOT get immersed.
This morning, I twisted and dunked yet ANOTHER Middle Passage quilt (III?).
I can’t show you how it looks yet, but it is the least successful of the three by a lot.  Here’s how it looked prior to submersion:
Because I liked the red batik border on this one, I folded the quilt and immersed the mid-section.

Because I’m unhappy with the result, tomorrow I will probably go ahead and dunk the entire lower half.  I wish I knew how to apply a rice paste – I would use that to preserve some of the red.

dunking, dingy, houses and blues


This is the vertical Middle Passage quilt, after adding some cloth and rubber band resists to lower edge and dunking into indigo vat.
Our bathroom receives late afternoon sun – from the weekend.
It was such a beautiful day here.  Since we abut an elementary school, all my activity out back this morning was accompanied by the sounds of children playing.
I was happy to spend some of such a glorious day outside with cloth, and raking, and taking a walk around Crystal Lake.