Tag Archives: racism

strange fruit

“Strange Fruit” — 28″ x 26″

This piece emerged while I was making the “Middle Passage” quilts. In that series, I used a brown fabric with horizontal stripes to represent slave ships. That fabric shows up again here, notably under a white house. It’s one of those references that no one would get unless I told them, i.e. a white structure upheld by the slave trade. The central motif was pieced during the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal (blogged about here and here).

“Strange Fruit” addresses the fact that the racism underpinning slavery exists on a continuum — how it’s evolved rather than disappeared. Specifically, I was thinking about the Jim Crow era and all its brutality — which explains the tree motif and the quilt’s title. At some point during its creation, I researched images of lynching victims. These are hard to look at. Nevertheless, I printed three of them out onto a sheer organza with the idea of overlaying the human images on the tree fabric to make explicit the reference. But I found I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I carefully rolled up the three sheer rectangles of cloth and placed them in boxes or vases for safekeeping — away from human eyes, in a restful dark — until I could decide what to do with them. Bury them?

Around the same time, I came across notes about a visual arts show (in D.C., maybe?) that featured images of lynched African Americans. I read with avid interest how carefully staged and curated the show had been, specifically designed to account for the intense sorrow or rage that might arise, including the hosting of structured, public conversations.

It confirmed my decision to exclude the images.

I couldn’t retrace that research now, but here’s a link to a similarly themed 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This show was a collaboration between the museum and the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization founded by Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy / A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Stevenson’s new project, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes episode, but it you’re short on time, I recommend watching the short clip at the top of the Memorial’s website, here.

To continue.

Last weekend, K and I attended Claudia Rankine’s play, “The White Card” — which addresses this very topic, that is, white people’s support of and use of images of black death in art — either art they create or art they buy. The black artist character, Charlotte, refers to the topic as “the black death spectacle”.

The play asked lots of provocative questions about cultural appropriation and they were all the more powerful for being aimed at white liberal progressives “trying to do the right thing”.

(I cringed when I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me” on the living room coffee table. Is that a ‘meta-prop’ — a prop of a prop? You can just make it out on the white upholstered surface).

Needless to say, the black artist invited to a dinner party hosted by wealthy white potential patrons cringes over a lot more than that. The collectors mean well — ahem — but the conversations make clear that good intentions are not enough (when did I hear that last? — in a review of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, “Detroit”.)

The play wrestles with the question: What does it mean to portray black suffering as art? More specifically, what does it mean when white artists do so or when white collectors collect it?

One statement and one question really stood out and apply to me (to this quilt and others, as well as the many-year project of setting a piece of historic fiction in 18th century South Carolina):

  • “Maybe you buy images of black death because that’s the only form of blackness you’re comfortable with” and
  • “Why don’t you make yourself your project?” (instead of black suffering).

Back to the ink-jet print-outs: I have looked for those disturbing cloth-printed figures a number of times in the intervening years and not been able to find them. This probably says more about my distracted self and less about the potency of the images, but still … Now, at least, I know that they will never, ever appear on any art work of mine.

I’ll end with a question Charlotte asks of her white patron: “Have you ever had the feeling that you’re ALL WRONG?”

The virtues of watermelon


Let me tell you how much I like watermelon. It’s sweet! It’s juicy! I like watermelon doused in lime juice and sprinkled with mint. I like the cool crunch of it, especially as July shoulders into August and the heat gathers its dull fury.

But why so small a domestic rave?

Well, otherwise I might find myself complaining about the relentless, interfering noise in my neighborhood. When I went out to pick the mint, I leaned into the street to see what racket had just begun, thinking it might be the planned driveway installation next door. But no, it was tree work two doors down. That’s usually good for at least three hours. Not long after I clopped my headphones on, the excavator that has been working sporadically across the street for weeks fired up its engine.

And if I weren’t complaining about noise, I’d be feeling some responsibility to articulate my rage and despondency about racism and unwarranted death and policing and gridlock and…  and… and… For a while now, I’ve believed that speaking out in clear anger was part of the solution, because, you know, ‘denying racism is a form of racism’. I’m not so sure right now. I’ve hit some sort of wall and silence feels like the better response, or maybe, the only one I’m capable of right now.

It occurs to me: America needs an etiquette for mass shootings. America needs an etiquette for racist murders. Think about that for a minute. “Dear Miss Manners, I can’t seem to wrap my head around the recent spate of race-driven murders. What is the most thoughtful response — too old to march. Signed, Weary White Woman.”

I “liked” the woman on FB who said (not completely jesting) that she ought to be able to “call in black” to work, just to give herself a few hours to grieve or find her own humanity (if you’re on FB, look for ‘Evelyn from the Internets’ and scroll down a couple of posts, or search #callinginblack).

Shaun King of the NY Daily News can always be relied upon to inform and respond in outrage. I follow him on twitter so that I will know when another atrocity has taken place (@shaunking). His recent article spoke about the need to end the despicable practice of asking African Americans who have just lost a loved one whether they forgive the perpetrator or not.

If you haven’t read the recent NY Times article by Charles Blow, I recommend it.

Otherwise, find your cool, crunchy sweets where you can?

Even though I’ve been writing at the kitchen table today, I’m going to escape the clammy, noisy air by descending into the basement. It’s cool down there. And quiet. I’ll enjoy my bowl of watermelon standing at the sewing table, with my laptop set up among the pins and scraps.

Then I’ll turn my attention back to mid-eighteenth century, South Carolina.It is strange to feel the permeability of history, which is another way of saying: it’s awful to acknowledge how the hate from those years lives on.

Nitty gritty for Hearts for Charleston Quilt

 

NBC News

Does thinking about the nitty gritty offer relief in the face of the unthinkable? Perhaps.

This link provides short bios of the victims: NBC News.

nbc news

Nine victims of the Charleston church shooting. Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton Middle row: Daniel Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson          Via Facebook and Getty Images

christ-deemallon-assemblage

African Christ – work in progress

I am rethinking the stitching of names onto the squares. Hold off on that for now, please. I think they might look better embroidered on strips that go all around the edge of the assembled nine block, rather than on the hearts or strips themselves. Some of the names are quite long and I don’t want them to get lost.

WEAVING STRIPS

This weaving method is simple. Some of the genius variations that Jude Hill has created are listed in links toward the end of this post. I encourage you to take a look at just a quick sampling of her work– even those of you who have been following her.  The method here is hers, the tricks are learned from her. The artistry will be all yours and mine — I hope!

Jude teaches two basic approaches. You can lay your strips on top of a backing cloth and weave (which is what I will demonstrate), or you can ‘anchor’ an uncut cloth to a backing with a single row of stitching, then cut that top piece into strips and weave into that.
IMG_9745The finished area should measure 10″. Please leave at least 1/4″ all round, or more, for flexibility at assembly.

I have chosen light and dark blue for a checkerboard affect, because symbolically I think that speaks to the intersection of people of different colors. In a checkerboard, each hue has equal weight. It is harmonious. So, I like that here. You are welcome to go in another direction. IMG_9717

It is easier to start in the middle and work toward each edge in turn.start in middle and work to one edgeLaying a ruler or piece of cardstock on top helps keep things from moving around too much. When you approach the edge, the strips won’t want to stay folded back, so you might want to use a weight. A ruler is good. Here I use scissors.
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To turn the square when you are done going in one direction — slide something firm underneath, like a plastic placemat.
IMG_9728Then rotate and repeat process.IMG_9730

IMG_9739Then, pin. I use a lot straight pins, knowing I may get stuck. As Mo pointed out yesterday, it might mean bleeding into the cloth. I can think of no better cloth to offer our blood to. But the point is (no pun intended), you may want to use safety pins. I find them too fussy.

Then, to adhere the layers with thread, it is up to you whether you want to do a LARGE BASTE, an INVISIBLE BASTE* a la Jude, or just dig right in and start stitching — across and down, in matching or contrasting threads. A woven square this large will flop around quite a bit without a lot of basting, so I will do a fair amount.

For both the basting as well as the initial finish stitching, it helps to have a firm work surface — one that a needle can encounter without you worrying. If you have a glass top table, that works. I have been using a laptop lap desk that a friend gave me. It has a hard plastic surface and is the right size. Once the layers are integrated enough, you will be able to lap quilt without these concerns.

The heart can be a color of your choosing. Except for the red, the ones I have shown are a little too big, covering up too much of the weaving. As mentioned earlier, I will use traditional applique (with turned under edge), but you may use raw edge applique.

FABRIC

Any fabric is good. I like, though, that so many of you have indicated that you plan to use indigo. This will unify whatever other fabrics come in, making it easier for me to trust this, the way one trusts a potluck. Just please do me the favor of selecting fabric that a needle will easily stitch (i.e. no batik!! no jean-weight denim.)

DATE: August 31. Email me for my address when it comes time.

INSPIRATION

So much inspiration from Jude at Spirit Cloth! It would be impossible to overstate how much I value this generous, extraordinarily talented, ever-evolving and yet humble and curious, artist.  Here are just a few samples from her blog: ‘one step further‘, ‘weaving sanity‘, ‘just corners and squares‘ (this post includes a YouTube video), ‘creative growth‘, ‘some old moon‘, and ‘lining things up in December‘.

Here are a few of my weavings created after taking one of her online classes.
tops for sachetsreturning to 'treasure map' idea, this time with star map and red X's marking the spotIMG_5845I’ve archived some of the heart pieces I’ve made or photographed on flickr, here.

People stand outside as parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., four days after a mass shooting at the church claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

People stand outside as parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., four days after a mass shooting at the church claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

* Invisible baste is when you grab just a teeny knick of fabric on the top and let most of the thread between stitches run underneath. That way you can leave the stitches in when you are done, even if the thread is contrasting.

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_5107.JPG
IMG_5101.JPGIMG_5024.JPGIMG_5021.JPG

IMG_5016.JPG
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!!

White privilege is an invisible thing

buttons-and-lace

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-and-middle-passage

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.

Ferns, Fractals, and African Textiles

“Fractals are characterized by repetition of similar patterns at ever diminishing scales.”

By now most of us know that fractals are found throughout nature.  Ferns, trees, and snowflakes are fractals, as well as lungs, branching river basins and storm turbulence patterns.  But who knew that traditional African culture uses fractals in village layouts, architecture, textile design, and divination methods?

That’s the topic of Ron Eglash’s book, African Fractals, Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. An ethno-mathematician, Eglash spent a year studying fractals in Africa after looking at an aerial photograph of a traditional settlement and noticing that it was laid out in a fractal.

Fractal model of Balla Village

What he discovered was a broad, sophisticated, and conscious use of fractal mathematics in many sectors of African life.  Often the use of fractals extended beyond design, with social or religious concepts embedded in the complicated layouts.

Aerial — Palace of the chief in a city in Cameroon

For instance, in the palace depicted above, as one walks in toward the Chief’s chambers, increasing amounts of politeness are expected and signaled by the tightening spiral.  In another exampled cited by Eglash, as young children in one village age, they are taught geometric patterns with increasing complexity, while simultaneously being taught the village’s myths (also incrementally).

blanket with fractal design

The use of sophisticated algorithms is not “merely intuitive”, or simply good design, Eglash explains, but a very deliberate use of self-similar structures.  The divination method employed by the Bamana people (by making strike marks in the sand) provided the mathematical basis for the binary code, which leads to Eglash’s assertion that every digital circuit in the world is based on African mathematics.

African patterning style is NOT a design practice found generally among indigenous cultures, as many think upon learning about this  (and let’s be clear, to be so VERY shocked that a high level of mathematics is routinely, elegantly and ritually employed by many African societies is plainly racist).  Native American design, by contrast, plays with circular and four-fold symmetry.

On Eglash’s website, there are free applets that run in the browser where you can play with iterations of simple lines and watch their ever  increasing complexity.  What might be of interest to a quilter is how much the demonstration of the rectangular shape (representative of some traditional African settlements) looks like a log cabin quilt being made.

What traditional quilting patterns are fractals?  Changes in scale are required, as well as repetition, otherwise, MOST traditional quilts would be fractals.  Are the patterns created by tie-dye and some shibori methods fractals?  My guess is some are, yes.  Celtic knots are fractals.  The ferns emerging from the felt house are, and here they are nearly forming a heart as well.

Felt House, Day 11

Well, lest I’ve overly impressed you with my ability to restate ideas from  a 16 minute-lecture (2007 TED Eglash) let me end by saying it’s time to go watch American Idol —

which is to say, the show has been taping for at least 25 minutes, allowing me to skip 20 out of 21 words that Ryan Seacrest utters (some nights? it takes me 10 minutes to watch the show).

(And, BTW, I’m rooting for Crystal Bowersox or Lee Dewyze).

Quotes and images from Ron Eglash used with his permission.