In the winter, after the leaves fall, our first floor is flooded with light. It’s one of the things I like most about this house.
One day last week, when I was feeling a little at odds with myself (I can’t remember why), I found myself thinking, “But this light, I get. This light doesn’t confuse me.” How to address the brutal history of slavery in a quilt DOES confuse me. For one thing, there is the question — is this my story to tell? That query triggers the question – does that matter, and if so, how? More on those thoughts later.
The working title for this ‘Trayvon Martin’ quilt is: Strange Fruit, triggered by an email conversation with the fiber artist, Kit Lang. Ms. Lang responded to the Zimmerman acquittal with two quilts, one of which she titled “Strange Fruit – Stand Your Ground.” You can see it here.
Being reminded of that haunting Billie Holiday song informed the choice of the fabrics printed with trees and vines. The ship in the lower right references slave ships, as does the brown batik with horizontal striping.
I got away from the initial idea of a white house with a white fence beyond which a black boy could not safely go. One of the other Martin quilts may preserve and explore that initial design impulse.
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.
Had 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.
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 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?
With 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.