A Musical Meditation on Honor and Barack Obama

From Johnny Cash to contemporary chamber orchestra music. Go ahead, call me a culture vulture or an arts parasite, but please don’t call Culture Currents predictable.

Nor do I want to present this post under false pretenses, although I offer it with genuine enthusiasm for the music link here within.

 Frank Stemper is an old friend, whom I have blogged about before, and a highly gifted and skilled composer and head of the composition department at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale. His music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe and in Mexico. 

 Composer Frank Stemper

He has long been known for an expressionistic and dramatic style with varying degrees of dissonance and shifting time signatures. He now offers The Persistence of Honor, a short piece of terse and restrained lyricism in a yearning and consonant mode, and inspired originally by Barack Obama’s first election. As his program notes below suggest, Persistence seems highly appropriate in reprised form as a meditation on the first African-American president’s re-election and the challenge and promise it offers. 

Here are Stemper’s program notes, followed by my response to the piece.

The Persistence of Honor was commissioned by the Dutch chamber orchestra, Het Wagenings Orkest ‘Sonante’, as part of their 25th anniversary celebration.  It was premiered in November 2009 by that orchestra in the Netherlands, directed by their dedicated and extremely talented conductor, Melvin Margolis.

In the music, you will probably notice a continuous, unrelenting – almost annoying – repetition of a rising pensive refrain.  Although this idea repeats “persistently,” it never repeats exactly.  Tiny musical changes create a continuous evolution of this refrain, with each statement delivering the same message in a slightly different way.

As a composer, I feel that music exists on a considerably higher level than anything in the real, physical world – especially politics.  However, the inspiration (or perhaps catalyst) for my composition was the United States’ presidential election in November 2008.  In that single day, the country not only profoundly transformed itself from a regime BACK to a democracy, but, the election of the first African-American President made perhaps the strongest statement to date in reversing and healing what is perhaps the United States’ greatest sin.  In an instant, 40,000,000 Americans, for the first time, actually felt like Americans.
This seems to me to be an example of honor rising above amorality.  Every day the entire world is reminded of all the ills, created by dishonor, that define our civilization, i.e. wars, crime, maniacal leaders, racism, etc., etc.  These ills seem to indicate that the dishonorable, the aggressively brutal and destructive members of our species, are bit-by-bit destroying our civilization’s goodness, decency, integrity and honesty.  This might point to a very bleak future for the human race. 
However, as this Obama fellow gained momentum, was overwhelmingly elected, and then sworn in as the 44th U.S. President, it occurred to me to be a validation of what I suspect: The human species is still evolving, and its future is NOT at all bleak.  Just as Darwin’s Natural Selection transforms every species to become “better” in order to enable its continued existence — so will our species.  The proof of this is that, scientifically, we must.  Through gentle, continuous Persistence of Honor, dishonor will eventually be eliminated from the world’s society. — Frank Stemper

What follows is a slightly edited response I wrote directly to Stemper upon recently hearing the piece, performed here by The New Chicago Chamber Orchestra.


Maestro Frank,

The descending “sigh” note at the end of the ascending phrase at 5:30 touched me as much as the much richer, fuller end that soon followed.

The motivic phrase obviously signifies the “persistence of honor,” and the rather rapturous variation around 8:30 feels like glorious vindication. (coincidentally the first piece of music I wrote is titled Vindication and dedicated to Jackie Robinson,* though it doesn’t sound anything like this.)

One might imagine the motif emerging from more dissonance but, as you wrote it, the presence seems almost untouchable and impregnable, which makes it feel somewhat idealistic. Even the most honorable of us have our moments of weakness, to say the least. I imagine Mother Teresa had her bitchy moments. I’m reading a book called President Lincoln: the Duty of a Statesman, about perhaps as fine an example of complex honor we’ve known among our leaders

Nevertheless, I enjoyed and appreciated your piece as it was.

I like that it began with the cello, with his deep-hum eloquence, and the persistence felt as sure as a wind — part temperate, part cool — rising to clear away fetid atmosphere. That’s how it seemed plausible; Nature passes eventually to uncanny redemptive light, even after its most destructive tempests. Human nature also retains that potential.

The music also conveys to me a sense of slow, sure human healing and, though you might shudder to think of your music in search terms, it has an almost therapeutic quality. I intend that as no mixed praise.

“Persistence” shows how deftly you can handle a consonant palette, though the chords at the end grew magnificent in their blend of light and shadow, with hints of the hoary weight the Persistence is doubtlessly bearing.

I will play this again. It graces my player.



* Historically paralleling Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball, in 1947 when he  debuted with Brooklyn Dodgers.

photo of Barack Obama courtesy: paydayadvanceUK.co.uk


They’ve got the back of the Man in Black: Johnny Cash

We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash (LEGACY)

This Legacy CD/DVD set proves that The Man in Black “came around” consistently throughout his career. Now his fellow artists have, and on this night their collective chemistry was something to behold, perhaps a matter of professional pride in the face of peer competition. Time after time, they dug down to a deeper place than you’d imagine. It’s a moving testament to a great American life because Cash embodied integrity, suffering, perseverance, redemption, hard-won truth and generosity of spirit, especially for the downtrodden, the forsaken and the outlaw (which may encompass 98% of America today). He represented the American ideal of giving everyone a fair shot at the dream.

A Great Depression baby and son of a sharecropper, Cash’s big-armed embrace of this  nation’s vast human underside often felt personal and almost a mission, of sorts. Maybe that’s why he was such a rebel. After all, he may also be the only renowned person who’s also famous for a photograph of himself flipping the bird. This signifies the importance of defying conventions that calcify our sensitivity to truth and to the American ideals that are so easily buried beneath complacent consumerism and capitalism. I mean, it’s unlikely any major artist played at a prison until Cash did it, and he changed public awareness of the incarcerated.

Recorded at Austin City Limits’ Moody Theatre on April 20th, Cash’s 80th birthday, the show kicks off with Brandi Carlile’s rip-snorting rendition of his cold-blooded “Folsom Prison Blues.” In the moment, you feel that she too “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

Johnny Cash’s historic performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. Courtesy of iaanhighes.com

In his literally handwritten liner notes to the Folsom Prison album, Cash recalled: “You sit on your cold, steel mattressless bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don’t kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out under the cell door.”

Of course, the outlaw in Cash (he was a convicted for drug use, not murder) also had a heart as big as the sun and you felt that when he resurrected Hank Williams’ great song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to prove it, as Amy Lee (of Evanescence) does here, buoyed by Greg Leisz’s mournful pedal steel.

Among several inspired duets is Kris Kristofferson with Jamey Johnson doing Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” “The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert,” Kristofferson warbles, and you understand the essence of a down-and-out man, whom Cash knew as a shadow on his shoulder.

Among the forsaken he identified with were Native Americans, whom he addressed in his 1964 concept album Bitter Tears. It includes “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” recounting the tragic story of a young Marine who died pathetically after participating in the iconic raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and dealing with that event’s overwhelming publicity and symbolic fervor.

The quality of Cash’s character amid suffering is illustrated by his daughter Roseanne Cash, in her memoir Composed. She’s recounting a moment shortly before her father died of diabetes and neuropathy:

“Late in the afternoon of the day before I left to go back to New York, Dad stared out the window at the lake and said sadly ‘The gloaming of the day is the hardest part.’ I said I knew that it was. His head tilted down to his chest. ‘I feel so bad’ he said, and that was one of the only times in his life — maybe the only time — that I ever heard him complain about his ailments. It was extraordinary, and shocking, to see his stoic resolve crumble before my eyes. ‘I know Dad,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry.’”

Roseanne honored her father’s legacy has a self-styled historian with her album “The List,” based on his determinations of the greatest country songs. Even as a gifted songwriter, Cash was humble enough to identify and record great songs by others. He also found material in younger generations, such as Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” a song of ringing majesty which Lucinda Williams delivers with a voice that sounds like a train of pain barreling right through her heart.

Similarly Kristofferson sings, “The tears I cried for that woman will flood you, big river. I’m gonna sit right down here till I die,” and his handsome but shrunken face makes you believe him.

One caveat concerns the show’s emcee, actor Matthew McConaugey. Though well spoken, he apparently got the gig for being Hollywood famous and a Southern good ol’ boy, but his laconic delivery is a snooze considering the consistent level of performer energy.  Things never grind to a full halt because there’s always the high-powered house band chomping at the bit.  Their supple and muscular propulsion includes arguably the best drummer in roots music, Kenny Aronoff; rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame pianist Ian McLagen, guitarist-singer Buddy Miller and string wizard Leisz.

Among other notable performers: Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Shelby Lynne, Iron & Wine, Sheryl Crow, Ronnie Dunn, Rhett Miller of The Old 97s, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops (who really tear it up on Cash’s famous duet vehicle with June Carter Cash, “Jackson.”).

The DVD includes a rehearsal of Nelson doing “I Still Miss Someone,” interviews and a “Making of the show” feature. Nelson’s phrasing remains peerless, able to convey nuances in the way he weaves his words.

The show ends gloriously, with raucous ensemble sing-along of “I Walk the Line.” But the real climax precedes that, when you sense Cash’s abiding spirit as two of the four original Highwaymen supergroup, Kristofferson and Nelson, sing Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” with its stunning final verse sung by Johnson, a new generation of singer-songwriter. It’s the verse that, on the original Highwayman recording, Cash sang:

I fly a starship across the Universe divide

And when I reach the other side

I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can

Perhaps I may become a highway man again

Or I may simply be a single drop of rain

But I will remain

And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again…  2



Show highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2t1f12yhao

1 Roseanne Cash,  Composed, Viking 2010, 181

2 Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Highwayman, Columbia 1985



Kathy Mattea’s “Coal Journey” Back Home


“Coal kills.” Or can it possibly be “clean”?

The presidential candidates debated the issue because coal remains central to our traditional energy production, which now contributes greatly to pollution, damaging of the ozone layer, and the human toll on those who work in the industry.

We know continued reliance on such carbon-based energy will be environmentally devastating. You don’t need to be trapped in a suffocating coal mine to feel the heat. As the earth’s ozone layer erodes further, exposing us to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, we’ve just experienced the warmest 12 months — from July 2011 to July 2012 — in US history, the worst Midwest drought in decades, and an increasingly bizarre — but explainable — profusion of extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy.

Daughter of a miner family, Kathy Mattea took a big step toward raising awareness of  coal mining’s most pressing issues in her brilliantly provocative 2008 album Coal ( Captain Potato Records).

Her new CD, Calling Me Home, finds her back on a larger label (Sugar Hill) and perhaps expanding her audience reach, with more artful symbolism than death-rattle spookiness.

But she’s still fearless. “Maple’s Lament” has a dead tree as its narrator. “Hello, My Name is Coal” wittily encapsulates the industry’s political paradoxes. http H/www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zrm1rPa3mLI “Black Water” depicts a mountain’s decapitation and living among coal-poisoned streams.

“‘Black Waters’ was written in 1970 or ’71, and it is so valid right now,” Mattea says. “I mean, people are living that story right now. I love that it clearly articulates that experience and also that, inadvertently, it articulates how little has changed.”

Since 1992, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled by mining wastes at the rate 120 milies per year, according to the to Environmental Protection Agency.1

Mattea’s alto voice — a stalwart beauty — employs the witness of pioneering Appalachian songwriters like Hazel Dickens and Jean Ritchie, with luminous harmonizers like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Patty Loveless.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver who, like Mattea is Appalachian-born, provides finely tuned liner notes: “The particular genius of Kathy Mattea is to call up the touchstones of hope and heartbreak that we all carry their pockets even if these mountains are not yours, the fact is everybody has a homestretch, where you feel little torn up because no matter which way you’re headed, you’re going towards home and also leaving it behind,” she writes. “Believe me, this is the soundtrack for that journey.”

Kingsolver pinpoints the universal chord that Mattea has struck on this recording. Politically loaded as the topic of coal is, the experience of home is nonpartisan, so Mattea appeals to our sense of what is worth preserving because it is an essential part of us — the shoe mud on rainy-day walks, childhood sing-alongs, dinner aromas in the kitchen, cheating at game playing, fraught holiday gatherings, crazy laughter, petty jealousies, preciously shared memories, secrets and shame and intense pride and gratitude.
“I hope my relationship to the song and the story deepens,” Mattea says in a promotional video on our website. “(The album) Coal was like discovering the music I was meant to sing all my life but I had missed it.”

And she transports us to Appalachia and makes it feel an awful lot like our own home — even if you’ve never been there.

I finally drove into that near-mythical and misunderstood region in June, and its stately mountains and open-armed valleys infiltrated my being in a way I hadn’t expected.

So when I arrived with my sister Sheila at the Blue Plum Music and Arts Festival in Johnson City* at the eastern tip of Tennessee, I was primed for artists like Guy Clark, Darrell Scott and Malcolm Holcombe, with comparable ability to press on the pulse of the American home experience wherever it may lie (I’ve blogging on all three artists on this site).

“Appalachia is one of the last places in our country and maybe on the planet where people are this attached to where they live,” Mattea muses. “This is just our spot in the world. It’s one of the best places that has its own flavor. I think as I get older and as the culture changes, I realize how special it is.”

The centerfold photograph of the liner booklet for Calling Me Home, Mattea sits before a stunning backdrop: a river winding through golden-green mountainsides.

Kathy Mattea in Appalachia. Sugar Hill label CD photographs by David McLister 

Yet “Maple’s Lament,” a song by Laurie Lewis, zooms the focus down to a single tree, even if it is too late:

“When I was alive the birds would nest upon my boughs

 And all through long winter nights, the storms would ‘round me howl…

But now that I’m dead, birds no longer sing in me

and I feel no more the wind and rain, as when I was a tree.

But bound so tight with wire strings, I have no room to grow

And I am but the slave who sings, when master draws the bow…”

One wonders what today’s climate-change deniers think kills such maples. Other “trees and plants,” as Ronald Reagan infamously blamed for air pollution?

Many of Mattea’s male relatives labored for years in the coal mines and paid the price, with black lung disease, or far more sudden death.

An old friend lay on his dying bed

held my hand to his bony breast

And he whispered low as I bent my head

Oh, they’re calling me home

They’re calling me home

(from “Calling Me Home” by Alice Gerrard).

Here, as elsewhere, Mattea’s voice uncovers layers of emotional depth while always radiating a resolute fortitude that never succumbs to easy sentimentality.

And her focus on her home state of West Virginia underscores the economic reality people there live with — of losing jobs as well as their lives, and the fact that industry and political forces an Appalachia resist diversifying solutions to the inevitable decline of this non-renewable resource, which is coming closer to being tapped out in the region, according to Ken Ward Jr. in a recent article in The Nation.

The activist group coal River Mountain Watch and the consulting firm Downstream Strategies have suggested that building wind energy farms on some Appalachian peaks is the better long-term goal than “blowin’ ’em up real good” to get at the coal.  During my drive to Tennessee, I was captivated by a huge wind farm in Indiana with hundreds of turbines spinning beside the highway. How much more elegant and ecological would be one of these slender white turbines atop a blue ridge mountain, to make use of, and do justice to, its splendid height?

Throughout the album, Mattea and her guest harmonizers ride the supple, glimmering accompaniment of ace contemporary bluegrass musicians, including Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton and Bill Cooley, who penned “Requiem for a Mountain,” the instrumental which quietly closes the album with pure sonic vibrations rather than words, like whispering zephyrs and murmuring rivulets mourning the defiled majesty of yet another decapitated peak.

In this photo/graphic, a decapitated Appalachian mountain has produced a lake of toxic coal sludge which hovers over a precariously close elementary school. Courtesy of the blog After Gutenburg: Just Another Pretty Face.

So Mattea is growing more sophisticated in her rhetorical skills as an artist. Though she now lives in Nashville and is a two-time Grammy winner, she’s hardly a typical peroxided country star. Coal was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Traditional Folk category. Her cover of Nanci Griffith‘s “Love at the Five and Dime” was her first major hit in 1986, (and earned the just-emerging Texas alt-country Griffith notice as a songwriter). Unsurpisingly, Mattea’s an environmental activist. She currently travels the country presenting Al Gore‘s renowned and still provocative environmental film An Inconvenient Truth and speaking about the importance of fighting global warming and the environmental and physical devastation of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

What might be her political preferences? We know Mitt Romney “likes coal.”

Mattea clearly prefers whole, thriving Appalachian mountain ecosystems and humans.


*Mattea’s next advocacy speaking apperance will be in Johnson City, TN on November 12 at “The Arts: Remembering Who We Are” Artists-In-Education conference at East Tennessee University-Millennium.

She has a Facebook page dedicated to her cause: https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/kathymattea.mycoaljourney?fref=ts

1 http://www.thenation.com/article/170484/myth-war-coal

2 http://jcwinnie.biz/wordpress/?p=5278&cpage=1 

A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express on November 8

















If These Quilts Could Talk: Signals along the Underground Railroad










Rita Cox and her version of a monkey-wrench code quilt.


If These Quilts Could Talk…African American Quilting Traditions. Quilts by Rita Cox and others. King Drive Commons Gallery and Studio, 2775 N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, Milwaukee – 414.704.9117.

Remaining exhibit hours with Rita Cox, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, November 10 and 17. 

In a wooded region just over the Kentucky border in Ohio, the black woman peered outside and saw no one around. She dragged out a large, richly patterned quilt and hung it out on the clothes line, even though the quilt was not wet. The wind caught the cloth and the fabric danced ponderously alone, waiting for the right set of eyes to arrive to appreciate it.

The day passed and the woman inside the small cabin grew anxious, but held out faith.

Dusk fell and a small group of armed white horsemen trundled up the heavily rutted road. They halted their horses and one man in a uniform dismounted and began patrolling the yard. He poked at the quilt with his rifle. Then he walked up to the door and kicked the door open and found the cabin empty.

The woman had heard the men coming and had gathered her children and hid behind bushes away from their shack, but with a view of the intruders. The sheriff with the rifle, slightly frustrated, walked back out and suddenly fired a shot straight at the hanging quilt. The smallest hiding child wailed and her mother stifled her — that quilt kept the child and two sisters warm at night.

The family huddled in horror, certain the men would find them.

But the sheriff spit on the doorstep and cursed under his breath, then remounted and the group rode away.

Overcome, the mother fell from her crouch down to her knees, in gratitude.

What had happened?

In the same instant her child wailed, a hawk had swooped down with a fierce cry from the opposite direction, distracting the men from the child’s utterance.

Only an hour later, three Africans, fleeing from plantation bondage, came up the very same pathway. The mother, back in her home with her children, saw the three people out front, through the window. One of them noticed the large gunshot hole torn in the quilt.

“Get down, be quiet!” he hissed.

He breathlessly scanned the terrain and heard nothing but the wind whistling through the trees. All of the refugees crept closer to examine the gently waving quilt and, in the early moonlight, spied an image sewn into the cloth pattern — in the shape of a monkey wrench.

This was all they needed to know, for now. It was time for them to return home, pull out a wrench to tighten up the wheels of their wagon and swiftly make all preparations for the hard and perilous flight north, to Canada.

They would hope to reach the next signal — another hanging quilt with another covert symbol, another key to freedom. How much better a hanging quilt than a black man, as Billie Holiday sang, hanging like strange fruit from a poplar tree?


A question remains. Did something like this quilt-signal scene ever take place?

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 decreed that any enslaved Africans who had escaped plantations must be returned to the owners. The woman hanging the coded quilt  violated the dubious federal law, risking recrimination as much as the fugitives. The law was stiflingly draconian: Any federal official who did not arrest – or any person aiding – slavery runaways were subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Law-enforcement officials were required to arrest any runaway suspect on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. Officers capturing a “fugitive slave” * were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Suspected runaways could not ask for jury trial or testify on their own behalf. 1

Underground Railroad scene painted by Paul Collins. Avisca.com

The quilt codes were reportedly used during the period of the Underground Railroad (approximately 1780-1860), the escape-route system for slavery refugees to reach Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act didn’t apply (Wisconsin was the only U.S. state that did not enforce the act). So brave women began hanging the  signal-laden quilts out right on Southern plantations. Yet the quilt code is hidden in the lore of the oral tradition as surely as the quilts themselves. To date, no coded-quilt artifacts from that era remain, says artist Rita Cox, whose quilts are on display.

Nevertheless, quilts were a central part of enslaved and African-American women’s culture, and continue to be, as evidenced by the fascinating traveling exhibit The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2003.

If These Quilts Could Talk…”, Cox’s evocative and provocative King Drive Gallery exhibit of Underground Railroad-inspired “code” quilts, documents what may have been a crucial aspect of communications among Africans attempting to escape bondage during the heyday of slavery and up to the Civil War.

A large crowd gathered for the exhibit opening recently during Gallery Night, a vibrant, multi-cultural event organized by gallery director Marquita Edwards, which included live jazz by the Larry Moore Trio, hot food, and performances by several members of the Hansberry-Sands Theater Company. Edwards sees the event as providing community healing though the arts, “a holistic, preventative approach to living.” She also operates a holistic fitness studio next door.

Photos of Rita Cox and pages of “Hidden in Plain View” by Richard Allen

Each of the large quilts by Cox is a down-home, New World symphony of vibrant colors, textures and patterns. By turns rough-hewn and elegant, the sewn cloth swatches nudge, elbow and commingle with each other. Yet Cox’s artful eye and mastery of both machine and hand stitching organizes each whole into visually pleasing rhythmic counterpoint.

On Gallery Night, the quilts’ visual musicality echoed the variations spun by saxophonist Moore, or drummer Kim Zick’s sharp partitions of sound and silence in her “Take Five” solo.

And within each quilt pattern lies a visual symbol that, according to the African-American oral tradition, signaled or instructed escaped black plantation laborers on how to reach freedom.

Although the story of “code quilts” has persisted in the black oral tradition at least since the 1800s, it gained little wider visibility or credence until the 1999 book Hidden In Plain View: A Secret Story Of Quilts And The Underground Railroad, which informed and inspired Cox’s quilts.

Pages from the book “Hidden in Plain View.” 

The book was written by art historian and Howard University professor, Raymond Dobard, Jr. and Jacqueline Tobin, a Colorado college instructor. Dobard based her interpretations of the quilt blocks on oral testimony of former attorney and quilt vendor Ozella McDaniel Williams, from her family’s oral lore. Williams recited a poem revealing the code to Tobin over a period of three years, (until the total “code” was revealed). Here’s an example of the covert information Tobin received from Williams:

“The monkey wrench (shifting spanner) turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw trail to the crossroads.”

“Once they got to the crossroads they dug a log cabin on the ground. (bypass) told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and go to the cathedral church, to  get married, and exchange double wedding rings

Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars.”

Each boldfaced term above was illustrated as a quilt-code symbol. After the monkey wrench signal, an important ensuing symbol was the “bears claw,” which directed fugitives to follow bear tracks to water, to sustain them along the exodus.

An accomplished seamstress from childhood, Cox studied fashion design and business at Mount Mary College and learned quilting at an adult enrichment class offered by Milwaukee Public Schools.

“I gravitated to many of these symbols because I liked them before I even knew they were Underground Railroad symbols,” Cox explains.

Underground Railroad Monument, Battle Creek, Michigan http://www.avisca.com/Html/Avisca_2028.htm

Some historians dispute the coded quilts as mere legend because there is no written record before Dobard and Tobin’s book and — following the code of secrecy — many of the stories remained untold.

Yet the dire circumstances of the enslaved Africans’ situation make the story of the coded quilts a plausible reality of necessity, the mother of invention. Southern chattel slavery’s hardships and cruelty stain America’s soul, and were famously dramatized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Cox reminds us that slave owners forbade Africans to keep many of their traditions, and functional literacy was outlawed for the enslaved.

But an ancient tradition persisted. “The African griot’s job in life was to memorize and pass on orally information to a whole village,” Cox says. “Because it’s not written down, Europeans don’t give it credence.”

“And some of the quilt symbols came from Africa. Unwittingly the slave holders allowed them make these quilt patterns. This gave you information on what to do and not do, without putting anyone in danger or tipping your hand. And they would not discuss the information among people they did not trust,” Cox added.

“How would they know where to go when they spent all their lives on a plantation? They needed a means of communication, because it was against the law for them to read and write.”

It’s rare that decorative art is so fraught with such dark and heroic history. Like a stroke of genius in an espionage caper, the secret symbols worked while hidden — in plain view. They say art imitates life but, in this case, cunning art helped liberate life.


The King Drive Gallery quilt exhibit is sponsored by The Martin Luther King Jr. Economic Development Corporation.

* Cox explains that the term “enslaved Africans” is preferred to “slave” because they did not simply “give up or give in to their oppressors; they resisted by every means possible.”

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugitive_Slave_Act_of_1850