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"Escape" Quilt Symbols of Enslaved Africans

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Though much controversy surrounds the Practical Knowledge used for Symbolic Message Quilts designed by Enslaved African, my research and having talked with ex-Slaves concludes they existed and served as vehicles to carry a variety of messages--some as "Escape Quilts"; others conveying military messages (Bailey, Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery). Forms of messages included: the presence or absence of the quilt itself; if present, its location; its position; whether or not there were other pieces of laundry hung out to air; and the time it was hung out. Coded quilt border patterns ranged from obvious to subtle as well as from pertinent to the escapees and/or deceptive to the pursuers. "Escape Quilt" messages were (a) on plantations for those preparing to escape had the proper time--the selected route--what was required; (b) along the escape route; (c) at the freedom destination. Preparation "escape" quilts had such codes as: (1) a Monkey Wrench to serve as a clue to gather tools, for they would be needed on the escape path; (2) a Wagon Wheel indicating the preferred way to escape; and (3) a Sailboat indicating a body of water or the availability of boats nearby and therefore indicating the need to find out more information about it.

Paraphrased excerpts from Deborah Hopkinson's book: "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt" (thanks to Judy Bello) concerns gathering Practical Symbol Knowledge. It started with "Sweet Clara's" dream of escaping her life of Enslavement. By being an apt student from Aunt Rachel teaching her to sew scraps of cloth from the "Big House," she was changed from a field hand to a seamstress in the "Big House." Of all kinds of new places and things she heard about, one was an Enslaved being captured at a swamp on the far side of the plantation not far from the Ohio River. A month later, somebody else said there were "Underground Railroad" abolishionists helping escaped Slaves to get across the Ohio River. In discussing this, one House Slave said: "if it was that easy to take you all the way to Canada and freedom forever, more would be gone." Another chimed in: "It be easy if you could get a map." Sweet Clara had a "That's It! Insight and asked "Where's Canada?" Aunt Rachel pointed to the North Star, saying Canada is far north and under that star. The next question: "What's a map?" Answer: "just a picture of the land and whatever's on the ground." Though the "Big House" family knew about map pieces, they dismissed it. But Sweet Clara went up on a hill and drew a picture of all the cabins and fields. Somehow she needed to make a permanent picture of this and the idea for that came when she was sewing a patch that looked like the cow pond near the cabins. So she put the map on a quilt. Refinements were made from talking with a 'run-away' who had been caught and beatened. Sweet Clara worked for months on the quilt, often waiting to get the right kind of cloth. A driver of the slave owner would make a casual statement like: "it rained and they stopped at the next cabin 20 miles north of here." Similar casual statements--the old tree struck down by lightening; the winding road near the creek; the hunting path through the swamp--all helped in putting her blanket markings in proper distance perspective. Sweet Clara and others chose to escape when a thunderstorm made it impossible for field workers to do their tasks. Yet, the escape had its own set of unexpected problems needing "on-the-spot" solutions.

This vignette gives a sample of the practical intelligence of the Enslaved, despite their illiteracy. Principles, symbols, and messages contained in African and African American Quilt Cloths evolved out of the allegory practices of African Tradition. The Abstract or Abstraction process involves the conceptualizing of something in the Metaphysical and/or Physical by giving it a symbol designed so each color has its own signficance pertaining to some particular thing. Together, they convey a specific message. The approach used by Sweet Clara is a model for how the struggling can rise out of any type of poverty; how to find their birth gift musical theme arising from their Souls; and how to thrive. The pattern of Sweet Clara is exactly how I gather information for subjects about which almost nothing is written. But it always requires a tremendous amount of background preparation, including drawing on the best of what has worked in the past and re-purposing its application. This is the way to become a "Super-Specialist" in anything.


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