No artistic form is more closely associated with African American culture than quilt making, representing skill, aesthetic beauty, and utilitarian need. Moreover, for African Americans the quilt became a covert expression of resistance within the context of storytelling. In this way, African American women found an outlet for their emotions, adversities, and triumphs. Under brutal conditions of slavery, quilters helped create strategies for survival as well as an interpretive window on the Black experience in America. Although many slave quilters could not read or write, they left compelling cultural documents about the tragedy and humiliation that marked their lives. Denied freedom but possessed of artistic genius, they gave voice to the voiceless, transcended suffering, reclaimed history, and transformed the future of their descendants. Van E. Hillard summarizes this dynamic by writing, “As the Negro spiritual ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ reflects a tree planted by the water, the quilt shall not be moved as a tradition of defiance and dialectical response to social and political circumstances” Hilliard adds, “The rhetoric of the quilt exposes systems of domination and illustrates the ways in which marginalized groups contest their experiences and express their meanings of the world. The quilt represents a ritualized practice of connection-making, unification and harmonizing.”
The masterful quilts of Barbara McCraw follow in the footsteps of our earliest crafters of aesthetic genius, quilt makers, former slaves Harriet Powers (1837-1911), Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (18181907). All made treasured quilts as artistic expression. McCraw’s hand appliqued quilt, Family Reunion, took two and a half years to complete, and was quilted on her home sewing machine. The Family Reunion quilt is an original one-of-kind design. The quilt has received numerous accolades including First Place in the masters division at the Dallas Quilt Show in addition to the Fine Hand Workmanship Betty Carpenter Memorial Award. In Paducah, Kentucky, at the AQS (American Quilter Society) show, the Family Reunion won First Place in the masters division, and Best of Show at the AQS show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is the first such accomplishment in the United States by an African American quilt maker.
Barbara McCraw’s book, My Family Reunion Quilt – A Sentimental Journey in Applique, follows a long history of African Americans using the quilt narrative to tell the story of their family. As curator of McCraw’s quilts for nearly a decade, I am sure her best is yet to come. Future scholars in the field will one day proclaim the work of Barbara McCraw as cultural genius. McCraw’s quilts reflect African heritage and embrace European, thereby debunking early scholarly codification indicating improvisational style is the dominate style in African American-made quilts. Her quilts defy every preconceived notion about African American quilting. I have no doubt future quilt scholars will acknowledge the work of Barbara McCraw in the canon of American quilt studies as a masterful genius.
Through the eye of her quilt needle, I hope Barbara McCraw continues to be a voice for the African American experience through cloth.
Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi
(Dr. Mazloomi is an author, curator and quilter. She is the founder of the African-American Quilt Guild of Los Angeles and the founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN). As an artist Dr. Mazloomi’s quilts can be found in private collections around the world as well in distinguished museum collections in the United States. )
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