Category Archives: Middle Passage

Who do you come from and to whom do you pray

ripCary & Nana 7-4-95I don’t come from a faith that much honors the ancestors (that is my mother, above with my first born. The B&W is me, circa 1981). That’s why when I read about African belief systems that make ancestor worship central, it feels foreign.

The ancient Celtic bent toward Nature as guide and source, on the other hand, fits like a glove. No wonder I love the writing of Mary Oliver — her poems read like 9th century monastic poetry from Ireland. I find sustenance in her words. Wisdom.

In writing about human bondage in early America, I have often wished for (and on occasion asked for) some sign from the ancestors of the enslaved. Should I be writing this story? Is it okay? Am I okay?

Thundering silence.

Hard not to wonder. But because I am such a master of doubt, it’s hard to give it much weight either.

IMG_7910(A little aside — This cloth, from my Middle Passage series, is somewhere. I never backed it because of the beautiful stained glass effect when hung in a sun-filled window. The others in the series use my favorite house motif to examine both loss and sustenance of culture from one side of the sea to the other. This one, though, explores the sails. All those sails, riding the currents, powering ships packed with black bodies, flapping signals of wealth to some and horror to others).

IMG_7521Anyway, maybe because the anniversary of my mother’s passing was two weeks ago, maybe because there is so much transition in the lives of my sons, making me reflective and sometimes sad or anxious, and maybe because one of my characters is modeled closely on my mother, I have been thinking a lot about my parents.

And duh! It is the guidance and help and esteem and love of my very own dear parents that I should be calling up. My ancestors know me. They dwell in me. They know where I trip up and why. And they (most importantly in this business of moving forward), understand fully my strengths.

They’re the ones to call upon — even about writing a novel about black and white people with NO GENETIC links to me whatsoever.

And so I did. Call upon them. And they did answer.

Jewel tones and white

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New England quilters have been known to gravitate toward jewel tones this time of year. I know why! This little House Quilt arose from scraps left behind while finishing Middle Passage II yesterday. Sometimes these ‘cast off quilts’ are my favorite. There is a spontaneity to them that can get lost with other designs.

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Here is part of Middle Passage Two. This one focuses on the shape of the sails. I will not back the panel — just edge it and supply tabs on top so that it can hang like a curtain.IMG_7934
My daily pages are filled with snippets of learning that I eventually will share about the Middle Passage. For now, the quiet is good. Oh so good!! The incubation of this snow is making words seem far away. Appointments still being cancelled (though on account of the DOG, not the SNOW).
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It is blessedly quiet here today (school children on vacation; roof clearing crews done for the time being; snow-moving trucks beeping away elsewhere). Why fill this rare, rare quiet with some of the most disturbing history there is?

Friday in between

IMG_6503Yesterday’s meal and company and fire were nice: delicious, warm, companionable. We had a couple of birthdays to celebrate, too.

IMG_6467.JPGIMG_6464.JPGIn the quiet aftermath, I have resumed work on the second Middle Passage quilt. In this one, the top band of cohesive and colorful culture is very narrow and grows increasingly fragmented as one works down toward the bottom, where the ocean resides.

IMG_6501.JPGThe pale green and white triangles are meant to signify the sails of the slave trading ships. The brown striped batik also signifies the slavers, but this time, the planking on the ships.

I forgot how much I like working this way.

deemallon, quilt, piecingIMG_6489Using photo apps to strip out color or intensify it can be a useful trick to find weaknesses in design.

I blogged about the first (and now complete) Middle Passage quilt here, but it occurs to me I have yet to post a good picture of it, finished and bound.

I’m afraid from now until the end of the year, my felt creatures will be hogging most of my time (not to mention Christmas), but in the New Year? Archives of everything! Binding and finishing at an amazing clip! With no significant writing time consumed!

 

Global Africa, Fitchburg Art Museum, Ife Franklin

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me with Ife Franklin and Catharine Sasanov

In spite of terrible weather and competition from an afternoon Patriot’s game, the Global Africa opening reception at the Fitchburg Art Museum two weeks ago was wonderful and well-attended. The three of us above, plus the reporter Clennon King, were present — representing a mini-reunion from the Slave Dwelling Project‘s overnight at the Royall House Slave Quarters a month back*. Ellen Watters Sullivan would have been there too if the Cape hadn’t been suffering gale-force winds.

musician Solomon Murungu

musician Solomon Murungu

GLOBAL AFRICA: Creativity, Continuity and Change in African Art, an exhibition of classic, contemporary and commissioned art objects including masks, masquerades with videos, photographs, carved portraits, textiles, metal arts as currency, and an interactive Learning Lounge for all ages.” [From the Fitchburg Art Museum’s website].

In the foyer, Solomon Murungu’s music filled the cathedral-ceilinged space with haunting melodies which I later learned were traditional Shona ceremonial songs (read more about him here). It was amazing to me how much mood and sound came from his single instrument — the mbira.
african textile-elephant-indigo-deemallonThere was a buffet of delicious Brazilian food (my favorite? the fried plantains). And, African fabric was draped around almost as an afterthought.

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Ife Franklin double exposed with shaman

What follows are pictures from the day** mixed in with other images that I took back in March at a Boston exhibit of Ife Franklin’s incredible work.

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Ife Franklin emerging from Slave Cabin, Boston

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this is the piece purchased by the Fitchburg Art Museum

The Boston Globe has featured Ife’s work many times. One particularly nice article is here.  I won’t try to describe the spirit and integrity and visual pizzazz of her work, or I will never get this post up, but I encourage you to read about her. Not surprisingly, her indigo pieces are among my favorites.
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IMG_6064 IMG_6070 IMG_6073The ‘Masquerade Ensemble’ by Cuban artist Nelson Montenegro (2013), has visual and ritual ties to Nigeria. I was taken by the patchwork, of course, and learned that the rafia cuffs and neck adornment ‘refer to sacred forests’. The bells at the waist were to dispel negative energy. The visiting shaman in the gallery also wore bells — around his ankles.
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Ife Franklin. Look at those textiles!

yours truly in Boston

yours truly in Boston

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* My reflections on the Royall House Slave Quarters overnight are here. The Slave Dwelling Project founder, Joseph McGill, Jr., Catharine Sasanov’s and Ellen Watters Sullivan’s reflections on the night in Medford are here. Clennon King was handing out copies of his newly printed article about the experience, featured in that Sunday’s Boston Globe.

** Sorry to make you suffer through my enthusiastic experiments with the DianaPhotoApp. I think I’d had it about a week at the time.

trust time and edges

'Middle Passage I'

‘Middle Passage I’

This quilt has hung, unfinished, on a living room wall for a couple of seasons. I am finishing it now.
IMG_3782How often do I look at a thing undone and feel an unspoken but clear sense of failure?  (like those dolls on the mantle — when?!)

What if I walked around assured that each thing was being finished in its proper time?

The standard 1/4″ black binding with mitred corners was the first idea. But it was too much. Not right at all.  And, I didn’t want to use the machine.

IMG_0591I  pawed through my bins and found an old cotton apron. Very old. Very soft. Not quite Emancipation Proclamation period (1863), but a lot closer than most fabrics I own.
IMG_0586It was a little heartbreaking to tear through some hand darning.  But I did. As I ripped one, two, three, four, five strips, destroying the apron, hearing that destructive sound, I thought about the tearing action of the slave trade. Entire cultures being ripped apart — not just families.  Africans ripped from their homes, their continent, stripped of language, bearings, family, culture, dignity — and finally, their status as human beings.  Rip. Rip.
IMG_0605I am using a beautiful antique silk thread and starting on the top.  A simple running stitch. You can see the edge and the fabrics below. I like that.
IMG_0601You can’t tell from these photos, but the apron at some point in its life shared a wash with a red garment. The garment bled all over it.  That felt right, too.

This is the first of the Middle Passage quilts and will have a certain cheer and unity to the design.  It is meant as a ‘semi-before’ picture.  Terrible things have happened or are about to happen — traders kidnapping men, women and children,  chaining them in coffles and marching them to the sea.  Barracoons along the western coast of Africa warehousing human flesh.

But, it will get worse.

The next quilt will be darker and more fragmented.  African patterning less recognizable.  That will be THIS side of the ocean.

 

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.

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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!!

gratitude and slavery

“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it would be enough.”   
Meister Eckhart.

IMG_9153That shell and that driftwood came from Sullivan’s Island, SC. On the beach, which oddly reminded me very much of Martha’s Vineyard, I could look out to the east, knowing that Africa lay beyond the horizon. I wondered how many ‘recent slave imports’ did exactly that. I wondered what mix of bewilderment, rage, defeat, and sadness they might have felt. I acknowledged how little idea they had of what lay ahead.

Sullivan’s Island is where slaves coming into the port of Charleston were quarantined for a few weeks before being taken to the auction block. During the very busy slave importation years of  the late 18th century, yellow fever, malaria, and small pox repeatedly and vengefully swept through the Lowlands.  Any slave sick enough to die within the quarantine period was allowed to do so.  It is heartrending to learn that a ten percent loss of cargo (read: African life) was deemed an acceptable margin in the slave trading business.
sullivan-islandWith the obvious aim of fattening them up for sale, the Africans were fed better during quarantine than at any time during the Middle Passage. They were groomed, oiled, and if plagued by dysentery (but not sick enough to die), plugged up temporarily with whittled corn cobs. If punished, they were paddled rather than whipped, for welts on the back signaled a wayward, unmanageable African, and would reduce his value on the block. There are reports of the sailors miming monkeys scratching their underarms to get the Africans to wash themselves. There isn’t much you can read about this island’s history without feeling sick.

There is no memorial.  Toni Morrison saw to changing that. See images of the Memorial Bench here.  [Update: just learned on a website called African American Charleston that in 1999, “On July 3, a 6-foot historical marker is placed on Sullivan’s Island near Fort Moultrie to honor those enslaved Africans who arrived in bondage via Charleston Harbor.”

Right before I went to SC, I heard a sliver of coverage about how much slaves contributed to the building of the ivy league schools in the Northeast. Maybe it was a review of the following book by Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, & the Troubled History of America’s Universities:

Many of America’s revered colleges and universities—from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC—were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.

[from the Amazon page selling his book].

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renovated slave shack, Magnolia Plantation

So — for the beautiful quads that populate this neck of the woods, with their stone edifices, filigreed ironworks, brick walkways, and carved doors: thank you slaves. Thank you.

It sounds lame to read this back. But how much MORE lame would it be never to say ‘thank you’. I am deciding to trust Meister Eckhart on this one.