Afro-American quilts are characterized by strips, bright colors, large designs, multiple patterns, asymmetry, and improvisation, all design principles with roots in African textile techniques and cultural traditions. The antecedents of contemporary African textiles and Afro-American quilts developed in Africa over 1,000 years ago. The actual links between African and Afro-American textile traditions occurred from 1650 to 1850 when Africans were brought to the United States from areas that are now Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Republic of Bening Nigeria, Cameroon, Zaire, and Angola. When they came to the New World, African women combined their own textile traditions with American quilting traditions, creating a unique, creolized art-the Afro-American quilts. Their combined ideas were passed down from generation to generation, thus preserving many African textile traditions.
Like Anglo-American quilt tops, Afro-American quilt tops are made either by sewing pieces of cloth together (piecing) or by sewing cutout shapes onto a larger fabric (appliqué). Quilt tops are sewn to an inner padding and a bottom cloth (quilting). All these techniques (piecing, appliqué, and quilting) were known in Africa, Europe, and the United States, yet Afro-American quilts are profoundly different from European or Anglo-American quilts.
In West African textiles and in Afro-American quilts, strips are a dominant design elements as well as a chief construction technique. For centuries in West Africa, most cloth has been constructed from strips woven on small, portable looms. Long narrow strips are sewn together into larger fabrics worn as clothing or displayed as wall hangings and banners. Strips are sometimes used in Euro-American quilts, but as only one of many geometric patterns.
The bold colors and large designs of the Afro-American textile aesthetic derive from the communicative function of textiles in Africa, where they are worn and displayed as an indicator of social status, wealth, occupation, and history. The strong contrasting colors characteristic of African textiles are necessary to insure a cloth's readability at a distance, in strong sunlight. Maintaining that aesthetic beyond its original function, Afro-American quilters think not in terms of pastel or coordinating colors, but speak of "colors hitting each other right." Their quilts are best seen from a distance, in contrast to New England quilts, which should be inspected in intimate settings.
Multiple patterning is another characteristic shared by African textiles and Afro-American quilts. Multiple patterns are important in African royal and priestly fabrics, for the number and complexity of patterns decorating a fabric increase in accordance with the owner's status. A cloth woven for a king or priest may include up to 30 patterns. Multiple-patterned cloth communicates the prestige, power, and wealth of the wearer. Contemporary Afro-American quilts do not communicate an owner's status, but they do retain this preference for mixing patterns as an aesthetic tradition.
In West Africa, when woven strips with many patterns are sewn together to make a larger fabric, the resulting cloth has asymmetrical and unpredictable designs. These characteristics are retained in Afro-American quilts, for lines, designs, and colors do not match up but vary with a persistence that goes beyond a possible lack of cloth in any cloth or pattern. Afro-American quilters have taken this tradition one step further, introducing improvisation. Black quilters often adapt traditional Euro-American quilt patterns and "Afro-Americanize" them by establishing a pattern in one square and varying it in successive squares. Typical Afro-American quilt squares do not repeat but change in size, arrangement, and color. Although ostensibly reproducing Euro-American patterns, Afro-American quilters maintain through improvisation African patterns of multiple patterning, asymmetry, and unpredictable rhythms and tensions similar to those found in other Afro American arts, such as jazz, black English, and dance.
Whereas Euro-American appliquéd quilts are primarily decorative, Afro American appliquéd quilts often tell stories and express ideas in the same manner as African appliquéd textiles. With bold appliquéd shapes, African cultures record court histories, religious values, and personal histories of famous individuals, using designs symbolizing power, skill leadership, wisdom, courage, balance, composure, and other personal qualities. In contrast, with iconography drawn from their imaginations, from southern rural black culture, and from American popular culture (magazines, television, and cereal boxes), Afro-American appliquéd quilts mirror the diverse influences that shape the lives of black women in the southern United States.
Afro-American quilt making is inextricably linked to the thrift and industry that characterize rural black southern life, for Afro-American quilters grew up in a time when there was no social security and to survive was to keep constantly busy. Afro-American quilt making is unique in America, fusing two alternative textile traditions-the African and the Euro-American to produce a third. Afro-American quilters maintaining this hybrid aesthetic demonstrate the strength of African cultural traditions in contemporary American society, affirming the extraordinary tenacity of African ideas over hundreds of years in the face of major historical obstacles. Practiced today mainly in the southern United States, this vital aspect of our nation's artistic and cultural heritage must be recognized and celebrated now so that it can be promoted and preserved in the future.
Maude Southwell Wahlman
Ella King Torrey
University of Mississippi
From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.