Distinct Traditions?

What, if anything, is distinct about quilts made by members of one racial group or another?

The easy answer is that there have been too many quilts made by individuals of various racial groups to generalize. Despite this reality, many authors, connoisseurs, curators, and collectors have tried to articulate the differences among quilts made by members of different races.

One school of thought suggests that African American made quilts are distinct because of a theory called “Africanisms,” in which an African aesthetic featuring large design elements, asymmetry, bright and highly contrasting colors, improvisation, and symbolism prevails within African American quiltmaking.1  Janet Berlo notes that the traits identified by proponents of the Africanisms theory do hold true for many quilts made by African American women in the rural South, such as the quilt shown here made by Rita Marshbanks circa 1920.2  But many examples exist which do not, such as the orderly quilt 16 year old Rosa Stokes made, also displayed in the image carousel.

Folklorists articulating characteristics of European American-style quilts classified them as symmetrical, uniform, and predictable.3 Again, this may be true of some quilts made by white Americans, but certainly not all, as examples here demonstrate. The strongest rebuttals to the idea of Africanisms existing in quiltmaking come from regional studies, such as Margaret Roach’s examination of north Louisiana quilters in which a local aesthetic reflecting such traits as improvisation and asymmetry prevailed among both whites and blacks living (and quilting) in close proximity.

Assessing the variety within African American quiltmaking traditions through a museum collection is a challenging task, as the quilts museums have acquired tend to adhere to preconceived criteria such as those promulgated by Africanist scholars and listed above. If the sample of IQSC&M quilts with known African American makers or the recent touring exhibitions of Gee’s Bend quilts were used to evaluate the theory of Africanisms, we may very well say that indeed, improvisation and asymmetry rule. But these quilts receive attention from curators precisely because they do support such notions, essentializing African American quilts based on a limited group of examples.

1. See Teri Klassen’s discussion in “Representations of African American Quiltmaking,” 304-316.

2. Janet Catherine. Berlo, “‘Acts of Pride, Desperation, and Necessity’: Aesthetics, Social History, and American Quilts,” In Wild by Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts, ed. by Janet Catherine Berlo and Patricia Cox Crews (Lincoln: International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska in association with University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2003), 28.

3. Klassen, “Representations of African American Quiltmaking,” 305.