Folk Arts and Crafts
Folk Arts and Crafts
The folk arts and crafts created by African Americans are, perhaps, the least acknowledged of their cultural traditions. Worldwide recognition of black achievement in music and dance has overshadowed significant accomplishments in the area of material culture, so that while black Americans are seen as gifted performers, they are rarely described as even adequate producers of objects.
In times past, black artisans were numerous, and they are to be credited with making a wide array of artifacts, particularly in the southern states. It is important to recall that during the preindustrial era, most rural people made things, such as tools, utensils, containers, clothes, food, houses, and toys. Whether as slaves or as free people, blacks created a multitude of necessary, useful, and sometimes beautiful, objects.
The reasons why African Americans would be skilled at making domestic arts and crafts are not hard to fathom. On plantations they often had little choice when they were ordered to learn particular trades by their owners. But more often, because they were provided with so few domestic items, they either had to make most of their furnishings and utensils or do without them. After Emancipation the folk arts and crafts that blacks had developed in the plantation setting continued to prove useful. Reduced to a condition of near servitude by continued racial exploitation and poverty, African-American artisans used their traditional skills to get themselves and their families through tough times, and some still do so today. Folk arts and crafts have always played dual roles in the black community, serving both as a means of making a living and as a means for creative self-expression. While many items of folk art and craft produced by African Americans are indistinguishable in form, technique, and style from works produced by white Americans, there is a stream of African inspiration that runs through traditional black material culture in the South. The most distinctive works of African-American black folk art, in cultural terms, are those that manifest a linkage to African origins. This article surveys selected examples of those works with the strongest African connections.
Coiled-grass baskets have been produced in the United States by black artisans for more than three centuries. Once integral items on plantations, particularly along the so-called Rice Coast that once extended from North Carolina to Florida's northern border, the craft is today most publicly on display in and around Charleston, South Carolina, where hundreds of "sewers" work fashioning baskets. Using sweetgrass, rush, pine needles, and strips of leaves from the palmetto tree as their primary materials, they produce a seemingly limitless variety of forms that they sell on street corners, in the central open-air market, and at more than fifty stands along the main highway entering the city.
What one sees here are "show baskets," a subgenre within this tradition that was initiated probably in the mid-nineteenth century. Included under this category are all sorts of decorative containers: flower baskets, serving trays, purses, sewing baskets, casserole holders, umbrella stands, and cake baskets. As is evident from this partial inventory, the show basket is intended to be used in the home where it will be prominently displayed. As these items are made, then, to be fancy, basketmakers explore, at every opportunity, new creative possibilities in form and decoration. A show basket is a highly personalized artwork shaped extensively by individual imagination.
However, as the matriarch basket maker Mary Jane Manigault explains, "All baskets begin as a hot plate," meaning that all works, no matter how imaginative and seemingly without precedent, trace back to a common ancestry rooted in basic forms and techniques. Thus, all coiled baskets start out as a disk form. The oldest African-American coiled baskets were "work baskets." They were made with bundles of stiff rushes and often sewn with strips of oak. With coils generally an inch in diameter, these were tough, durable baskets intended to be used outside, either in the fields or in the farmyard. They are easily distinguishable from the lighter, more delicately formed show baskets. Most work baskets were large, heavy, round containers made to carry produce; they all had flat bottoms and straight walls that flared out slightly from the base. One specialized work basket, the fanner, was a large tray about two feet in diameter, with a low outer rim. Primarily an implement for processing the rice harvest, it was also used as a basic kitchen tool. Rice could not be properly cooked unless it had first been fanned to separate the kernels from the husks.
These baskets were but one element in a set of African practices upon which the production of rice was based. Planters specifically sought out slaves from the rice-growing regions of West and Central Africa, people who came with not only a knowledge of rice cultivation, but also the basic technology for its harvest and preparation as food. While planters were generally wary about allowing overt African expressions among their slaves, they tolerated this mode of basketry when they realized that it basically enhanced the productivity of their estates.
Unwittingly, then, these planters actually facilitated the maintenance of a decidedly African tradition. While the end of the plantation era was, understandably, accompanied by a decline of the work basket tradition, it did not cause coiled basketry to disappear altogether. These baskets remained a feature of home craft on small black farms in the area, and from 1910 to 1950 there was an attempt at the Penn School on St. Helena Island to revive the practice. While this particular effort ended with disappointing results, the tradition was able to flourish in the Charleston area, where show baskets became exceedingly popular among tourists who assiduously sought them as souvenirs of their visits.
The basket making tradition was necessarily transformed as artisans shifted from a rural to an urban venue, where artisans made baskets more often for sale than for domestic use. Yet venerable traditions were still honored. The sewing baskets and serving trays were old-time baskets, too, even if their origins did not trace all the way back to Africa, as did those of the work baskets. But the entrepreneurial energies that were released in this commercial effort led mainly to freewheeling displays of personal imagination. Soon basketmakers were as proud of new unprecedented forms that they called "own style baskets" as they were of more conventional flower baskets or clothes hampers.
But even within this spirited and open-ended creativity, there are still signs of historical memory. Fanner baskets, for example, can occasionally be found for sale in the Charleston market, albeit as lightweight show-basket facsimiles. But more important, the techniques for coiling and stitching remain unchanged regardless of the type of basket. This continuity of process allows contemporary basket makers to place themselves in the flow of a tradition that traces back through time and space to African roots. The personal satisfaction that these artisans derive from making coiled baskets is amplified by a keen awareness of that history, and as a result they are all the more motivated to preserve this custom.
That African-American competence in agriculture was matched by maritime abilities should not be surprising. Most African slaves were captured, after all, from either coastal or riverine environments, and thus they had extensive experience with a variety of small craft. When set to work on plantations, often located near coasts or along prominent rivers, these Africans had ample opportunity to display their navigation skills. Eighteenth-century commentators were quick to acknowledge how adept slaves were in paddling log canoes, which often proved difficult to maneuver in swift currents and to keep upright. In the Charleston area, black watermen working out of hewn dugouts called "pettiaugers" (an Anglicized version of the French pirogues ) had by 1750 achieved almost complete domination of the local fishing trade. White people depended on black boating skills from Georgia to Maryland, as slaves literally provided the backbone for the local transportation system at a time when there were few roads.
In this context, slaves also built boats, and while their surviving descriptions tend to be somewhat vague with respect to details, it seems that West Indian watercraft, and thus, in some measure, African-derived maritime traditions, provided the basic models. The pettiauger was a well-known Caribbean vessel with a hull consisting of a log dugout extended by the addition of extra planks. Fitted with sails for open-water voyaging, it could also by propelled by teams of oarsmen. Boats of this sort are described repeatedly as the usual type of plantation "barge" used to ferry people, supplies, and produce. A second type of plantation vessel was a canoe hewn from a single log. Derived from either African or Native American precedents, it was less than twenty feet in length and relatively light due to the thinness of the hull. This was an excellent vessel for navigating the shallow marshes and streams surrounding the barrier islands of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. The plantation mistress Fannie Kemble recorded in 1838 that two slave carpenters on her Butler Island estate had made such a canoe, which they sold for the sum of sixty dollars. A type of multi-log dugout, common to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, is credited to a slave from York County, Virginia, remembered only as Aaron. In form, this craft—a log canoe with a hull shaped from as many as nine logs—seems related to the West Indian pettiaugers.
In Virginia and Maryland, African Americans were extensively involved in a full range of shipbuilding trades as ship's carpenters, caulkers, sail makers, and blacksmiths. A remarkable account from the Raleigh Star in 1811 describes how a brig launched in Alexandria, Virginia, was "drafted by a coloured man belonging to Col. Tayloe and under his superintendence built from her keel to her topmast." Here the design sources were unquestionably Anglo-American, but the fact that a slave was given such broad authority suggests that he was working in a context in which most of the men under his command must have been slaves as well. This event suggests that blacks might have been able to do quite well as shipbuilders had they simply been afforded the chance. But there were few opportunities because African-American watermen were diverted mainly to fishing and oyster dredging, where they would be employed for their brawn rather than their designing and woodworking skills.
Musical Instrument Making
In the testimony of former slaves there is frequent mention of homemade musical instruments. Litt Young from Mississippi recalled exciting events around 1860, when "Us have small dances Saturday nights and ring plays and fiddle playin' and knockin' bones. There was fiddles made from gourds and banjos from sheep hides." The inventory here of stringed and percussive instruments identifies two of the main classes of musical instruments frequently made by African-American artisans. To Young's short list one can add rattles, gongs, scrapers, fifes, whistles, panpipes, and drums. All of these had verifiable African antecedents—as did many of the songs that were played on them and the dances they were intended to accompany.
Drums, which were so essential to both African musical performance and to religious and healing rituals, were frightening to slave holders, for they realized that these instruments could be used to send private messages that they would not be able to decipher. Laws were passed in South Carolina after the Stono Rebellion of 1739, and later in other colonies, banning the playing of drums expressly to eliminate this means of communication. But such prohibitions were less than effective as deterrents, and well into the nineteenth century, slaves, particularly those who were more recently arrived from Africa, were still making drums. They commonly affixed some type of animal skin with thongs or pegs across the open end of a hollowed log or large gourd. Apparently such drums were made often enough that even as late as the 1930s elderly blacks living in the coastal regions of Georgia could still describe the practice in detail. Even though the custom was fast fading into obscurity by that time, a few of these informants claimed that they had made drums themselves.
The banjo is a very old black folk instrument that continues to enjoy considerable popularity among white aficionados of so-called country music. This is an instrument that, according to no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson, black people "brought hither from Africa." In the earliest examples, the body of the instrument was shaped from a gourd sliced in half lengthwise and then covered with a stretched animal skin. A fretless neck was inserted at one end and four gut strings were run from its top to the base of the gourd. Today's banjos, made in factories, are different in every respect, except that they continue to have membrane-covered drums underneath the strings. Thus, when the instrument is strummed one can still hear the distinctive combination of melodic tone and percussive thrump that was present in the original plantation instruments. The mainstay of African-American folk music through the early twentieth century, when it was largely supplanted by the blues guitar, the banjo is rarely played today by black musicians, and the only reported contemporary makers of banjos with gourd bodies are white.
The experience among fife makers, however, is more positive. In the delta area of northwestern Mississippi, a small number of families continue to play fifes—or, as they might say, "blow canes"—as the entertainment at local picnics and barbecues. These people make their fifes as well. The process seems relatively simple: A foot-long section of bamboo cane is hollowed out and a mouth hole and four finger holes are pierced into it with a red-hot poker. There is considerable difficulty in calculating the correct placement for the holes so that notes of the correct pitch can be played. Considerable experimentation is required, since each piece of cane has a slightly different tonal range. In Mississippi, the fife is played as the lead instrument together with an ensemble of drums; it is a performance that resonates with similar performances among the Akan peoples of Ghana.
Slave potters made two very different types of wares. The earliest were earthenware vessels shaped by hand and fired to very low temperatures in open bonfires. These pots, recovered from the sites of many eighteenth-century plantations in South Carolina and Virginia, consisted mainly of small, round-bottomed bowls suitable for eating and drinking and larger round-bottomed cooking vessels. For decades these sorts of vessels were believed to be Native American in origin, and they therefore were labeled as "Colono-Indian wares." Subsequent investigation has shown that, given the sheer quantity of Colono shards at the sites of slave occupation and their relative absence in Indian villages during the same period, there can be no other conclusion than that this type of pottery was being made by slave artisans. Comparisons with African wares lend further support to the claim of slave manufacture, so that some of this eighteenth-century earthenware is now referred to as Afro-Colono pottery.
Many plantation-made bowls have a cross or an "X" scratched into their bases. While the function of these intriguing marks remains open to speculation, these are signs that have mystical associations in Central Africa, where they are used in acts of prayer, particularly in summoning the protective power of ancestral spirits. As scholars have puzzled through the significance of these marks, they have surmised that the first slaves must have looked to their own inventory of cultural forms when they had to find an adequate way to feed themselves, and they simply turned to a familiar African craft tradition. When slaves next discovered that their owners would not interfere in their efforts, some of these Africans may have gone even further and used their African pots to regenerate their interrupted religious traditions.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the production of earthenware on plantations had ended. By then there were relatively few Africans in the slave population left to carry on the practice. More important, slave owners were now providing more food preparation items, such as cast-iron cooking pots. The first quarter of the nineteenth century also witnessed an upsurge in the production of stoneware pottery, a durable type of ware shaped on a potter's wheel and fired to very high temperatures in a kiln. This type of pottery was produced mainly at small, family-run shops. Occasionally, slaves were employed in these shops, but chiefly as the laborers who cut the firewood or dug and mixed the clay; the more prestigious role of potter or turner was reserved for a white artisan. There was, however, one site where blacks were allowed more extensive participation, and it is there that one can identify a nineteenth-century tradition for African-American pottery.
About 1810, Abner Landrum, a prosperous white man living in the Edgefield District of west-central South Carolina, opened a pottery shop and was soon producing high-quality wares recognized as superior to any in the region. His shop would quickly grow into a booming industrial village, and before long Landrum was selling stock in his operation. His financial success, however, did not go unchallenged. Other entrepreneurs also set up potteries in the area, luring away many of Landrum's skilled artisans. When he solved this crisis by training slaves to make pottery, other pottery shop owners soon followed his example.
Most of these African-American artisans remain unnamed, but various records suggest that about fifty slaves were employed at various shops throughout the Edgefield District. The best known of this group was a man named Dave, who had once belonged to Abner Landrum. Trained first as a typesetter at Landrum's newspaper, Dave continued to display the fact that he was literate on his pots by signing and dating them, and occasionally inscribing them with rhymed couplets. These vessels, unlike most, carry terse captions describing the time of manufacture and their maker's identity. More important, that they publicly carry words at a time when it was illegal for slaves to be literate makes these pots statements of overt resistance. Other slaves, upon seeing Dave's works, were likely to know that one of their own was mocking the white man's law, and they may have derived some measure of inspiration from his audacious example.
Certainly many would have noticed Dave's pots, for he made some of the largest vessels known in Edgefield. The largest one, inscribed "Great and Noble Jar," has a capacity of almost forty-five gallons and stands thirty inches in height. Many of his other pots are in this same size range and are distinctively shaped, with walls that flare boldly from a relatively narrow base to a wide shoulder close to the top of the vessel. While white potters also made large storage jars, none of their works seem as daring. With their widest sections nearer their middles, they appear to squat safely on the floor, while Dave's pots seemingly leap up and threaten to teeter back and forth. The form of Dave's pots thus emphasize the rebelliousness signaled by his inscriptions.
Even though Dave's work is a reflection of commonplace African-American experiences of chattel slavery in the South, his pieces, as objects, are basically expressions of European ceramic traditions. The pot forms for which he is now so famous appear to take their lines ultimately from the bread pots of northeastern England, and his use of pottery wheels, kilns, and glazes are all manifestations of standardized Anglo-American ceramic technology. Yet within the community of black potters in Edgefield, there were opportunities for artisans to revisit ancestral aesthetic forms. In series of small vessels, averaging about five inches in height, slave potters were apparently able to rekindle memories of African sculpture.
Pots decorated with faces are known in every ceramic tradition on the globe, but those attributed to black people in Edgefield have several attributes not seen elsewhere. Their most distinctive feature is the use of a different clay body to mark the eyes and teeth: white porcelain clay contrasts sharply with the dark glaze covering the rest of the stoneware vessel. The riveting gaze and seeming snarl that results from this mode of decoration recalls the mixed-media approach to sculpture found in West and Central Africa, where all sorts of contrasting materials are applied to a wooden form for dramatic effect, particularly in the rendering of eyes and teeth on statues and masks. That a white substance is used in Edgefield is very significant, for the same visual effect might have been achieved by simply coloring the eyes and teeth with a light-colored slip, or liquid clay. That the look of an Edgefield face jug was created by the rather difficult technique of embedding an entirely different clay body into the walls of the pot suggests that both the material and the behavior are charged with important symbolic meanings. In Central Africa, homeland to seventy-five percent of all slaves imported into South Carolina, white clay has sacred associations with ancestral authority.
Among the Central-African Kongo people, for example, white is the color of the dead, so that white objects are offered to them and effigies of the dead are marked with white eyes. The strong stylistic affinities between Kongo sculpture and Edgefield vessels suggest that the enslaved artisans took advantage of their access to ceramic technology and used it to enhance African-inspired religious ceremonies held on the plantations in the region. These rituals could be carried on without detection because during the antebellum period blacks outnumbered whites in the Edgefield District by more than four to one. The Africanness of slave life in this area was sustained as well by constant illegal smuggling of new African captives into the area; in fact, one of the last known cargoes of slaves to the United States was a group of Kongo captives landed on the Georgia coast, carried up the Savannah River, and sold into Edgefield County in 1858. The face vessels of Edge-field are evidence, then, of how African-American artisans could, when circumstances allowed, counter the assimilationist trajectory of their experiences and use new foreign means to re-establish ties to their African roots.
The prodigious woodcarving skills of African artisans are widely recognized, and their masks and statues are granted honored places in first-rank museums along with noteworthy masterpieces of Western art. Since these works, so abundant in Africa, seem to be noticeably absent in the United States, assessments of African-American culture often begin by lamenting the loss of these skills. However, this carving tradition, while diminished in scale, is not altogether absent.
African slaves seem to have remembered their traditions for woodcarving. According to an old African-American man from Georgia who was interviewed in the late 1930s for the Georgia Writer's Project: "I remember the African men used to all the time make little clay images. Sometimes they like men, sometimes they like animals. Once they put a spear in his hand and walk around him and he was the chief…. Sometimes they try to make the image out of wood." Specific examples also exist. In 1819, in Congo Square in New Orleans, the architect Benjamin Latrobe saw a banjo that had an unmistakable African figure carved at the top of the instrument's neck just above the tuning pegs. A remarkable table was built sometime in the 1850s on a plantation in north-central North Carolina with each of its legs carved into figures highly reminiscent of African figures. A drum now in the collections of the British Museum, but which was collected in 1753 in Virginia, is in every respect an excellent example of an Akan-Ashanti apentemma drum. However, since it was carved from a piece of American cedar, it is American rather than African in origin. From this smattering of examples, one can conclude that African proclivities for working creatively in wood did not simply end upon Africans' arrival in the Americas. These skills were carried on when and wherever possible.
Most often, African woodcarving skills were turned in other directions—generally to the production of useful household objects such as bowls, trays, mortars and pestles, and handles for various metal tools. The severely functional nature of these items did not provide much of an opportunity for creative expression, even if the artisan did his work with diligence and commitment. Yet in the carving of wooden canes some degree of African inspiration was seemingly able to re-emerge. Numerous walking sticks carved by African Americans, from the nineteenth century to the present, sometimes bear distinctive marks that may relate to African traditions kept alive mainly among country people. These canes are often decorated with a wide range of media, including brass tacks, colored beads and marbles, aluminum foil, and other shiny materials. In one case from Mississippi, the carver attached a silver thermometer to the handle of a cane that was already elaborately carved with figures of humans and serpents. Yet it was not judged to be complete without the bit of flash that a seemingly incongruous temperature gauge could provide. While this decorative gesture could be nothing more than a whimsical act of personal innovation, the fact that such acts are so commonplace among African-American cane makers in the South implies the presence of a shared style. Certainly one senses in the construct of these decorated canes a parallel to the African use of mixed-media assembly in sculpture.
Closer African affinities are seen in the selection of certain motifs. Reptiles dominate the shafts of most of the walking sticks that have clear attributions to African-American carvers. In addition to snakes (which are common to decorators of canes everywhere), black carvers also render alligators, turtles, and lizards, and as they are often combined with figures of human beings, the contrast may be read as symbolic of supernatural communication. According to widely held African beliefs, reptiles are appropriate symbols of messages between the spirit and human domains because they are creatures able to travel in two realms (e.g., in the water and on the land, or underground and above ground). Just like spiritual messages, they move back and forth between the human environment and another, unseen place. The chief linkage between this symbolism and African-American traditions in woodcarving may lie in the fact that throughout the nineteenth century, traditional healers, or "root doctors," are said to have carried carved walking sticks decorated with reptiles as a sign of their authority. Since their cures are likely to have been based on African practices, it follows that the rest of their paraphernalia (which was often as instrumental in affecting a cure as the medicines administered) was also African-derived. Consequently, when an African American carved a snake or an alligator on a walking stick, it may have carried a different meaning and function than a similar animal carved by a white artisan.
Quilted bedcovers are objects that are unknown and unnecessary in tropical Africa. However, some West African ceremonial textiles are decorated with colorful appliqué figures, and large pieces of cloth for everyday use are assembled by sewing narrow strips together. Thus, enslaved African women may have been somewhat prepared to make quilts, since they already had the requisite skills needed to piece quilt tops from scraps and remnants. While the actual quilting process was, for the most part, new and different—that is, the binding of two large pieces of cloth together with a layer of batting in between by means of thousands of geometrically patterned stitches—extant quilts alleged to be slave-made show that these women were certainly capable of mastering the task.
Very little about the oldest surviving African-American quilts seems to demonstrate any affinity for African textile traditions. What one mainly sees is the strict guidance of the plantation mistress. However, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, Harriet Powers of Athens, Georgia, produced two quilts filled with images that seem to come straight out of Dahomey, a prominent kingdom on the West African coast. While her links to Africa are less than certain—and would have been, at best, indirect—the figures on her two "bible" quilts compare closely with appliqué figures found on sewn narrative textiles of the Fon people. More commonplace and perhaps even more profoundly associated with African textiles are the "strip quilts," which appear with great regularity wherever African Americans make quilts. In this type of bed-cover, long, thin strip units are sewn edge-to-edge to form the large square or rectangular quilt top. The "strips" may be single pieces; or they may be assembled from blocks, from thin remnants called "strings," or from assorted remnants. Regardless of the technique, the overall linear composition of the top cannot be missed. Since most contemporary African-American quilters claim that quilts of this type are the oldest pattern they know, there is a good possibility that such quilts were made during slavery. Certainly they resemble in form and technique the strip cloths of West and Central Africa. These textiles are assembled from narrow pieces about five inches wide and eight feet long that are sewn edge-to-edge to create a large rectangular panel. This tradition is seemingly perpetuated in a modified form in the African-American strip quilt.
Harriet Powers Quilts
Harriet Powers is one of the most well-known quilt makers of the nineteenth century. Powers's quilts are relevant mainly for their bold use of appliqué, for storytelling, and for the extensive care and detail that go into making them. The technique and design indicate an African and African-American influence and sensibility. Telling stories using appliqué designs for visual narratives, for instance, was an artistic practice common in Benin, West Africa.
Typical scenes depicted on the cotton quilts contain celestial phenomena for the most part, as well as biblical imagery. Due to financial difficulty, Powers decided to sell her beloved quilts. In one instance, a person who purchased one of the quilts tells of Powers making repeated visits back to her home just to get another look at her creation almost as if it were one of her children. Only two of the quilts, which Powers stitched, remain well-preserved. One is located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while the other is a part of the National Museum of History collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Even if this mode of quilt assembly proves not to be African in origin, it is certainly a marker of African-American style. While white quilters also make such quilts, they will usually protest that they were a simple type made when they were "just learning" or that they were quilts merely "thrown together" and thus were nothing to be proud of. Black quilters, on the other hand, celebrate strip patterns as among the most significant in their repertories and produce them from childhood to old age. They constantly work at refining the form as they explore the nuances of the genre. These quilters are fully aware of the geometric patterns common in Euro-American quilting, patterns usually generated from block units, but they prefer to use strips. The strip format is by nature innovative and open-ended, and thus, unlike Euro-American quilt genres, is considerably less bound by formal conventions. There is, then, a sense of design permission about strip quilts, even a sense of liberation. With this mode of quilting, and with other forms of art and craft, African-American folk traditions make vital and enduring contributions to the aesthetic mosaic of the United States.
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john michael vlach (1996)
Updated by author 2005