When African religious ideas appeared in the New World, they often assumed new forms and meanings and were transmitted in unprecedented ways. As essential tools for survival, these ideas were encoded in arts in a multiplicity of forms, including architecture, dance, funerary practices, narratives, rituals, speech, music, and other visual arts, especially textiles. Arts preserve cultural traditions even when the social context of traditions changes; yet the codes are neither simple nor easy to decipher.
Sometimes forms endure while the meanings once associated with them shift; in other instances, meanings persist and the shapes evolve. Knowledge of ideas and techniques for creating arts are not necessarily verbalized, written down, or expressly transmitted within a family, nor are all levels of meaning always known to everyone in a community. Some African Americans, and most Americans in general, are thoroughly unaware of many of these cultural traditions. One challenge is to examine which ideas can be traced back to African cultures. A bigger challenge is to understand the transmutations and creolizations that occur as each generation improvises upon previous visual traditions.
Africans who came to the Americas brought with them many memories: memories of social organizations, religious values, and technological skills. But this knowledge was often hidden, encoded in decorative arts, arts that were appreciated and continued for their decorative qualities. Often the meanings originally associated with the symbols were lost over time.
Scholars are just beginning to unravel the numerous ways in which valuable African skills, values, and ways of organizing ideas were and are encoded in many art forms. They are learning to read symbolic elements that have been passed on from one generation to the next, not through genes, but through cultural memories. Quilts were one of many media used to encode cultural knowledge. Three themes can be explored to explain continuities
between African-American quilting and African cultural knowledge: technical skills, secret scripts, and charm-making traditions. As William Arnett wrote in Souls Grown Deep :
Every great quilt, whether it be a patchwork, appliqué, or strip quilt, is a potential Rosetta stone. Quilts represent one of the most highly evolved systems of writing in the New World. Every combination of colors, every juxtaposition or intersection of line and form, every pattern, traditional or idiosyncratic, contain data that can be imparted in some form or another to anyone. All across Africa, geometric designs, the syntax of quilt tops, have been used to encode symbolic or secret knowledge. Bodily decoration and costumes, architectural ornamentation (including painting), and relief carving have been primary media. (Arnett, et al, 2000).
In the ways in which quilts are put together, we find information about how West African textiles were constructed, mainly from narrow strips, about the width of a human hand. Men wove these strips on narrow portable looms, and then the strips were sewn together in symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangements, or strips with different patterns were sewn together to create the most prestigious textiles. In the ways in which designs were borrowed, improvised upon, and jazzed up, scholars find clues to secret African symbol systems, which are also seen in African-American vernacular arts.
African secret society signs and symbols are still hidden in decorative textile designs. Examples include Bogolanfini cloth painted by Bamana women in Mali; Adinkra cloth stamped by Ashanti men in Ghana; Adire cloth painted with starch and dyed by Yoruba women with designs said to have been given to them by Oshun, the goddess of wealth and fertility, in Nigeria; Ekpe (Leopard) society cloth resist dyed by Ejagham women with Nsibidi secret society signs in Nigeria; and Kuba cloth woven by men and embroidered by women with designs that allude to the Central African Kongo cosmogram, a diamond or a cross that represents the four moments of the sun or the soul: birth, life, death, and rebirth in a watery ancestral realm. Scripts are also considered protective and thus bits of writing—Christian, Islamic, or indigenous secret signs—are enclosed in West African charms.
This tradition of encoding secret signs in textile designs, mostly done by women, continued in the New World, where remembered African signs were combined to create unique new creolized symbol systems. Examples include a Brazilian cloth embroidered with designs called points for a Yoruba god, Ogun, as well as Surinamese capes embroidered by women with designs derived from a Djuka script called Afaka, which is based on Adinkra symbols from Ghana and Nsibidi signs from Nigeria. Cuban Abakua society costumes are based on Nigerian ones with light and dark squares to represent leopard spots and valued religious principles of leadership. Haitian Vodou flags are decorated with sequins arranged in veve signs, which refer to various remembered Yoruba and Fon gods.
Throughout the southern United States, as insulation against the cold, people decorated the interior walls of their home with cutouts from books, newspapers, and magazines. Some African-American quilts look like those walls, because for many there was an additional religious meaning associated with those multiple images. Unhappy, neglected ancestral spirits could be thwarted from their mischievous ways because they would be distracted by, and need to read and decipher, all the chopped up and dis-continuous text before they could do any harm. In much the same way that quilts provided physical warmth and spiritual safety, the wall collages linked African Americans' most corporeal needs with their most metaphysical ones. These practices can be traced to the African belief that writing is considered protective and is thus enclosed in charms. The form has changed but the protective idea persists. Romare Bearden drew upon this African-American tradition of collaging walls with protective images in his famous collaged art. Quilters drew on this collage tradition in their improvised quilts, which feature multiple patterns and thus function as protective bedcovers in several ways.
African-American quilts feature narrow strips, bright contrasting colors, large patterns, multiple patterns, asymmetrical designs, and symbolic designs. All these aesthetic principles can be traced back to African textiles, which feature these same aesthetic values, but often for different reasons. Most African textiles are made by men, to sell, commissioned for special events, or for family use, in cultures that understand the improvised aesthetic and the symbols. Most African-American textiles are made by women for family use; a few women make quilts to sell, and they often make quilts in both the symmetrical Anglo-American tradition and in the improvised African-American traditions. In addition to their technical skills of piecing and appliqué, scholars admire their ability to manipulate and hide symbols.
In the United States, various African and African Latin American and Caribbean signs appear in historic and contemporary African-American quilts. Recent research by Maude Southwell Wahlman concentrates on the convergence of secret African symbols and Masonic signs that were used to run the Underground Railroad. Women sewed Masonic aprons and other textiles and knew of the multiple levels of meaning attached to the symbols. The nineteenth-century quilter and Eastern Star society leader Harriet Powers used these symbols in her Masonic apron and in her quilts, where one can see references to her control of Fon symbols from the Republic of Benin in West Africa, Kongo symbols from Central Africa, Christian symbols, and Masonic signs. Her own Masonic apron features an embroidered cross (the cosmogram of the Kongo people) and an appliquéd light-colored sun for life, as well as a dark-colored "midnight" sun for the undersea world of Kongo ancestors. She may not have known about Kongo or Fon religions, but she did know the symbols.
Hidden in Plain View (2000) by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard validates the many African traditions of women encoding secret signs in textile designs. In addition, many abolitionists were Masons, and Tobin and Wahlman have found more and more documentation for cooperation between members of African-American and Anglo-American Masonic societies. Many African-American families have retained knowledge of how artifacts were encoded with secret signs that were used to communicate vital information on how to proceed on the Underground Railroad to freedom.
In the ways in which symbolic designs were included in decorative pieced patterns and appliqués, there is evidence of remembered charm-making traditions, which also persist in African-American vernacular sculpture and textiles. The African-American protective charm, called a mojo or a hand, is often a small square made of red flannel, which is carried in a pocket or worn around the neck. The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston recorded numerous instructions for how to make these charms. One also sees them on numerous African-American quilts, particularly those using a nine-patch pattern. Sarah Mary Taylor, a noted Mississippi folk artist, even made a quilt with both blue hands and red squares, indicating her mastery of these symbols. The "vodou dolls" seen on African-American quilts made by Taylor and Mississippi-born quilter Pearlie Posey can be traced back to the cloth Pacquet Kongo charms brought to Haiti by the Kongo peoples of Central Africa, where they are referred to as minkisi, or "the medicines of God."
Contemporary African-American fine artists, such as Betye Saar, Joyce Scott, and Renée Stout, incorporate folk art traditions and family oral histories into their arts, particularly their textiles. Stout's Conjuring Vest (1995) includes references to West African cloth charms. Both fine and folk (or vernacular) African-American arts possess sophisticated levels of meaning that one has to learn to read. If scholars and students are persistent and attentive, they will find many examples of hidden codes in African-American textiles and other arts. In addition, young people must interview their grandparents before this knowledge is lost. According to an old African proverb, often repeated by folklorist William Ferris, "in Africa when an older person dies, a library burns." That can also be said for elders in African-American cultures.
Arnett, Paul, William Arnett, Theophus Smith, and Maude Southwell Wahlman, eds. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Atlanta: Tinwood; New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2000.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Dutton, 1990.
Leon, Eli. Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Winston-Salem State University, 1992.
Picton, John, and John Mack. African Textiles. New York: Harper, 1989.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.
Tobin, Jacqueline, and Raymond Dobard. Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978.
Wahlman, Maude. Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts. New York: Penguin, 1993.
maude southwell wahlman (2005)