It was not a sheltered life. I was able to ask questions, explore, and investigate. I switched to a different high school for a richer experience. I went away to University - all the way across the country to see more, do more. But it was a Canadian experience.
I know the basics of US history, globalization has taught me just a little, and I rely on the stories of friends and the media to teach me more. I consider myself engaged, but I've recently realized that it is a sheltered intelligence.
Last week I had the experience of 4 days in Alabama. I went there with all the preconceived notions of a visit to the Deep South - there would be grits and good ol' boys and racism and hospitality and narrow minds and nice people. I expected little in the way of enlightenment, a lot in the way of a break from my real life. I got more, so much more.
We spent one day exploring downtown Birmingham. Our day took an unexpected turn when the Monday museum closures thwarted our plans for the Civil Rights Institute. As we stood outside the doors and regrouped for our plans we were enthralled by the sculptures in the park across the street. A short walk through the park and its powerful art led us across the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church. The neon sign competing with the stained glass. Then we embarked on the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Hours later we stopped, drained, and feeling a little awed.
My experience with the history of the Civil Rights Movement is fixed on Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, photos of students going into desegregated schools, and a vague recollection of bus bombings. We simply aren't taught it growing up in Canada (well, I wasn't). And not because of a racism at home (although that is there) but because it wasn't our history.
Here we were, honestly blown away by the stories, by the bloodshed on the streets we were standing on, the relatively recent history of this, and the fact that we simply didn't have a clue about any of it. It was humbling, enlightening, powerful.
Yet while we walked the colour of our skin became an issue for others. We were called "you people" by one man. Another accused us of not giving him money as he begged on the street because he was black (not true, sir). I'll be the first to concede to a white privilege, but no one should make assumptions based on the colour of skin (and more). Those moments were equally powerful.
The next day my SIL and I set out on an Alabama Road Trip to Gee's Bend. We took the scenic route, made even more scenic when we took a wrong turn or two. We found catfish farms, main streets, community gathering spots, and saw as many taxidermists as baptist churches. We eventually found our way South, through Alberta to Gee's Bend.
It was a pilgrimage of sorts. THE famous Gee's Bend. Home to the quilters that have inspired a new generation. There we were, two white women in the most ridiculous rental car to have in Alabama, and we couldn't have been more welcome. Quilters are quilters and that was the common factor.
Upon arrival in Gee's Bend we went to the Ferry Terminal. As the only the only public building it seemed like the place to go. Two gorgeous women sat outside, working on one's hair weave. We started chatting to them, but before we got very far or even stated our goal for the visit another woman came out and asked if we wanted to meet the quilters. Why yes, we did. So she asked us us to follow her.
After the fact my SIL said that I was showing off, as I brought my Circle Lattice appliqué. Yes, most definitely this project is of a very different style than the Gee's Bend work, but I disagreed with her. We looked at each other's work intently and with admiration for different styles. I was blown away by their hand stitching and tiny piecing, and they were impressed with my basting stitches and circle work. It was mutual respect.
My respect for them increased four fold when we were given the chance to pull quilts off the tables and shelves to admire and hear more stories. Wow. It is always one thing to see a picture, another thing entirely to feel the quilts.
There was all denim, all corduroy, all cotton, and a good dose of polyester quilts. Some were very recent - completed within the last month - and some so old they were threadbare and stained. All were made by Gee's Bend Collective Quilters.
The Collective now contains about 70 or more quilters. Women who came back to quilting because of the profile and success of Gee's Bend quilts, some that have been quilting for decades. They sell their quilts, as well as potholders, mini quilts, videos, postcards, and placemats. The quilter receives a percentage and the rest of the proceeds goes to the Collective. It is a financial model that helps all the quilters and the community.
Gee's Bend is a community founded on the backs of slaves. And most of the people who live there now are descendants of slaves. During the Civil Rights movement residents were punished for their involvement in protests, bus trips, and demonstrations. The ferry service was cut off, isolating the community even more. That their quilt tradition did not die is a testament to need, but to the craft even more.
As we examined the quilts we spoke with Nancy Pettway (no relation to Mary Ann and China) about the Civil Rights Movement - she wasn't able to participate in bus trips and demonstrations because she had to work the night shift at a sewing factory - the quilts, life in Gee's Bend. I wish we had hours to talk. I'm home now and I have so many more questions, more stories I want to hear, more quilting to be done. We spoke about the Collective and the response to their fame.
When you walk into the room where the quilts are stored you can sense the history. But you can also sense the future. The influence on so many current and modern quilters is evident. The quilts may be machine pieced, but they are hand quilted. In fact, they had the frame for a long arm machine in the room, but they've been advised against using it in order to maintain their brand reputation.
The quilts are evident of the time and place and history. They aren't squared up like I might do it. Binding techniques vary. The hand quilting is lovely and provides another improvised flair to most of the quilts. There is a lot of polyester batting used. Are they the quilts I make? Nope, not at all.
My SIL and I purchased some quilts. I've only ever purchased a quilt once before, as a charity fundraiser. I will totally admit to feeling odd at buying a quilt. I mean, I have dozens floating around the house and tonnes waiting to be made. But I couldn't help but be a part of this history.
Another confession is that I felt that white privilege again in purchasing a quilt. Because I can afford to bring these quilts home there was a little bit of guilt. I'm not over it yet either.
That being said, to know my one tiny piece of this story now, my single day experience, is profound to me. Art has its many purposes, and someone does buy the art at some point. So I can look at my small quilts and have the memory of the day, the reminder that there is so much history I've yet to learn, and the beauty of my conversations with some wonderfully kind women.
As we left that day Mary Ann, China, and Nancy gave us big, deep hugs. The hugs you give people you love, the hugs that make you feel like the other person's arms are 10 feet wide and filled with warmth. When I look at my quilts that is what I will most remember. That I met some women, that we shared only a few hours, and that we are all quilters. And for us, all of us, the colour of our skin did not matter one bit.