Women of Resistance

When Words Fail
By Hwaa Irfan
Writer, counselor, editor - Egypt

Girl, woman, bride, mother, artist, doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur — there was a time when African-American women were not allowed to be any of these, to dream, to hope, or to care for anyone, including herself .

Driver man (the overseer, (work supervisor for the slave master) whipped the slave on all levels of human existence, until the human being forgot about being human and submitted completely as slaves. The slave masters even feared the language and the drumming of the slaves. Driven underground for those who dare, patterns of remembrance could not help but bear fruit in one form or another.

"No matter: he replied, "I am going to whip you, so take down your dress this instant." recalled Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1903)

Cruel moments of existence were relived many times in the many lives of slaves. Unbeknown to the master, for those who dared, African-American slaves would be the comforters, the healers, the women who reminded those they could that they were human beings. They were not made by God to have no minds; they were not made by God to have no hearts, no dreams, in marrying whom they chose or to have children from their choices and not forced upon by the rape of their masters to be beaten into shells of existence, to be toys when they were notmade by God to have no hearts, no dreams, in marrying whom they chose or to have children from their choices and not forced upon by the rape of their masters to be beaten into shells of existence, to be toys when they were not being slaves for their masters.

Turn of fate would have it that one slave, namely Elizabeth Keckley, managed through her needlework and dressmaking skills to purchase the freedom of herself and her son, which led her to work for the wives of Jefferson Davis and President Lincoln.

"Recollect, I was eighteen years of age... [when I said to my master]: "No, Mr. Bingham, I shall not take down my dress before you. Moreover, you shall not whip me unless you prove the stronger. Nobody has a right to whip me but my own master, and nobody shall do so if I can prevent it." — Elizabeth Keckley

How does one reclaim what one has never had? How does one claim the knowledge of ones' self? Are these but whispers of the soul that many feel today? For the enslaved, the struggle becomes more pervasive when the physical chains are broken, but the psychological chains remain.

For some African women slaves, stolen moments presented opportunities to self-reclamation. Through seaming together the pieces of  memory torn asunder, the hearts of the African women were rekindled. For as long as they dared to remember and dared to reach for the power of the feminine within, what was taken from them did have an existence.

From deep within came trace memories of Mande-speaking Africa (Guinea, Mali), Senegal, and Burkino Faso; from the Yoruba-speaking and Fon–speaking parts of ancient Benin, Nigeria, from the Ejagham people of Nigeria and Cameroon and the Congo people of Zaire and Angola. Then trace memories came from the Caribbean, Central America, and the Southern United States for those slaves that were bought and sold and resold. Out of Africa came the diamond pattern — a symbol of birth, life, death, and rebirth — represented by the four points.


Within the mother was the daughter and within the daughter her mother connecting to all mothers — all daughters. And so they patched together the meaning of their lives that at times they even had to hide from themselves.

"Seeding a myth" was a tradition of storytelling well-known among the native-American Indians, in order to give birth to the Divine within. Yet when the tongue is stricken with fear and the heart wills, the hands will do their bidding.

African-American slaves were used to doing the spinning, weaving, sewing, and quilting not only on the plantations, but also in the wealthy households of their masters. After the American Civil War, those women who could would go to small farms if they did not remain as domestics, or they went to the city. There was still the reality of how to survive when generations had been trained to do the slave-owners' bidding. Quilting in this mode of "freedom" was not about esthetics, but about necessity and economics, unless it was for the master.



Loom house used by slaves - Melrose Plantation,  US.

The intrinsically geometric shapes are considered to hold protective and sacred qualities imbued with knowledge, power, and intelligence from the quilt-maker to the wearer. When words failed, quilts were often used to pass on messages in the Underground Railroad — which facilitated the slave's flight from slavery in the south to freedom in the north of the States and in Canada. Some quilts were special as they either mapped the stars or mapped land escape routes.


Within the mother was the daughter and within the daughter her mother connecting to all mothers — all daughters so long as memory allows.  As such, women will always find ways of challenging all means of destruction where the fingers of injustice cannot reach.


For some, they do not need to be told what justice is. I tell of a strange land where the sense of justice was felt from within. The incident is known as the Aba Rebellion (Rebellion of Women ). In 1929, thousands of Ibo women dressed in ritual attire from the female rite of the Ibo, Nigeria, and sang and danced and marched onto the colonial offices of Chief Okugo against the taxation on women. The chief made ready to count their goats and sheep and they shouted: "Was mother counted?" Immobilizing three provinces, they turned the localities upside down, wrecking anything slightly colonial. Fifty women were shot, but the trace memories prevail. This was a strange land, a land far from the memory of the Diaspora — No, this was a very different land.


In the task of providing all the needlework for their slave masters, they found a part of their souls. Sometimes, it would be a group of women who would sit together adding their patch to the quilt — each of their stories becoming a part of the greater story.

Quilting has become a tradition that has not died with the flow of time. Somehow, there is still an inner need. The scars of generations remain from generation to generation within the psyche, as "gifts" from the master who taught one to hate one's self, to hate one's own, and to suspect all others. This is the legacy for those who do not heal. 


Over 20 million Americans quilt, and some of them are men. From a community of 700 people in Gee Bend, US, they have made it a part of their daily lives for generations to collect all those scraps of meaningful material. Arlonzia Pettway, a member of a group of five quilters, began quilting when she was 13 years old with her mother and two aunts. Now aged 80, her group meets twice weekly, sowing together the edges of each other's lives. An exhibition of the work of 45 quilters took place in the summer of 1983. The curator at the International Quilt Study Center at the University, Carolyn Ducey of Nebraska, Lincoln, felt that quilts from Gee Bend take on an "almost mystical" quality. Some of the quilts were for sale, because the women aimed to raise money to build a community center (Mitchell).

For Karen from Tennessee, the dawn of the new millennium witnessed her taking up


'The Drinking Gourd' by Nancy Kirk
Star Systems like the Big Dipper were stitched as maps so the slave could find their way to freedom.

the needle. Dedicating each patch to her grandmother, mother, and her mother's brothers and sisters; naturally, she grew up with the tradition. Her mother, Sue, learned when she was eight years old, quilting pieces that she took from her mother's sewing basket. "I used to cover all my dolls with them!" Her teenage years were not preoccupied with such things, but it was having her own children that reawakened the tradition within her.  Her granddaughter at 13, picked up the patches of cloth and carries on the tradition (Davis).

There must be some sense of achievement in creating from what one has considered — or simply from what one might consider — as being nothing. The art and the artist as one in a process of becoming attracts the attention of travelers and exhibitors. Today, one can find networks of quilters who either make them for the joy of making: to share ideas, stories, thoughts, and patterns even. Some quilters have gone on to setting up their own cottage industry and/or website, for quilting is a marketable commodity. For others, it is about holding a community together.

Retired psychiatric nurse Elnora Lucile, housewife Ida Rowe, writers and directors Bertha Kellum, Kathleen Lindsey,  Anna Stevens, entrepreneur Ena Lynn, artist Desna Kellum-Yanzuk, and autism therapist Kimberly Sharon are all sisters who not only quilt but also are happily married women with children and grandchildren and tour the theater circuit, performing Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters: A Stitch in Time.

One cannot appreciate how much modernity as pit woman against woman until a woman spends time with other women in an act of sharing  from within, "a stitch in time heals minds!" as the child within the woman unfolds to other women, the mother of all mothers who has waited to exhale begins to access the recesses of her universal soul. In that moment of tranquility, the competitive teachings of the world are laid to rest in the shared quilting of a new chapter.

* * *

Quilting for Katrina

The legacy of a past that shaped the hearts and minds of a people lingers because only patches of their past remains to help make some sense of the present realities that are a part of that legacy. Times change, but some things never change. Sometimes we are able to find our place in the world, but sometimes the world likes to be the reminder.

As stockbroker Gabrielle Dubin-Bullard (Gabby) in Florida watched the disaster that was striking the people on TV,  her tears were not going to help anyone. She contacted a friend who owns a quilting shop, and together with others they founded Patches for People. You may have heard of "sit-ins," but it was "sew-ins" for Patches for People. With their first "sew-in," with 12 sewing machines, they made 15 quilts in one day — quilts to sell. Out of a total of 40 quilts, they raised US$11,000 donated to the American Red Cross, and more quilts were made to send to the victims of Katrina to help them survive the ensuing winter of 2005. Gabby was not African-American, but of German origin. For Gabby, "Doing it with these women makes it more significant somehow."

The Ghost of Slavery Past

When Elizabeth Keckley returned to St. Louis after many years, she was told,

"When we heard you were with Mrs. Lincoln, the people used to tell me that I was foolish to think of ever seeing you again — that your head must be completely turned. But I knew your heart and could not believe that you would forget us. I always argued that you would come and see us some day."

Kathleen replied, "You judged me rightly, Miss Ann. How could I forget you whom I had grown up with from infancy? Northern people used to tell me that you would forget me, but I told them I knew better and hoped on."

"Ah! Love is too strong to be blown away like gossamer threads. The chain is strong enough to bind life even to the world beyond the grave. Do you always feel kindly towards me, Lizzie?"

It is not easy to forget, no matter how many generations one is removed. To forget leads only to rekindling a numbness of the soul that is felt by many, not only African-Americans. To forget, means an inability to understand why racism still exists. To forget means leaving behind a piece of the soul, one's compassion and ability to reclaim one's life and to forgive those who do not know any better.

* * *

"Every generation must, out of relative obscurity,
discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." Franz Fanon

Davis, Carol. " Family Tradition Makes the Quilt." Accessed 9 April 2007.


Mitchell, Gary. "Gee's Bend Quilts Head Home to Alabama After N.Y. Run." Accessed 9 April 2007.


Roberts, M.B. "Quilting for Katrina." Accessed 9 April 2007.


"Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters: A Stitch in Time." Accessed 9 April 2007.


The Impact of European Influences and Colonization on the Ibo Women

Accessed 9 April 2007.

"African American Quilts: A Long Rich Heritage."  April 2007.


Xroads.virginia.edu"African American Quilting Traditions." .  April 2007.


Related Links:
The Underground Railroad
History of The Drinking Gourd
  Hwaa Irfan is the Editor of the Family, Cyber and Parenting Counselor Pages at Islam Online.net. and the Managing Editor of the Social Desk: Family & Counseling Services as well as Muslims 4 Humanity (Youth) 

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