Confronting Racism as Quilters: Getting Started

"What will you do?"

This past weekend our guild had the privilege of listening to and seeing Chawne Kimber deliver her lecture, "Quilt Autobiography," on Zoom. If you're not familiar with Chawne and her work, she's an African American quiltmaker (and math professor by day) whose work frequently addresses racism and misogyny. Her work is relevant all the time, but it had particular relevance on Saturday, six days after the murder of George Floyd while in police custody and a few days into the protests that ensued. The words pieced together in Chawne's quilts, such as "Uppity Negro," "I am still not free," and "I can't breathe" (the dying words of Eric Garner, and also George Floyd), took on extra significance on Saturday, even if we could only see them on a screen. Without their messages, these quilts are still beautifully intricate works of art; with Chawne's addition of words, each quilt becomes a tour de force.

It left many of us reflecting on the qu
estion Chawne has been asking: "What will you do?" Her message is, it's not enough to notice racism or post about it to our social media accounts -- we need to take meaningful action to confront it. And even though we're just a social group centered around a hobby, there are ways we can do that. 

Former VP Cassandra McKee is working to draft some changes to the bylaws that will add language about our commitment to social justice (in the form of anti-racism in particular, but also acknowledging the need to stand up against other forms of prejudice such as homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism). Once she has her draft ready and reviewed by anyone in the guild who wants to comment, the Board will also review, make changes as necessary, and then put it to a vote to the membership at large. If you're interested in helping, please take a look at the current bylaws and contact Cassandra with comments. (FYI, anyone is welcome to propose a change to the bylaws at any time, so if you ever have an idea, please feel free to share.)

We acknowledge that adding language to our official documents is a first step, but -- considering how few people even read an organization's bylaws! -- we need to go further if we want to take meaningful action. For this reason, w
e will propose in the bylaws the formation of a Social Justice Committee that will oversee planning and programming dedicated to promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and community outreach, and finding ways for us as quilters to confront racism and other forms of hate. We are looking for someone to chair this committee, and you'll have help from both Cassandra and the board. If you're interested please contact Cassandra or Diana.

Our meeting on June 13th, in addition to being a regular Zoom sew-in, will include a presentation by Sara Trail from the Social Justice Academy. We've been wanting to host Sara for a long time, as she's a really interesting speaker whose energy and passion are so inspiring. If you're not familiar with the SJSA's work, check it out here. Several of our members have worked with the SJSA, helping to embroider raw edge quilt blocks made by the SJSA students. Sara has launched another project where she and volunteers are making Quilts of Remembrance for families who've lost loved ones to racial violence. In most cases, she's collecting clothes from the family members to use in the quilts. If you're interested in volunteering with SJSA, this is one more opportunity for putting your skills to use and having an impact.

Please know, this is still a quilt guild and we're still here to bond over quilts and have fun. We can and will still do all the things we enjoy -- sew-ins, retreats, swaps, group quilts, bees, workshops -- while also providing opportunities for our members to engage in activities that promote social justice and confront racism. Some m
embers might think we're taking on a radical agenda; others might wish we were going further. We want to hear your ideas and questions, and we don't want anyone to fear being shamed for saying the "wrong" thing. So let's please keep the conversation going. What will you do?

Let's Start by Learning

Above Photo: Blocks, Strips, Strings and Half Squares by Mary Lee Bendolph of Gee's Bend, 2005
Modern quilting owes so much to African American quilting traditions. We say this with the awareness that African American quilts are not a monolith, but one thing many earlier African American quilts had in common was a "make do" approach due to lack of available resources, at least when the makers were sewing for themselves or their families. As Chawne Kimber said in her lecture, when the Gee's Bend quilts started getting international attention, she was surprised at the fuss -- wasn't that just how quilts looked? In modern quilting, we've adopted some of the techniques that many African American quilters initially had no choice but to use, such as improvisation, abstraction of shapes, and mixing fabrics in unexpected ways. These quilts showed that you could make beautiful, thoughtfully designed art even with limited means and materials. But again, we acknowledge, as quilt historian Carolyn Mazloomi and others have argued many times, that there is no singular African American quilt style.

We will continue to update this list. We are all learning, and appreciate any new information our members and other readers provide.

Some Documentaries, Exhibits, and Web Sites to Learn More About African American Quilters (Special thanks to Amy Sheib for many of these suggestions) Some Books by and about African American Quilters (please note, many of these books are out of print and hard to find; for that reason we have provided Amazon links but you may be able to find them elsewhere. Special thanks to Sarah Bond for suggesting several of these on Instagram.) A Few Ideas for Sourcing Materials

Chawne said in her lecture that she tries to support fabric manufacturers with fair labor practices and a commitment to sustainability. She noted that, like all of us, she has tons of fabric from just about every major manufacturer, and finds it's not always possible for us to shop with our values in mind. But here are some ideas and sources that may be a start. P.S. since we said we'd include this tidbit, Chawne uses size 7 needles and size 8 or 12 doubled perle cotton for her hand quilting!
A Few Resources for Learning About Anti-Racism. There are so many lists of this kind; we are just linking to a few good ones. Special thanks to our member Lisa Rice for sharing many of these.
  • A playlist of anti-racist audiobook picks
  • Ibram X. Kendi's books Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Anti-Racist
  • Henry Louis Gates's PBS short series Reconstruction
  • Ijeoma Oluo's book So You Want to Talk About Race
  • A list of winners of the ALA Coretta Scott King prize for children's literature
  • The New York Times' 1619 Project
  • Local sewist Renee Samuels' most recent blog post, "Your Black Friend"
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World And Me
  • This video by Zyda Culpepper Mellon on white allyship
  • A very long list of ways to help protesters and donate to local anti-racist causes