[Louisianna Pettway Bendolph, China Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, and Matt Arnett on the stage in Meadows]
Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday - he would have been eighty. In school, we had the pleasure of welcoming a group from the Gee's Bend Quilters Collective. They were joined by Matt Arnett, one of the art historians responsible for bringing the work of the Quilters to light. I mentioned in my previous posts about my trip to Japan that the US does not nurture, or keep "alive" a lot of it's old traditional crafts and practices; no tea cups, no seasonal festivals, no samurai pride. The visit by the Quilters made me reexamine that meme. Seeing the Gee's Bend quilts, hearing the stories and songs - well, we do have these amazing traditions and artisans, but we really have a very hard time valuing and sharing them - and I mean "valuing" in every sense of the word. I wonder how these things need to be presented and packaged before we see the meaning and the worth.
In my video class, the kids are documenting the events of that day. To set them in the right frame of mind, we watched a documentary movie about the Quilters. We heard one woman describe how her grandmother came in on a slave ship and was separated from her family. We heard another tell how her father had to change his name from "Irving" to "Pettway". And we realized the women are only one or two generations removed from being considered like livestock; they have truly experienced our nation at its very worst.
They joined Dr. King in the struggle for voting rights; the ferry service from Gee's Bend was closed to prevent their traveling to the county seat in Camden to register. So they arranged to drive around the "Bend" (they told us there were only four cars in town!), only to be greeted by tear gas. They participated in the Freedom Quilting Bee, an experiment in economic development, which received some of its original funding through the efforts of Dr. King. They earned $10-15 per week, but they could not produce the kind of uniform "product" that could be sold in department stores, so their work was deemed unacceptable. They have thus actively risen from the lowest rungs of our democracy.
Consider: their quilts are made from worn-out clothes, hand-ripped into strips and squares, and given new expression and value through the labor of these amazing artists. The rags are, of course, like the artists themselves: from share-cropping cotton farmers, to artistic marvels with their own museum shows (values up to $25,000 per quilt at auction). These women were subjected to segregation, denied the right to vote, and had their labor rejected by Bloomingdale's. Mary Lee Bendolph was not permitted to return to school when she became pregnant; she did not finish the 6th grade. And yet they have found a way to achieve gender equality, social and racial justice, and economic independence on a scale none of them could have imaged when they were young. It's astonishing.
This lifetime of growth and progress actually took place within the span of a decade or so, and is in large part thanks to Matt Arnett and his father William Arnett, whose efforts on behalf of the women gave them the legitimacy and stature they deserve. William Arnett bought their quilts hoping to preserve a dying art, and instead gave it new life. Still, I am deeply troubled by this part of the story and what it says about those who remain undiscovered and unacknowledged. If the Quilters did not have a tireless, and knowledgeable champion, where would they be? and how could their art have enriched our nation?
And now, as we celebrate Dr. King, and the forthcoming inauguration of the first African-American President, the stories and experiences of these Quilters, and the efforts of the Arnetts are more valuable than ever. I believe it says something about the scope of our superficiality and ignorance that these problems do such human harm and are so difficult to overcome; and that we need such earth-shaking leadership to move our society from that ignorance.
The spirit and the art of these women needs to be celebrated - as does the work of so many other who go unappreciated. Our crafts, our old ways of life, our cultural vernacular: we should take more pride and we should take more care. In fact the cultural isolation of these artists probably preserved their art from the stultifying effects of our commercialized society. The melting pot should not melt these treasures away. That these Quilters came through their struggles to live a new life, and emerged joyful and generous - that should lift us all.