Levy Lecture: Quilts, community and literature by Black women

At the final Levy Lecture for 2022 – and the 100th lecture overall – Tracy Vaughn-Manley shared her scholarship and research on the intersection of quilts, community and Black women’s literature in post-Civil Rights America.

Vaughn-Manley’s thesis is that quilts are more than simple utilitarian objects. In her view, they are “tactile repositories of history. They serve as tangible historical markers of a specific generation or rite of passage, as well as textile narratives, telling the stories of a particular culture through fabric and design.”


The original impetus for quilts in the Black community was basic practicality: Slave owners barely cared for the slaves in their charge, and to make up for these inadequacies, the enslaved women (and a few men) used their creativity and resourcefulness to cobble together enough material to make quilts.


Vaughn-Manley explained how Black people gathered pieces of old clothing, sack material and scraps of clothes they’d sewn for others and sewed them together.


The women sat together to assemble and sew these disparate bits into an object that was functional but that also served as a personal diary or communal historical record, all in fabric and stitches.


“During this time, when it was illegal for the enslaved to read and write, the making of quilts became a way for enslaved women to assert some semblance of agency and identity,” Vaughn-Manley said.


Quilting (or “frolics,” to use the 19th-century term) soon became a social event, a way for Black women to gather together to talk, comfort and commiserate with one another. Making a quilt helped convey warmth and safety, comfort, nurturing and love. Quilting provided an accessible venue for these women to be creative as storytellers and family historians.


Vaughn-Manley said that although quilting is an art form present in many cultures and groups within the United States and other communities around the world, the Black American quilting aesthetic differs in two ways, because of its emphasis on freeform design instead of patterns and the communal experience. The Black American quilting aesthetic is intertwined with personal storytelling.


Vaughn-Manley recalled in the webinar a conversation she had with the acclaimed writer Toni Morrison when Morrison visited Northwestern University, where Vaughn-Manley is a professor.


Vaughn-Manley had spent the previous summer rereading Morrison’s eight novels and making detailed notes of every reference to quilts and quilting. She was still trying to figure out what the overarching theme was that tied the use of quilts through each of Morrison’s novels.


At a dinner held by the Department of African American Studies in Morrison’s honor, Vaughn-Manley was introduced to Morrison as “a scholar and quilt artist who had discovered that [Morrison] had employed quilts and quilting in all of her novels.”


Morrison denied it, telling Vaughn-Manley, “No, I don’t.”


Vaughn-Manley spoke up again, this time with more confidence, and said “Yes, you do,” and proceeded to cite each of the references.


The conversation that followed led to a professional friendship between Morrison and Vaughn-Manley for the rest of Morrison’s life, as well as the design and construct of a quilt Morrison commissioned Vaughn-Manley to make. This quilt, highlighted in detail in the webinar, is the quilt Vaughn-Manley considers her masterpiece.


Viewers learned about the creativity and symbolism within the quilts as Vaughn-Manley explained the inspirations, fabric and color selections, stitching choices and colors for each quilt. Each one is signed and dated.


“Thank you for sharing this remarkable presentation and giving us a chance to see the amazing quilts,” viewer Marlene Arbetter Mitchel commented. “I am a lover of quilts … This was a whole different approach to viewing most collections. I was glad to learn that many of these have been given as gifts and are being enjoyed in important places.”


Another viewer described the webinar as an “excellent, informative, incredibly moving presentation.”


Several said they were eager to read or reread the works of the African American female writers mentioned during the presentation to look for quilting references.


A video of the webinar is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube site.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.