New Art Quilt: They Know Which Way to Go

In December 2017, there was a small article in The New York Times; it could have been easily overlooked. But the title grabbed me: "Harriet Tubman's Hymnal." Within that article was a quote from Eric Williams, curator of religion at the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life in which he comments that here was a sacred book Tubman owned but could not read. Clearly it was precious to her, a symbol, perhaps. A book she handled over and over, marking it with personal wear.

Around this time I also became curious about the quilt pattern of "flying geese." And, of course, I had birds on my mind as I waited to watch the cycle of the Osprey nest again (which began the beginning of March). I thought there might be a link to the African American slaves' flight to freedom, possibly a link to Tubman herself. I knew that most birds fly south for the winter and north to make nests and rear their young. North to carry on the line. Folklore presents quilt patterns as part of a communication system you can read about here: flying geese pointing the way to go. Research may not be conclusive that it was used in the Underground Railroad, but I decided to incorporate the idea into my quilt for the symbolism anyway.

The flying geese pattern can look like rooftops or envelopes bearing messages; it can look like the V of a flock of birds flying; it can look like the outspread wings of one bird. I started out points up, but I liked the patterns balancing on their points for the gray birds. I kept the points up for the teal blue background.

I printed words on the blue from wood type: Freedom, Liberty, Moses, North. Tubman earned the name "Moses" after the biblical leader who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. For the pattern, I cut up the words to disrupt them, making them nearly illegible.

Embroidered text is the title: they know which way to go. One "way" is upside down. Hand-quilted with a multitude of running stitches, like air currents, topographic maps, paths, footsteps, people fleeing.

A freedom quilt. We still have U.S. history to answer for. We know which way to go: but we have to vote for it.