Finding Embedded Meaning: Expressions of Race, Class and History in Quilts

Burka Quilt: ACM 2002.0004.0001[The following essay served as the basis and notes for a talk I gave at a session of the 2012 meeting of the Textile Society of America held at the Anacostia Community Museum. Along with conservator Newbold Richardson I discussed this quilt from the museum’s collection from a somewhat longer, material-focused perspective.]

 

1. Introduction

Today I’m going to be talking about the quilt you see here to my right/left. Made of handkerchiefs printed with nursery rhymes, this quilt is a nice narrative piece in our small quilt and textile collection. Of note in the quilt is the inclusion among the familiar mother goose rhymes is a full color, full representation of the rhyme, “the ten little niggers.” As an aside, I’m not really comfortable repeating this over the course of the paper, so at the risk of using a euphemism to conceal this vile little poem, I’m going to occasionally refer to it as the nursery rhyme throughout this paper.

This quilt was donated to us in 2002 by Jo Anne and Dr. Barrett Burka. This one has the handy application of a signature, we know that it was a Christmas gift in 1878 to a young man named Howard from his Auntie. The handkerchief literature tells us that these hankies were frequently gifts for children as rewards for having behaved well-Howard must have been the best kid in the family.

A note on the back of the deed of gift generated in 2002 gives a thin provenance for the item. This quilt was, apparently, owned by a famous white author, a lady from McClean, Virginia and was purchased by the Burkas at an estate sale in the early 1990s for a not-insignificant amount of money. Of British origin, the quilt was donated to the collection because of it’s notably blythe use of racist imagery. It was donated shortly after the Anacostia Museum’s grand reopening in this building after it had served on the mall for several years as the Smithsonian’s center for African American History and Culture. The quilt was in pretty rough shape when we received it and it underwent conservation treatment later that year.

With this paper I will not be discussing the materiality of the quilt – something surely to be examined and interesting, but not my focus – so much as an unpacking of the situation of this item in a global world. The nursery rhyme “the ten little niggers,” offers us a jarring entry into the intermingled creation and application of race and racism in the Atlantic world in the 19th century. In this item we see the confluence of the emergence of Victorian racism with the florescence of children’s literature.

This quilt, using American racist discourse – soon to be adapted to the British control in India – probably using American or Egyptian cotton, sits in a space in which the invented fixities of race were being provisionally applied to global empires.

In this paper I will examine the history of race and racism between the US and Britain and its coincidence with colonial economies. I’ll then turn to the nursery rhyme and its fluid and ambiguous relationships to American and English racism and popular culture.

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