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.

Brief History of race and racism in Britain

Slavery and xenophobia certainly existed in the English-speaking Atlantic world the eighteenth century. Despite this there was no idea of race as we have come to know it – no widely shared theory of biologically determined, physical, intellectual or moral differences between color-differentiated human groups.” Certainly, the word race was well known and used in England for a couple of centuries even, but it was more of family and even national groups and determined more by environment than immutable hereditary characteristics. Race was invented in the 19th century first by France, then by the United States and then by Britain in the 1850s and 1860s. (Beasley 1) “By the 1870s, a belief in race was more widespread. And yet, even in the 20th century the racial categories of black, white and yellow were less than universal.”(Beasley 2) Race in Britain was complicated by historic exegenecies of empire and economy.

“It does not seem that the British had inherited an y physical ideas of race from the period of colonial slavery in North America before the independence of the United States. For no worked-out theories had been present there (though South Carolina and Virginia were well on their way and Spanish influences in Louisiana and Florida would soon become influential).” ”In the era of the American revolution, there is some evidence that a belief in physical races rose among journalists in the South who were seeking to justify slavery against the arguments of abolitionists. They went so far as to insist that black people were not human. Bu few American southerners would give up biblical monogenism even when many in the North adopted polygenist theories. The Northern, polygenist racism, an American invention of race, dates from the 1840s and 50s.”(Beasley 13-14)

“In the Increasingly industrialised society of the American north after 1830, distinctions of wealth became more keenly felt. Lower class whites, James Brewer Stewart shows, wanted to maintain solidarity with the upper class by distinguishing all whites from the richer blacks. Meanwhile new urban musical and theatrical entertainments in the cities picked up on the desire for the marginalization and caricature of blacks, and continually reinforced it.”(Beasley 14)

A biological, heritable concept of race was slow to develop in Britain. Even in the united states, Winthrop Jordan shows us, racism as we know it was rare or embryonic (stemming as it were from Spanish influences). It wasn’t until political and economic divisions between an urbanizing, industrializing north and a still-colonial, agricultural south became pressing that moral and philosophical assessments of polygenetic race became “scientific.” Similarly, British racism in the way we think of it only emerged in the latter 19th century and using the influence and terminology of its pseudo colonial partner, the American south.

From American invective transmitted through the writings of journalist Walter Bagehot [pron., Badgett], Gobineau and Darwin, the coincident creation of scientific racisms challenged these broad applications of racial characteristics. However, this challenge is contradicted by the evident application of the same words, terms and expectations of people of color wherever they reside in the empire. Though Victorian racist science would seek to scientifically identify races as categories for social analysis –that the delineation and description was necessarily in service to empire and commerce is far from benign.

It is with some irony that scholars trace the beginnings of British racism to the abolitionists who successfully ended slavery and their legal part in the slave trade in 1930. With this success, activists continued to press for an end to global slavery and, with missionaries peddling in Africa and India, created in the 1840s an accepted discourse of the non-European as a naïve, helpless savage. This message, fully embraced in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was wildly popular in Britain, as well as the exhibitions by George Catlin and P.T. Barnum of helpless and uncivilized Native Americans and Africans, normalized the view of blackness being associated with powerlessness.

Race appears to come to the forefront in Britain beginning in the 1860s because for the first time in the history of the planet, communities of common language speakers (the English and Americans) were in routine contact with areas and people all across the globe. The dependence on economic relationships with these peoples that became highly fractured at this time. From the US. Civil war to the beginnings of Boer independence and beginnings of Indian independence movement, interactions with noncompliant colonial populations shifted and so did central discourse about race and colonial interactions

Coincident with this scientific and geopolitical expressions of racism, race was becoming a consistent trope in popular culture. From 1848 to 1873 better economic times and an increasingly urban population saw the rise of mass popular entertainment such as music halls and theaters. Many of the venues featured black-faced minstrels that portrayed American blacks in ways that were often taken for truth. (Beasley, 16) In the 1850s and 1860s, as the music hall performers and the missionaries, for their own very different reasons, portrayed blacks as degraded.”(Beasley 64)

Nevertheless, scientific acceptance of race as a fixable determinant was slow to take hold in Britain. “At the 1863 meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society, the idea that Europeans were better than Asians and that Asians were better than Africans – and that these divisions were very meaningful in the first place – was soundly rejected and even ridiculed.”(Beasley 18)

Prescriptions of morality and capacity only slowly emerged towards the end of the century. By 1880 Britain had in many ways adopted the pan-western outlook of fixed heritable and intellectually unequal skin color racism that, by the end of the century extended to dispositions of servitude and moral weakness that, earlier in the century, would have been tied to class, position and family. (Beasley 20).

With respect to this context of race being tied to political and economic conditions, this history of the reinvention of race and the projection of racism on colonial populations finds its way back to us via cotton – the cotton that the quilt is made of, the cotton that fueled the British economy and the vagaries of cotton production that tie to British colonial relationships and effect the application of racism to those relationships.

In 1860 – cotton imports to England were coming predominantly from the US 1.1 B pounds compared with 200M from India.

Britain turned to Egypt with immediate investment, but the rebound of American cotton supplies by 1870 soon led to a reemergence of their prominence in import totals (and the devastating bankruptcy of Egypt in 1876)

Return of American manufacturing through 1870s put pressure on English imports increasingly focusing them on India

But Indian revolutionary movement …
Rebellion in 1857
Persistent nationalism beginning in 1885

I argue for an emergence of a transference of American-style racism after this period proceeding in a manner to the emergence of racism in America – tied to political and economic challenges to slavery. As the first of the British colonial extensions to disrupt domestic production, it sensibly follows that American racist discourse, flowing with cotton from the American South, would inflect the manner in which Britain projected race onto its other colonial possessions.

“Ten little Niggers” in the public eye

Regarding ten little niggers, it showed up on Wednesday September 2 1868 at the Standard theater in Shordich, London. The Christy Minstrels were a minstrel troupe founded in buffalo in the 1840s. Although their leadership changed through the years, the troupe’s relocation to London in 1857 included many of the original members of high regard. Among the preeminent groups of the time, their performance of they rhyme propelled it to fame.

The Troup and their new song were a huge hit. Only a week later the song was appearing in others’ shows, by October the performers were “naturally” encoring it. By December 15, it was being sold as sheet music (a polka, apparently) and by 1870, it had been incorporated into a children’s book. By 1875 it was pirated by the McLoughlin brothers in new york and by 1876 had found its way into books of diddles and nursery rhymes for children.

By the time of publication, there was considerable blending of imagery in the illustrations between portrayals of young men of African decent and those of Indian. The McLoughlin book shows perhaps as Indian a portrayal as will be found in the illustrations, while the McMillian version as well as the Birn brothers from England show more Africanized youths in the fancy minstrel tradition.(martin 24)

Rhyme detail

This poem – once the wildly popular theatre hit of the west end, became a popular children’s book then became a standard for counting rhymes on compilations that became common at the turn of the century at the height of what some call the golden era of children’s literature. An example of these can be found in the pamphlet I have here, Gerald Deas’ version and expansion of the rhyme. Using the woodcuts from the 1896 Mother Goose version Deas responds with a counting poem of his own – rejecting the destruction of a community and offering a parable for growth.

The poems vary from version to version, though are all based on variations that blend macabre fantasies of destruction with the evident expectation that blacks left to their own devices will eventually ruin themselves.

Agatha Christie took the title for her 1939 play of the same name which continued production under that name into the 1960s (though in the US, it was frequently staged as Ten little Indians. It was filmed as Then there was one).

It should perhaps be mentioned that this rhyme was also adapted by Dutch, German and French authors for use within their own colonial contexts. (Blakely, Dutch blacks book, 196)

“Little black sambo”

A further example of this British children’s race literature that borrows heavily from American racist discourse and presumes a vague portrayal of India is Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo.

Much like our nursery rhyme, Sambo comes to American and British race discourse through Spain (and possibly from a couple of African languages before that). Within the Spanish slavery systems, zambo was one of many blood-quanta designations specifically meaning of mixed African and American Indian parentage.

Harriet Beecher Stowe used the term Sambo as a proper name for one of the two most hated and cruel slaves on Simon Legree’s plantation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bannerman’s use of the term as the name of her protagonist demonstrates a clear discursive connection with Atlantic slavery and American racism. By the early twentieth century the term Sambo came to be used as a generic name for any black male. Its use in popular entertainment from minstrel shows to the movies some decades later turned this proper noun into a derogatory, generic one (Hay 159 from Martin 10).

Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo is a similar racialization in children’s literature that is heralded by some literary critics as an early positive portrayal of a child of color in children’s literature. Published in 1899 it emerges decades after The Nursery Rhyme, though it’s publisher coincidentally included the “Ten little niggers” rhyme in its compendia of nursery rhymes.

Although Bannerman lived and wrote in India, she illustrated her text in a manner that lent ambiguity to the race of Sambo and his parents. Though her story includes ghi and tigers, the characters were drawn to look African and borrowed slightly from traditional minstrel imagery. The use of the name Sambo, however, completed the ambiguity and lent the story to rampant change and bowlderization almost immediately. Bannerman quickly sold her copyright to the book and it was rewritten and redrawn in dozens of versions both in Britain and the US. With each version, the imagery and dialect seemed to tend towards reification of prevailing racist attitudes towards African Americans.

3. Conclusion – Back to the quilt – as a hanky quilt – where it sits in this history – what we can know from it.
Inscription detail

It is perhaps fitting, then that we have this quilt, from this time with this appalling rhyme. Made from cotton, probably created the heart of English textile production in factories producing textiles that will mostly be sold in India, given to a child as a Christmas present, and presented to the Smithsonian as a global manifestation of American racism, it sits squarely within the ambiguities of meaning that the history of racism between the US and Britain. This American rhyme, using American racist discourse, first performed and then popularized in England, exported back and forth between the two until both are using it as an entertaining way to count – for children – loaded with respective, though ambiguous, racist imagery.

Moreover, these ten children normalized the racist portrayal of African and Indian youths leading to the bowlderization of The story of the little black sambo and a new history of racist children’s literature in which black characters would only be portrayed as objects with which to act out racist attitudes and fears. That this poem and Bannerman’s book would be referred to, adapted and changed in the 1960, 70s and 80s by African American activists and authors to usher in the great tradition of African American children’s literature we see today, only points to their importance.