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Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad Paperback – January 18, 2000
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When quiltmaker Ozella McDaniels told Jacqueline Tobin of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, it sparked Tobin to place the tale within the history of the Underground Railroad. Hidden in Plain View documents Tobin and Raymond Dobard's journey of discovery, linking Ozella's stories to other forms of hidden communication from history books, codes, and songs. Each quilt, which could be laid out to air without arousing suspicion, gave slaves directions for their escape. Ozella tells Tobin how quilt patterns like the wagon wheel, log cabin, and shoofly signaled slaves how and when to prepare for their journey. Stitching and knots created maps, showing slaves the way to safety.
The authors construct history around Ozella's story, finding evidence in cultural artifacts like slave narratives, folk songs, spirituals, documented slave codes, and children's' stories. Tobin and Dobard write that "from the time of slavery until today, secrecy was one way the black community could protect itself. If the white man didn't know what was going on, he couldn't seek reprisals." Hidden in Plain View is a multilayered and unique piece of scholarship, oral history, and cultural exploration that reveals slaves as deliberate agents in their own quest for freedom even as it shows that history can sometimes be found where you least expect it. --Amy Wan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Hidden in Plain View is mesmerizing." —The New York Times Book Review
"A captivating read." —Dayton Daily News
"Unfolds like a scholarly detective story and offers convincing evidence that quilts were used 'to conceal and yet reveal' a means of escape on the Underground Railroad." —Orange County Register
"A groundbreaking work." —Emerge
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Page 33 of the book shares the author Raymond Dobard's own statement that the book is conjecture on his part. No collaborative evidence was provided nor sought by the books' authors, and since neither of them are quilt historians, they surely did not realize the inanity of what they proposed.
In my opinion, this book is a major insult to intelligent people everywhere yet it has been picked up to be shared as "fact" in Social Studies classes across America, instead of the "fiction" that it is. The book does not jibe with what we (quilt historians and Underground Railroad historians) know about African American history. Most certainly, the depiction of quilt blocks is not in tandem with known and documented quilts and/or quilt block history.
Members of the American Quilt Study Group, a group that is comprised of university professors, professional writers/book authors, appraisers, publishers, and many others associated with the quilt world, have privately and publicly condemned this book. For interesting reading, you may like to read the introductory remarks that Marsha MacDowell shared in the year 2000. Marsha is a researcher and faculty member of Michigan State University, and her thoughts are available to read in Vol. 21 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group "Uncoverings 2000."
From a quiltmaker's point of view and also that of a quilt historian, several of my articles about Hidden in Plain View have been published by major magazines. This book, HIdden in Plain View, is scholarship at its worst.
To start off, you will need to know about African American quilting in general. The fabric griot is a term used to describe the quilts as communicators. A quilt often appears as an everyday bed cover or a wall decoration but to the African American slaves it was a symbol of heritage and a path to freedom. The quilters used many different patterns, and symbols in the quilt code. For example the hourglass and broken dishes pattern were very common. Also every society had a pattern in the quilts. Some of the societies are the Poro secret society, Egbo secret society, and the Aiyasa secret society.
The next topic covered is the Underground Railroad. In this chapter of the book the authors cover what it was like for the slave's from the moment they were captured to their first steps of freedom. Also you will read about the numerous organizations and people that wanted to help free slaves from all over the country. These organizations also put themselves at risk because most of there members were escaped slaves that risked being put back into slavery if anyone recognized them when they did their scouting. This chapter also gets you started on the main focus of the book which is the quilt code used in the Underground Railroad. It introduces the saying "the monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel, once they got to the crossroads, flying geese stay on the Drunkard's path, steal away" each part of this saying has a significant meaning to slave's hoping to find freedom.
Before they start explaining the quilt code to you the authors start off explaining the five square knots, which to the slave was a language in the stitching but to the common eye it just looks like normal quilt stitching. This chapter will also explain how the number five was one of the most significant if not the most significant number in this code.
Then in chapter four they start to explain the first chunk of the code; the monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel. The authors go into depth with how it meant to prepare but in more ways than you would think. Also in this chapter you will learn the role of the blacksmith and what his position in the community meant.
Chapter five looks at the "when they got to the crossroads" phrase, it will tell you what, how long, and where the crossroads are. Then it will tell you how the slaves blended with their free counterparts and what they did to change their appearance. Towards the end of this chapter you will read about the double wedding ring, bowtie, and broken dishes quilt pattern and their significance.
The next part of the pattern to be focused on is the "flying geese stay on the drunkard's path," this was a clue about how the slaves should travel once they left the crossroads and headed even farther north. In addition to that this chapter addresses the follow the drinkin' gourd concept. This is an idea that most Americans that have heard a story or two about the Underground Railroad are familiar with, and that is to follow the North Star. Many slaves did this in order to stay on track and travel at night, but the book will tell you more meanings behind the North Star.
The last section of the code "steal away" is addressed in chapter seven. This chapter was one of the most interesting chapters to read for me. It goes in to precise detail about the spirituals used in the time of escape and the meaning behind them. For example a song may mean nothing to the owner but to slave that have escaped and maybe are hiding in the area it may mean stay in hiding until tomorrow. Furthermore you will learn about the spirituals slave practiced and the power and meaning behind them.
The final chapter in this book you will be educated on some modern day quilters like Faith Ringgold, Michael Cummings, and Elizabeth Scott. The authors will tell you about each person's heritage, what made them go into quilting and what types of quilts they are best at. They will also concentrate on what elements they use in their quilts because it is the way they were taught and they want to keep their quilts authentic.
So as I was reading this book I found that the theme is to step back and look at everyday things because you never know what's hiding inside them. One reason I felt this was the theme was that this code used to help hundreds of slaves escape and it was right before the owners' eye's the entire time and they had no idea that it was the key to their slaves escaping. Also we know that artists put some meaning into their songs but these slaves put a language that meant life or death into this code.
I believe the others wrote this to educate people more about slaves, their struggle, and the codes used in their journey to freedom. Also I think that the authors wanted to give recognition to the quilters that helped hundreds of slave find their freedom. On that same note I assume the authors wanted to recognize the many organization and people who also risked their lives to help slave to freedom.
I personally liked the book because it gave me insight as to what the life of a slave was actually like, and what the underground railroad was and how it operated. Second it has made me have a new found respect for quilters and their work all around the world. Third in made me think about what other codes could be hidden in everyday things like, street names or patterns on dishes. Third before reading this book I already had respect for slaves knowing what they had to go through, but this gave me even deeper understanding.
I would recommend this book because it's very interesting and interactive. Also it's a fairly light read they don't just pound you with information, they give you pictures and they relate the content to modern day life. Last it didn't feel like a waste of my time reading this because it kept me wondering and focused.
All in all I feel like I now am educated more than I was about the Underground Railroad and the struggle that slaves faced. Reading this book didn't feel like a burden, and the book kept me interested for the duration of the time I was reading it. When all's said and done this entire book is a fantastically written and interesting piece of work.