Quilting: A language of many cultures

“There are five square knots on the quilt every two inches apart. They escaped on the fifth knot on the tenth pattern and went to Ontario, Canada. The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw to the crossroads” “There are five square knots on the quilt every two inches apart. They escaped on the fifth knot on the tenth pattern and went to Ontario, Canada. The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw to the crossroads”

And so begins the fascinating story that was passed down from generation to generation in the family of Ozella McDaniel Williams which became the book, Hidden in Plain View a secret story of quilts and the Underground Railroad. But what appears to be a simple story that was handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter is actually much, much more than that. In fact, it is a coded message steeped in African textile traditions. This was a link between slave-made quilts and the Underground Railroad, which helped hundreds and thousands of women, men and children escape enslavement. Key to the railroad was the relationships and of the people and the messages imbedded in the quilts. The quilts were hung in windows and on fences, their messages hidden in plain view.

Also hidden in plain view is the connectedness of people around the world. It is the commonalties of family and communal concerns which are universal. The message often given by the world is that peace is not possible. However, we often become peacemakers in the small step-by-step actions that we take within our own homes and communities.

On Monday, May 5th, fourteen residents and friends of the Northeast Minneapolis community gathered at Seven Bridges World market located at 400 1st Avenue Northeast, to begin the process of creating a community quilt. The ultimate goal is to work collectively to fashion a quilt that will represent the diversity of ethnicities, cultures, men, women and children, and experiences of the human condition in Northeast Minneapolis. The quilt is also a celebration of that diversity.

Community members gathered shared their ideas and what brought them to this place to share in the process. Tsigae Berhe Meharena, affectionately known as “Mama,” is from Eritrea. She’s lived in Minnesota for two years. As I sat talking with her, while waiting for the quilting circle to begin, she shared with me photos of herself when she was a young woman. She pointed out to me the subtle nuances of the hairstyle she wore, the clothing, and the jewelry. I could tell that she was very excited to have someone take the time to sit and share these memories with her. We talked about my dreadlocks, and she told me that she wanted to try wearing them also. She then took out a photo that she held like a precious, fragile newly born baby bird. It was a photo of her son. She said “He wore his hair like yours too.” I asked if he lived here with her. She replied, “No, he’s died.” The pain and energy emitted from her was discernable and I could see the grief was still in her eyes despite her smile. I felt honored to sit and share time with her.

DeLorah Curry brought three members of her family to take part in the making of the quilt. Her mother Ida Klches (maiden name Michelsen) said that she wanted to make a quilt square that represents the Ukranian neighborhood that she grew up in and that which represents the culture of her boyfriend. Ida is of Danish heritage, but her daughter DeLorah will make the square for that culture. Ryan, DeLorah’s son will make a square that represents the Irish heritage of the family. Jane, decided to make a square that represents the Russian heritage of their family. They all seemed very excited to see what the finished work will look like when all of the different squares are united with those of the whole group.

Cigdem Dogan is a Turkish immigrant and owner of one of the retail outlets at Seven Bridges Market. She told me “There are a lot of Turkish people here [Minneapolis]. I wanted very much to do this so that I can represent my culture as a part of the community.”

Mary Jane Portylice i

May 12, 2003
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