more on quilts and the Underground Railroad

Well, that opens up a can of worms. I still think it might be interesting for a high-school level discussion but I think I should provide some other resources I’ve found on this question. There seems to be a lively discussion that has a few underlying issues in it. Issues that might not be apparent or easy to untangle for a novice.

I’ve now read Hidden in Plain View. There are some serious flaws in the argument, including a misuse of fiction in Chapter 4. As I read it, the authors provide a quite open interpretation beginning with one oral testimony that does not reach very firm conclusions. However, from some of what I’ve discovered since, it appears that others have read it as a more solid history. The authors also failed to consider the motives of the storyteller who first started them on this research, a storyteller who was selling quilts. Their failure to consider this means that there is no evidence provided one way or the other about her reliability.

In the controversy as I’ve been reading it since finishing the book (I’ll post links), there seem to be some other genuine disagreements about historical scholarship though that I am also not happy with. One is a privileging of the written word, especially the published word, and a reference to dates when something was first published as if that is its first existence. I know dating is difficult, but the fact that a song or a quilt pattern is first found in a printed publication on a certain date does not seem to me to suggest that it was not widely known before that date. Hard to prove, admittedly. But the date of publication doesn’t seem to me to be irrefutable evidence that it was not known earlier.

I am also not wholly convinced by anyone who dismisses, almost out of hand, women’s studies, African-American studies, and modern literary criticism. Yes, there are debates within any of these areas and shoddy scholarship just like there is an all kinds of disciplines. But I’m not convinced that these areas of study are any more likely to be shoddy than any other. They do, however, challenge some of the basic premises of other scholarship, including what counts as legitimate evidence. And some of that challenge is justified. After all if only the written word, and preferably the published or official written word, really counts as evidence, how can we ever research the perspective of people who did not have access to those means of telling their stories? That doesn’t mean we accept any old story as reliable evidence, but rather that sometimes we need to explore and develop new methods for historical and cultural research.

So, in line with my original purpose in discussing this topic, I think that this particular aspect of Underground Railroad history offers some particularly interesting possibilities for teaching about the discipline of history in that dual sense of both branch of knowledge and rules and codes of behaviour. Key elements of that set of rules and codes of behaviour are: what counts as evidence? what are the valid methods of interpreting evidence? how do we present our claims? how do we indicate to others the source of our information? what are the acceptable ways of using primary and secondary source materials? what are the recognized arenas of debate?

If you choose to pursue these questions, here are some interesting resources (some of them have links to other resources), many of them skeptical (or even dismissive, almost violently so) of the claims Tobin and Dobard make.

Barbara Brackman Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery C&T Publishing. (I like other things about this book and will write a separate post.)

Barbara Brackman’s website, particularly her page of Hot Topics. She links to a couple of other resources including a self-described “diatribe” by a school librarian Deborah Foley that is worth a read. I disagree with Foley’s argument about the responsibility of authors of historical fiction not to mislead people since I think most of the misleading is being done by people teaching historical fiction inappropriately, something I have talked about before and which Myra Zarnowski provides good ideas for countering. Opens up good discussion topics about the difference between historical fiction and non-fiction, and different kinds of truth.

Brackman also links to Kimberley Wulfert’s article on the subject and to Leigh Fellner’s website containing a detailed refutation of the Tobin and Dobard thesis and related arguments. The last page of that website contains links to lots of primary source documents for the study of the Underground Railroad that might be very useful even if you didn’t want to venture into the quilt issue.


3 thoughts on “more on quilts and the Underground Railroad

  1. Interesting stuff. I wish I could remember where I read recently some arguaments *against* quilts as cues to the underground railroad.

    One the one hand, it makes sense, because quilts take a long time to make. Certainly too long to warn people.

    I totally agree in the publishing bit, as there’s plenty of evidence of certain quilt patterns being used long before they were actually published anywhere.


  2. I don’t know if you remember (your memory is probably better than my own sieve-like one), but I wrote a bit about the quilt/myth business here, prompted in part by you (!),

    Neither the Tobin or Brackman book is in our library system, and I don’t know that I’m willing to shell out for either. Gah.

    More on Betsy Ross and myth here,

    but you really need Bell’s essay on “The Old Lady in the Kitchen”. He used to have a link to it on his blog — the one I mention in the post above, on grandmothers’ stories — but it’s been removed. I’ll see if I still have the downloaded PDF in my computer.


  3. This is really a fascinating topic — both the history and the historiography/teaching. Having gone to grad school when New Historicism had really taken hold, I recall many great conversations about the pitfalls of seizing on an interesting letter or diary entry as the basis of an historical analysis.

    My own advisor referred to himself in print as an Old Historicist, which apparently meant he had a more “reasonable” approach to history as a part of literary analysis. I can grant that he had a more rigorous approach than some, demanding breadth as well as depth in discussing primary texts — e.g., no passing off one person’s undiscovered correspondence as evidence of the zeitgeist of an era. This applied to genre as well — no characterizations based on a handful of canonical plays.

    The challenge this presented, however, is that when you look at a lot of stuff up close, the divergences and details and outliers can distract you from a legitimate interpretation of the whole.


Comments are closed.