The quilt and the symbols in the painting:

Hard Road
Amy V. Lindenberger

Rather than focus on the possible existence of a quilt code, I chose to use the quilt as a beautiful “canvas” for recording the road the slaves had traveled thus far:

African “roots” - tree roots growing down into quilt pattern

1. Decision to use quilt and “monkey wrench” pattern: The seasonal laying-out of quilts would have been part of a house slave’s normal work. The depicted pattern, though known by other names, is a legitimate antebellum quilt pattern dating back to 1850. Also, though the “quilt code” has not been proven as fact, I have a great respect for the sharing of oral family histories, and wish to remain open to the possibility that others will come forward to corroborate such information.

2. Red and white as predominant quilt colors: strong preference among West Africans.  Several theories, one is that these colors represent Shango, the Yoruba god of the storm.

3. Triangles: some evidence that in both African and Civil War America they represented prayer, a way of offering prayer or asking for protection.

4. Flat hand shapes: in Africa, hands are often used as a symbol for ancestral power.

5.  Red squares:  African American "mojo", or hand, as in "helping hand".

6.  Blue and white: for the Mende and Ibo cultures, these colors are thought to be protective.

7.  Changing patterns and color: like Kente cloth, this creates a visual rhythm and ensures no straight lines, pertinent to the African belief that evil travels in straight lines.

8. Striped fabric: similar to “Men’s Weave” of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Also, the striped patterns I have employed contain the Nsibidi symbols for journey or voyage.

9. Dot patterns on blue: an additional pattern, but also reminiscent of Adire cloth of the Yoruba people.

Transition to slavery

10. Background fabrics change to orange with pattern depicting “flames” or tension: African American culture became a blend of African and Christian influences.  The changing fabric colors go from the blue of water to the orange of flames, recalling Isaiah 43:2: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

11.  Abolition symbol: this image of a bound slave bearing the words “Free me from the oppression of man” appeared in “abolition quilts” and also was incorporated into a wide variety of commercial items during the antebellum period.

12.  Translucent hands, adult reaching for child: Harriet Beecher Stowe, in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had many quarrels with the concept of slavery, but chief among these was the fact that children were sold away from their parents.  The outstretched pairs of hands represent this concern.

13. Slave images: taken from actual daguerreotypes made in 1850 by J.T. Zealy, commissioned to document African slaves.  The woman’s image is especially compelling, as female slaves were routinely subjected to humiliation and stripped of their dignity by being made to strip to the waist as they were “inventoried” by potential owners.

14.  Slave ship graphics: engraving of a cross section of the slave ship Brookes, published in England in 1789.

Transition to freedom

15. Flying geese pattern:  flying geese represent migration north.

16. Deep blue sky, sun coming up behind tree: dawn of a new day, representative of the future. I made the decision to have the slave’s back to this part of the image, symbolic of it representing the future she cannot see.

17. North Star: Follow the Drinking Gourd, popular slave escape song, told slaves to look for the “drinking gourd” (Big Dipper) which pointed to the North Star, a marker for slaves as they made their way north.

18.  Tree, shown in early leaf, representing  Spring: the best time to begin an escape. Also, represents the present (living tree itself), sending roots into the past, and growing indefinitely towards the future.  And symbolic of Jeremiah 17:7 - 8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”


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February 2007