Over the past few months I have been reading a book called "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad." The book unveils intricate codes that were sewn into quilts by slaves. Different patterns would communicate a different message such as what to bring, when to leave, even specific directions in which to travel and the locations of safe-houses.
(This is a sample quilt that shows a number of the patterns used in the quilts.)
The story is fascinating and as I was reading an undeniable comparison between the codes used by the Underground Railroad and those used by historically closeted Gays and Lesbians began to cement itself in my mind. Although the experiences of the slaves are by no means the same as those of a hidden queer community, the similarities are startling. For example, fabric based codes were used for silent communication in both cultures. Slaves used recycled fabric, often their discarded clothing, to create the quilts mentioned above. When the appropriate time came, these quilts would be hung on a fence, window sill or clothes line to "air out" signaling to knowing eyes an intentional message. Similarly, gay men historically (and more recently gay women and gender queer individuals) utilized a nuanced "hanky code" to indicate both sexual preference and intimate details of sexual taste.
(Literally the only decent photo I could find for flagging. Apparently this guy wants it all but doesn't know that there's actually a single hanky for wanting it all. Orange, duh.)
We propose to make a quilt that combines the quilt code used by the Underground Railroad and the Hanky Code used by the queer community in an attempt to jumpstart a conversation between two minorities that have both endured oppression and been forced to use alternative methods of communication. By combining the information contained in the colors of the hankies and the structural patterns of the quilt blocks We propose to build a sort of personal ad- sampler for hypothetical queer individuals.
(Maybe this is where the rainbow stereotype comes from? And each color represents a different sexual taste! The rainbow has never been sexier.)
Ok, I would be lying if I didn't say that some of the impetus for this piece stems from an experience I had last summer while assisting an anti-racism training session at a quaker summer camp. During the session I was frustrated by the amount of comparison and judgement that was present between minorities. The people who identified themselves as a racial minority and therefore identified with a history of American racial oppression were startlingly hesitant to discuss instances of queer oppression. Throughout the exercises and conversations I consistently used my own experiences as a queer woman (and the knowledge I have of the queer historical struggle) as a tool for understanding the racial issues at hand. As the session in question was designed specifically to battle racism however, voicing this comparison was met with a certain amount of contempt. This impass is apparently not unusual and on many levels understandable, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating and it's commonness didn't leave me feeling any less marginalized. I am not attempting any sort of grand reconciliation with this quilt; it is only a small gesture of recontextualization that expresses my own reactions to learning about the history of the Underground Railroad quilts. Hopefully, when finished, the piece will contain as much humor and fun as I've had while working on it.
Whew! Ok, so that was really long. Now all I have to do is make it! Wish me luck!