Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

African American Quilting and the Art of Being Human: Theological Aesthetics and Womanist Theological Anthropology

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

African American Quilting and the Art of Being Human: Theological Aesthetics and Womanist Theological Anthropology

Article excerpt

In the title essay for her collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker asks a question that gives pause: "What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers' time? In our great-grandmothers' day?"* 1 By raising this question, Walker pulls back the veil on desecrated humanity and brings into view the creative spark as central to being human. In her essay, she peers unflinchingly at the history of African American women, probing how "that muzzled and often mutilated, but vibrant, creative spirit" was sustained and passed down through generations of black women.2 She finds that, despite centuries of what can only be described as a violently quotidian psychosomatic vivisection, African American women have held onto and nourished their creative spirit. Beholding a quilt in the Smithsonian Institution depicting the Crucifixion and labeled "made by 'an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago,'" Walker identifies the unmistakable artistic impulse and spiritual insight that shine through the limitations of media and role.3 Beholding, in her mind's eye, memories of her mother at work in her gardens, Walker describes how her mother's creativity in cultivating the earth beautified space, nourishing herself and others. When working in her gardens, her mother was blindingly radiant, almost "invisible-except as Creator... involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty."4 So suffusing Walker's world that her "memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms," the Beauty of this Creator {She) is Walker's inheritance.5

Walker's use of a quilt alongside her mother as an example of black women's persistent creativity is an invitation to regard quilting as a subject for womanist theological anthropology. While womanist and feminist scholars have used quilting as a rich descriptive metaphor for women's theological practices, none have engaged it as a critical source for theology.6 In light of Walker's essay, and my own history, I set out to do just that. As a fiber artist born and raised in a family with generations of black quilters, I know intimately the manifold meaning quilting holds as labor, art, heirloom, and tradition- that is, as both historic symbol and as live act. In this essay, I bring that meaning to bear on theological reflection. Moving beyond metaphor to the specificity of cultural practice and material object, I claim African American quilting as a revelatory subject for womanist theological anthropology. Deeply rooted in Walker womanism, quilting demands the engagement of theological aesthetics with womanist theological anthropology, calling attention to the theological profundity in black womens encounters with art and beauty. Quilting reflects both how black women have been unseen, exploited, debated, and legitimated as fully human, and how black women have expressed, inhabited, celebrated, and lived their humanity regardless. Pieced together in womanist frame, African American quilting extends constructive theological critiques around knowing and being (epistemology and ontology) from black womens tradition, thereby displaying the contributions this tradition makes to theology as a whole.

I can never fully articulate the meaning black quilts and quilters hold in my life, but will attempt in this essay to give some measure of theological voice to the legacy of creativity and love I inherit from them. I dedicate this essay to the quilters of my family: my grandmother Jean Arthur Mills (1930-2008), great-aunt Joan Marie Banks (b. 1930), great-grandmother Katherine Alberta Worrill James (19101990), and great-great-grandmother Mary Anna Elizabeth Fleming Worrill (1874-1942). Thank you for your Beauty.

African American Quilting in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

In Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters, folklorist and cultural studies scholar Patricia A. …

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