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hidden in plain view

7 June 2005

I picked up Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard's Hidden in Plain View while on a Civil War tour of Tennessee and Mississippi battlefields last week. Subtitled "a secret story of quilts and the underground railroad," the book intrigued me because it mixes my mother's profession (quilting) with my own interests in American history. The book still intrigues me, but more as storytelling and rhetoric than as history.

The authors are insistent that what we count as history needs to change, though: Tobin and Dobard are adamant that oral tradition and material culture are as important evidence for events and their interpretation as the textual documents so beloved of conventional historians. But I find Hidden in Plain View frequently wanting as an analysis of oral tradition and material culture, and that is the great stumbling block for me to acceptance of this book as authoritative.

Briefly: Author Tobin learned from a Charleston, SC retired schoolteacher and master quilter named Ozella McDaniel Williams that African-American quilts made during slavery times encode instructions for and encouragement of slaves who were bent on escaping bondage via the Underground Railroad to the North. The instructions come in the names of the quilt patterns themselves (Bear's Paw means to follow animal tracks north through the Appalachians, Flying Geese are the escapees themselves, Drunkard's Path is the erratic route they must take to avoid capture), and also in the stitching and tying of quilts, where various directions and distances could be encoded "in plain view" of the quilters' enslavers.

That's certainly a provocative suggestion, and prima facie a plausible one. Tobin and Dobard compare the information encoded in quilt patterns to the lore conveyed by African-American songs that tell in various emblematic ways of the challenges of flight northward: "Follow the Drinking Gourd," for instance, which enjoins refugees to keep the Big Dipper and its indication of the North Star in their sights. It is entirely possible that the popularity of certain patterns among Africa-American quilters is a cultural commemoration of resistance to slavery. And it's equally possible that particular quilts hung along the Railroad might signal safety or danger.

But Tobin and Dobard don't want to stop with such plausibilities. They spin an elaborate speculation about forms of encoded knowledge among slaves, in which Ozella Williams's "Quilt Code" becomes a master set of instructions for escape, including surreptitious maps and intricate instructions for outbound slaves.

The authors' primary analogy for the elaborateness of the Quilt Code is the fact that many African societies use cloth patterns, knotting, and beaded "memory boards" to preserve information in non-verbal and cryptic ways. Fair enough. What Tobin and Dobard don't ever establish is a plausible scenario for the use of such a code on the Underground Railroad.

As near as I can gather, Tobin and Dobard do not see the Quilt Code as having been used by "conductors" to guide travelers along the Railroad, but as having been used at the very start of the journey by – someone, it's not quite clear who exactly – to exhort and educate travelers about what lay ahead. The problem is, in order to teach people precisely what the Code meant, you'd have to tell them what it meant, and as long as you were telling them what it meant, why not just tell them what you wanted to tell them in the first place?

But precision isn't really part of the world-view that Tobin and Dobard are expounding here. In a foreword, Maude Southwell Wahlman insists that "Sometimes forms endure while the meanings once associated with them shift; in other instances, meanings persist and the shapes evolve" (8). The code itself is a shifting set of signifiers across an uncertain ground of reference. Which does not sound like the best way to get you safe and sound to Ontario.

A key problem for Tobin and Dobard is that there was almost no word breathed by anyone about the Quilt Code until Ozella Williams hinted to Tobin in 1994 that there was a Code at all. Why the preservation of secrecy, especially after Emancipation had made the Railroad moot? The authors seem to believe that secrecy is so deeply engrained as an African-American cultural trait that the complexities of the Code were unrevealable, akin to various Masonic and African secret-society lore. But one really has to wonder about this. Canonical escape narratives like those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are fiercely proud of the ingenuity that their authors used to flee from slavery; they fooled their masters and they wanted people to know about it. I am not really convinced that people would invent a functional, complex non-verbal language and then want to keep it a secret once the people they'd fooled with it were powerless to retaliate.

And smaller details are vexing, even in terms of the consistency of the authors' own arguments. A key phrase in Ozella Williams's Quilt Code is "Double Wedding Rings," but that quilt pattern was invented in the 1920s. Tobin and Dobard make various attempts to salvage the phrase, ultimately deciding that this particular part of the Code doesn't refer to quilts at all but to something else. But the much more likely scenario is that Williams overplayed her hand in telling the story to Tobin, throwing in a pattern that didn't exist yet in slavery times. (A similar problem occurs with the Log Cabin pattern, rare almost to the point of non-existence in antebellum times.)

Faced with such criticism, the authors would probably tell me that I need to change my epistemology, to understand African-American culture better, to realize that "elders are breaking with decades of silence and are telling their stories, no longer in fear of retribution from vindictive whites or of being ridiculed by loved ones of younger, disbelieving generations," as Dobard puts it (31). But framing the analysis in terms of belief or disbelief puts it beyond the scope of argument altogether.

Tobin, Jacqueline L., and Raymond G. Dobard. Hidden in Plain View: A secret story of quilts and the underground railroad. 1999. New York: Anchor, 2000.

UPDATE 04/13/08: James B. Kelley's article "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'" in The Journal of Popular Culture 41.2 (April 2008, pp. 262-280) assembles a convincing case to show that "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is no more a coded set of instructions for escape along the Underground Railroad than is the "quilt code." Kelley also cites Joel Bresler's website "Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History", which is similarly skeptical of the song's status as code.