Levy Lecture: Quilts, Community, and Black Women’s Literature


At the final Levy Lecture for 2022 – and the 100th lecture overall – Dr. Tracy Vaughn-Manley shared her scholarship and research on the intersection of black women’s quilts, community and literature in the Post-Civil Rights America.

Tracy Vaughn-Manley Credit: Photo courtesy of Tracy Vaughn-Manley

Vaughn-Manley’s thesis is that quilts are more than just utilitarian objects. According to her, they are “tactile repositories of history. They serve as tangible historical markers of a specific generation or rite of passage, as well as textile narratives, telling the stories of a particular culture through fabric and design.

The original impetus for quilts in the black community was basic practicality: slave owners barely cared for the slaves in their care, and to compensate for these inadequacies, enslaved women (and some men ) used their creativity and ingenuity to cobble together enough material to make quilts.

Vaughn-Manley explained how the blacks gathered up scraps of old clothing, bag material and leftover clothes they had sewn for others and sewed them together.

The women sat down together to piece together and sew these disparate pieces into an object that was functional but also served as a personal journal or community historical record, all in fabric and stitches.

“At that time, when it was illegal for slaves to read and write, quilt making became a way for enslaved women to assert some semblance of agency and identity,” Vaughn said. -Manley.

Part of a quilt Tracy Vaughn-Manley made for famed author Toni Morrison is shown here. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tracy Vaughn-Manley

Quilting (or “frolics,” to use the 19th-century term) quickly became a social event, a way for black women to come together to talk, comfort, and complain about each other. Quilting has become a means of conveying warmth and safety, comfort, nurturing and love. The quilt provided an accessible place for these women to be creative as storytellers and family historians.

Vaughn-Manley said that although quilting is an art form present in many cultures and groups in the United States and other communities around the world, the aesthetic of American black quilting differs in two ways, in because of the focus on free-form design rather than patterns and community. live. The American black quilt aesthetic is closely tied to personal storytelling.

Vaughn-Manley recalled in the webinar a conversation she had with acclaimed writer Toni Morrison when Morrison visited Northwestern University, where Vaughn-Manley is a professor.

Vaughn-Manley had spent the previous summer re-reading Morrison’s eight novels and taking detailed notes on every reference to quilts and quilts. She was still trying to figure out what was the general theme that linked the use of quilts through each of Morrison’s novels.

At a dinner hosted by the Department of African American Studies in Morrison’s honor, Vaughn-Manley was introduced to Morrison as “a scholar and quilting artist who had discovered that (Morrison) had used quilts and quilts in all his novels”.

Morrison denied it, telling Vaughn-Manley, “No, I don’t.”

Vaughn-Manley again spoke up, this time more confidently, and said “Yes, you do”, and continued to quote each of the references.

The conversation that followed led to a professional friendship between Morrison and Vaughn-Manley for the rest of Morrison’s life, as well as the design and construction of a quilt that Morrison commissioned from Vaughn-Manley. This quilt, highlighted in detail in the webinar, is the quilt that Vaughn-Manley considers his masterpiece.

Viewers were introduced to the creativity and symbolism of quilts when Vaughn-Manley explained the inspirations, fabric and color selections, sewing choices, and colors for each quilt. Each is signed and dated.

Part of a quilt made by Tracy Vaughn-Manley inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” is featured here. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tracy Vaughn-Manley

“Thank you for sharing this remarkable presentation and giving us the chance to see the amazing quilts,” commented viewer Marlene Arbetter Mitchel. “I’m a quilt lover… It was a totally different approach to viewing most collections. I was happy to learn that many of them were given as gifts and are appreciated in important places.

Another viewer described the webinar as “an excellent, informative and incredibly moving presentation.”

Several said they looked forward to reading or re-reading the works of African American women writers mentioned in the presentation to seek quilting references.

A video of the webinar is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube site.

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