This is a quilt of the Underground Railroad that hangs at my mother’s house in Louisiana.
. It is a mystery and a language into itself. Each square tells a story, gives advice, points the way towards freedom.
Scene: two enslaved women sit together making linens for their captors.
First woman: there are five square knots on that quilt every two inches apart. Check on the fifth knot of the 6th pattern.
Second woman: I see it.
If you know anything about quilting, what they just said was total nonsense. An irrelevant word salad. If you don’t, and their captors didn’t, it sounds just like idle quilting chit chat.
First Woman: There’s two opportunities for escape in five weeks. They’ll have to cross water, so that means there’ll be dog patrols. We’ll work on getting them good shoes.
Second Woman: I’ll help.
These women knew the messages in the patterns and their lessons by heart:
The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel towards Canada on a Bear Paw trail to Crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads they dug a Log Cabin in the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and to go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.
This memorized pattern of handwork patterns has a whole culture stitched into it. It holds an entire encyclopedia of my people, square by square. Stories of how to be prepared, stick to the plan, cover your tracks, harm no one, take care of each other…
It is a roadmap to getting free.
“They” say it’s a myth. They say it’s impossible that an almost invisible network of women created a language of liberation from scraps. They say there is no evidence, ignoring the fact it’s hard to notate when you can’t write. Plus, they persist, in early interviews conducted by Union soldiers, there is no record of a code. Imagine that. Nobody talks about the SECRET CODE to agents of their opression.
And the very idea! Planning escape routes! Harboring fugitives! Stealing stores! And putting their captors, along with their wives and children to sleep every night under the flags of your liberation. Women don’t do those kinds of things… and a black woman on top of it, well that would be astonishing in addition to impossible.
I’m glad they don’t believe it, we weren’t talking to them anyway. But I believe.