The textile traditions of African peoples are less popular than their customs and traditions. This can be largely due to the fact that historians have focused on documenting other aspects of African American culture such as folk art, music, dance, or dialects. However, what is known can be traced back to the influence of four specific civilizations of Central and West Africa. These are the Mande-speaking peoples (who can be found in Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Burkino Faso); the Yoruba and Fon peoples (in the Republic of Benin and Nigeria); the Ejagham peoples (in Nigeria and Cameroons); and the Kongo peoples (in Zaire and Angola).
As was with the slave trade so too their textiles, were traded heavily throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and the Southern United States. This inevitably led to the fusion of traditions of distinct regions. Thus by the time that early African American quilting became a tradition, it was already a combination of several different textile traditions.
Originally in Africa most of the textiles were made by men. However, with the slave trade, the men were not able to uphold these traditions. Thus the African American slave women took over the tradition. Most of the patterns on these quilts are representative of a significant part of African tradition. For example, in Africa, there was an essential need to recognize people from far distances as this would serve as a crucial warning for tribes. Thus textile tradition of using large shapes and bright color was carried on.
The ability to recreate and change old patterns was of integral importance to many African tribes. A break in a pattern would mean a rebirth in the ancestral power of the creator or wearer. In addition, a break in a pattern also helped keep evil spirits away. Africans believe that evil travels in straight lines and a break in a pattern or line can confuse the spirits and slows them down. This tradition is highly recognizable in African American improvisation of European American patterns.
Quite popular in African textile tradition is the use of a diamond pattern. To them the diamond is symbolic of the cycles of life. Each point represents a stage in life: birth, life, death, and rebirth. The circle shape is also representative of this cycle. Also used in African textiles is script, often times either in native language or symbol, and more recently in English. The words and symbols are sewn into the patterns in a sacred and protective way such that they convey the knowledge, power, and intelligence of the quilt creator and wearer.
Quilts were often used during slavery years by members of the Underground Railroad as a method to convey messages. Log Cabin quilts made with black cloth were hung to mark a safe house of refuge. Some quilts marked escape routes that slaves could use to get out of a plantation or county. While many others marked the stars that would act as a night-time map through the country to freedom.
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