Quilting African American Experiences in Northeast Ohio
Throughout the two semesters (Fall 2017 and 2018), the class of African American Literature--Professor Jewon Woo and her students--at Lorain County Community College in Ohio have observed how African American (his)stories have shaped our understanding of American citizenry and political landscape. Despite the constant oppression against them, African Americans have expressed their humanity, individuality, and their civic qualification for American democracy in various forms--education, communal works, literature, fine arts, and political engagements, if we can name a few. African American literature is not only characterized by a handful of well-known authors such as Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. Rather, their literary inventions were also possible in their recognition of the value of African Americans’ everyday experiences—unrecorded and untold histories in conventional ways.
We keep it in mind that it is impossible to portray African American experience as a monolithic image. Because the term “African American” broadly represents African descents whose origins are in fact various over racial, geographical, ethnic, and cultural boundaries, we can witness dynamic differences within African American communities, which demand our sensitivity not to stereotype what should be considered African American and further American. Therefore, we contribute our project to diversifying voices about African American experiences by leaving room for further research and investigation. In particular, we look into local history of Northeast Ohio, where we make our stories intertwined with African American literature and culture.
Ohio has served as a hub of African American culture and literature since its establishment of the Western Reserve as the U.S. territory in the late 18th century. In his North Star Frederick Douglass praises African American conventions in Ohio: “These annual conventions[,] we dare say, have been more faithfully and regularly held than those of the colored freemen of any other state in the Union" ("Colored Citizens of Ohio,” North Star, June 29, 1849). From the communal effort to secure the self-emancipated person, Sara Lucy Bagby's freedom in 1861 to the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city, Carl B. Stokes in 1960s, our project highlights the continuous achievements of African Americans for justice in the U.S. history. Nevertheless, we have often faced silence and lack of remaining documents during our research on archives. We are aware that these gaps reveal racist practice in preserving records instead of African Americans' inability to produce their voices. In addition, we have witnessed some would take silence and absence as a strategic tool of self-defense and preservation of Black voice when African Americans were not allowed to use the same platform of speech that whites enjoyed. We are cautious not to fill the gaps with our foregone assumptions and expectations.
We ultimately find the value of our project in that our examination of African American literature and history leads us to tell our own stories. For instance, Kayrona shared her family book, titled "The Black Families of Decaturville, Tennessee: An American Experience," that describes their ancestors' stories during the Reconstruction and the Great Migration. Her grandmother's experience as an only black student at a public school in Cleveland during 1940s coincides with that of Toni Morrison. Ariana showed the photo of her family quilt that contains various fabrics from her ancestors--a piece from her great-grandmother's apron and one from her great-great-great-grandfather's Union Army uniform. Similarly, Jeff was excited for learning about Carl B. Stokes' life and achievements because he had vividly remembered his grandmother's enthusiasm for his historic victory in 1967. Recently, Zach introduced a local store in the downtown of Lorain that has a secret underground way, which might have been connected to the Black River to transport fugitives from slavery to Canada. All of the projects here started from our seemingly insignificant moments like "I have heard..." "I have seen..." and "When I was little,.." But, these moments lead us to see ourselves as part of the grand narrative of American history. Here is the reason that we should not limit African American literature to one "ethnic" genre, culture, and specific moment of the past. African American literature proves that, although this country was initially established through colonization, enslavement, and exclusion of non-white people, American intellectual history ultimately represents courageous people's unceasing struggle to redress U.S. democracy against injustice.
And, here we are.
And, here we are.
St. John's Episcopal Church, "Station Hope"
The Art of Dance: The Life of Adenike Sharpley
The Burrell Homestead: The Final Stop on the Underground Railroad
Sara Lucy Bagby: Her Life, Capture, and Liberation from Slavery
Carl B. Stokes
Westwood Cemetery: A Resting Place for the Fighters
You can use all information on this website for non-commercial purpose. Nevertheless, as much as the students-scholars have worked hard for these projects, when you use the information here, I hope you can correctly cite the web page for bibliography. If you have any question regarding the projects shared here, contact me <jwoo_at_lorainccc_dot_edu>.
About the main image: "Jennie Pettway and another girl with the quilter Jorena Pettway, Gee's Bend 1937" by Arthur Rothstein. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsa.8b35946. Public Domain.