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95

A SERMON IN PATCHWORK

LUCINE FINCH

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The quilt shown in the accompanying photograph [see Figure 10] is the work of an aged Negro woman, who put into it the reverence, the fantastic conception of sacred events, and the passion of imagination of her people. Her idea was, as she voices it, “to preach a sermon in patchwork.” In other words, to express through this humble and homely medium the qualities of mind and soul that are the inborn possession of the Negro—the leveling of all events to his personal conception of them, and the free, colorful imagination of a primitive mind. The Negro's religion is instinctive, interwoven into the whole warp and woof of his being, and it finds its way out, into the realms of expression, in everything that he does. This unconscious, superstitious, symbolic relation with the Great Force behind and in all life might easily be the chief characteristic of the Negro. In order fully to comprehend the wonderful imagination wrought in mystic symbols into this old quilt one must really know something about the Negro himself, more especially about the “old timey” Negro, who is so fast and so tragically disappearing.

The religion of the Negro of the older type is a curious blend of blind superstition wrought out in imagination generally unreserved and not self-conscious, hysterical and ecstatic in its manifestation. It not only is not a mental state, but has very little of the mental attitude


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in it. It is a pure emotion, in greater or less degree—absolutely sincere while it lasts, but not necessarily connected with the common activities of life. The older type of Negro reduced everything—God and the angelic hosts—to the level of his own understanding, the personal equation entering largely into his conception of such high matters. His God was the anthropomorphic God of all savage people and of all childhood—individual childhood and race childhood. A God to be feared, yet one who could be deceived, hoodwinked. A God to be reverenced, yet about whom the most absurd, incongruous, almost sacrilegious superstitions gathered.

The following lines from an old Negro “spiritual,” as these songs are called, may be quoted as an example of the Negro's intimate expression of religious belief:

Fer itself, fer itself,
Fer itself, fer itself,
Every soul got ter confess
Fer itself!
De Lawd reach down
An' he says ter me
(Every soul got ter confess fer itself)
Dat he can't have no heaven
'Less he got me
(Every soul got ter confess fer itself!).
De devil reach up
An' he says ter me
(Every soul got ter confess fer itself!)
Dat he can't have no hell
'Less he got me
(Every soul got ter confess fer itself!).

And now for the explanation of the old quilt pictured herewith. It is the reverent, worshipful embodiment of an old colored woman's soul. I shall use her own words, in as far as I can quote them. So many tributes were paid to flowers and leaves by using them as decorations that she determined, she said, to “preach de Gospel in patchwork, ter show my Lawd my humbility.” And again, “Dis heah quilt gwine show where sin originated, outen de beginnin' uv things.” The whole quilt is made of gay-colored calico, most beautifully quilted with the finest stitches. The border is rose colored, the spotted animals yellow and purple.


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In [Panel] No. 1 Adam and Eve are shown in the Garden of Eden. In the upper right-hand corner is the serpent, represented with feet. When asked to explain this anatomical curiosity, she replied, elusively, “He 'blige ter have foots and han's an' all his features in dem days, ter git aroun' man, chile!” The coloring of the serpent is a brilliant yellow and black in eleven bold stripes. Immediately under the serpent's head is what she called “forbidden fruit, or original sin.” It is in the shape of a dressmaker's form! The trimming around the neck even is most carefully worked out in its significance. “To ketch de eye, honey!” she said. “To ketch de eye er mortal man. Yes, suh!” To the immediate right of this strange symbol, and scarcely perceptible, is a white dove.

In No. 2 are shown Adam and Eve and Cain in the Garden, before the expulsion. The peacock, in the extreme lower right corner, is made of blue and white striped calico, and is the symbol of “dey proudness befo' de fall.” The white dove is again seen, in the right upper corner, next to Cain. In the lower left corner is an elk with many branches to his horns. The animals, from an anatomical view-point, might be anything, but, as a matter of fact, each one represented only itself to the old creature.

In No. 3, perhaps the most purely symbolic of them all, is shown “Satan in de Seven Stars.” There may be certain primitive and unconscious occultism in this strange symbol. It is sinister in its effect, positively diabolical in its feeling. The evil figure of Satan is black, with a pink eye (he is shown in profile. “De yuther eye is behin',” she said, “an' wusser 'n dis one!”) The stars are black with white centers. When asked why Satan held one of the stars in his arms, she said, elusively, “Dar ain't no tellin' dat, chile; no tellin' dat.”

In No. 4 is shown the murder of Abel by Cain. Abel is represented as a shepherd, and is in white. The sheep, wonderfully quilted in, are also in white. Cain is drab, the knife is red, and the stream of blood “flowin' over de whole worl',” she said, is also scarlet.

No. 5 is, perhaps, the least interesting. It shows Cain when he went into the Land of Nod to get him a wife. She designated the spotted animal as a lion, “fer to prove de strength of Cain,” showing that she was working in symbols.

In No. 6 is shown Jacob's dream. The angel is descending the ladder. Jacob's prone attitude represents, as she said, “de sleepin' uv him.” The angel's wings are rose-colored, like the border of the quilt. When she was asked why she made the ladder spotted, she replied whimsically,


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“I couldn't turn myself loose in color, honey! De animals' calico 'blige ter run over in de ladder. Dar wa'n't no yuther way.” It is interesting to note, in the light of the recent controversy regarding the sex of angels, that this old creature made her angel, unreservedly, a woman thing.

No. 7 is really beautiful and certainly touching in its simplicity. It represents the baptism of the Lord Christ with the holy dove descending. Christ is in white, and “de dove is kissin' him,” she said. “An' John aleadin' him by de han' like a chile.” John is the right-hand figure and is in a faded gray-blue. The dove is very pale blue, almost white.

In No. 8 are pictured in epic simplicity the tragedy and the inspiration of the Crucifixion. The Lord, in the center, is in white, the two thieves in drab. The crown of thorns is rose-colored and black. The soldiers' spears (used clearly as pure symbols) are black. The three disks represent the sun in varying dramatic stages of being. First it is black, the rays white, when “darkness come over de worl' in dat minute.” Then it is white, “when de good Lawd accepted,” and then turned to blood. “Wipe it out in de worl',” she said, with strange mysticism, “wipe it out in de worl'.” The stripe across the body of Christ is again scarlet, representing the bleeding wounds.

In No. 9 are shown Judas and his thirty pieces of silver, the price of his betrayal. “Missy Coomby counted 'em for me,” the old woman said, “cos I kin count 'em backwards same as I kin count 'em forwards, an' dat ain' no way to count!” Judas is in drab. The disk at the bottom of the picture represents the “whole worl' wid sin on top of it.”

In No. 10 is shown the Lord's Last Supper. The disk in the center represents the table. The Lord is in white in the lower left-handed corner. The disciples are in black-and-white speckled calico. Judas is again in drab. “I giv' de Lawd a plate,” the old woman said; “I couldn't spare no plate for de 'ciples.” Primitive design saw no incongruity in making the table exactly like the sun, with certain reversals of color, because they both represented symbols, containing all the elements of forms, and therefore ignoring any specific form. I am reminded of the child who drew a picture-symbol on a paper. When her mother asked what it was, she replied, tersely, “God.” “But no one knows what God looks like,” said her mother. And, “Well, they will when they see my picture,” the child replied conclusively. It is the same thing. The Negro's mind is the child's mind; is the savage, original, spontaneous outputting of the divine.


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No. 11 shows the Holy Family. The sun is white and rose-colored. The little Jesus is in white, Mary in pale blue, and Joseph in speckled calico.

There is a certain wistfulness about the old quilt that touches something fine in us. It is the unbidden pathos of any simple expression that comes from the deep heart, where sincerity bides her time in infinite patience.


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