Literacy & Art: The Story behind the Quilt
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This unit is intended to expose second through fourth graders to the many ways quilts were used to chronicle the history and experiences of African slaves and African-Americans in America. It presents the students with a brief synopsis of the rich, cultural background of Africans and tells of the degrading effects of slavery. It tells of the struggles of African-Americans in America and the reasons for the development of a hidden code of communications. It discusses briefly how quilts were used to navigate the Underground Railroad and introduces two African-American story tellers and quilt makers: Harriet Powers and Faith Ringgold. It provides the children with the opportunity to examine their story quilts and finally, to tell their own story through quilting.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
. We all remember how enraged the wicked stepmother becomes after looking into the mirror one day and asking, "Mirror, mirror on the Wall. Who is the fairest of them all?" The mirror responds, "Snow white is the fairest of them all." Both Snow White and the wicked stepmother exemplify the European-based standards of beauty. The stepmother had been the most beautiful or so the mirror said, until Snow White became of age and became a viable contender.
Carrie Mae Weems, an African-American photographer, expresses her opposition to such standards and America's constant assault on the identity of African-American women in her photograph,
. In this photograph, a young African-American woman looks into the mirror and asks, "Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who's the finest of them all?" The face of a white women appears in the mirror and the response comes back, "Snow White ... And Don't You Forget It!!!"
These are the books and films from which African-American and other minority children have caught their first glimpse of themselves and their ancestors. African-American children peered into schoolbooks that denied their very existence. They've watched countless movies in which roles requiring minority casts were replaced by white counterparts and they've have been forced to study and learn lessons from books that ridiculed and degraded their ancestors or excluded them completely. These experiences are very much responsible for the attitudes that African-Americans have about each other and their African ancestors.
These children have failed to be taught that Africa is a continent of diversity with numerous tribes of people who have their own cultures, languages and practices. They have failed to be taught that the Africans have always appreciated aesthetic beauty and that their influence is seen in many of the designs and fabrics so popular in today's society.
It is important that children learn to appreciate their own culture and to accept themselves and their people as significant contributors to the society in which they live. They should never be taught that the values, customs, and beliefs of their people must be minimized or absorbed into the mainstream or else they cease to be of worth.
Racial and cultural acceptance must be taught. In our diverse society children need to be taught to work and play with others diverse from themselves in a positive way. They need to know that the racial and cultural differences in people are not indicators of superiority or inferiority. They may indicate that each group has special gifts that others may or may not possess and that by developing the uniqueness of these gifts within their cultural group each group justifies its right to exist
African American children need to see Africa and Africans in all their beauty. They need to know that their homeland is a beautiful place full of natural resources and beauty. They need to see the African as real people, living real lives not much different from their own. They need to know that African children go to school, play games, and write stories just as they do.
When our children learn to appreciate their ancestors, then and only then, can the deep scars left by slavery and racism begin to heal. African-Americans, as a whole, need to learn to love the land from which they came and to reflect the princely bearings of their ancestors. They need to know the beauty of the continent of Africa and be able to see that beauty in the faces of its people a beauty not defined by the standards of others but one that exists within its own right With such a background and understanding, then each child can begin to accept him or herself just as they are and not feel the need to ridicule or degrade those that they don't understand.
The activities found in this unit are integrated across the curriculum but focus mainly on literacy in art. These activities are intended to 1. encourage students to read
2. increase vocabulary, 3. provide students with a reason to write, and 5.provide an outlet for creative expression.
These topics were chosen because I felt that children of African descent in America have been denied the knowledge of the country their ancestors are from. They have therefore, lost the sense of direction that the knowledge of past experiences brings. This lack of understanding has not only bred contempt and ridicule of the continent of Africa and the African people but is a major factor in the lack of importance these children place on the educational experience.
The need for a deeper understanding of the African people and the African-American in America experience is evident in the third graders I teach. These children have little to no knowledge of the depth of the struggle and accomplishments of past generations. They have only a superficial knowledge of the sacrifices made to achieve and retain the current status of African-Americans. Education, the right to vote, freedom of speech, etc. are looked upon by many of these students as incidentals that have no value in their lives.
One of my colleagues, who is Caucasian, expressed her shock at the callous remarks made by my third graders after watching a video during a music class that featured Africans and African-Americans dressed in African garb. She remarked that the names the children used to describe the people in the video were derogatory and disgraceful. The joking and insensitive remarks made by these children convinced me of their lack of understanding and appreciation of that beautiful continent called Africa and its people.
The educational system in the United States has propagated the belief that European values should be the yardstick by which all contributions to society are measured. It has been used to measure beauty, aesthetic value, intelligence, etc. These teachings created an atmosphere for the ridicule of those whose skin color and facial features differed from those of Europeans. These same teachings are responsible for maintaining the status quo.
These negative attitudes of Europeans towards Blacks have been portrayed in visual art, movies, and literature. We do not have to go back very far in American history to find those debasing images of African Americans painted by artists and described by historians. Those stereotyped images of African-Americans were painted and described by some that America labeled as "fine" artists. Regardless of the role in which African-Americans were displayed, servant, soldier or slap happy stereotype, it's plain to see the negative feelings most Americans had in regards to their Black citizens.
These same sentiments were expressed both in the literature and film of early America. History books and children's literature in America were written and recorded by writers who perceived what was important based on their own experiences and prejudices. Some of the most inflammatory statements were published about people of other ethnic groups. This resulted in the biased recording of events, the degradation and ridicule of a people, and the almost total exclusion of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds from the written page. It also led to the devaluation of their contributions to society.
I remember hearing the tale and seeing the pictures of Little Black Sambo as a child and thinking it was quite funny. I didn't realize that these so-called tales were degrading my people and me. I remember some of the labels that were used in literature and film to describe African-Americans. I didn't understand that there is so much power in naming. There is power in naming! And when a label or name is coupled with a visual image, whether positively or negatively, it has the power to identify and define. Thus America negatively labeled its African-American citizens. Today, we are still trying to overcome the negative effects that those labels elicit in the mind.
Consider the countless hours that African-American children spent being indoctrinated with the European-based standards of beauty. I recall looking at the "classic" movie,