I reviewed the holdings in my personal quilt library this week. It’s always a treat to touch each book, flip pages, remember why I keep it. There was one I didn’t open, but merely re-shelved. If I numbered my 81 quilting books from 1 to 100 (yes, I meant that — just imagine a gap in numbering…) with 1 being best and 100 being worst, there is a qualifier for 100. Hands down, the worst quilt book I own is Hidden in Plain View.
In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.
Author Tobin met Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor at a flea market mall. In 1997 during their second of three meetings, “Ozella,” as the book refers to her, told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.
The book tells Williams’ tale of eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn’t arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.
Sounds intriguing, yes? Indeed it is, and intrigue led the book to bestseller status.
What about it is so bad? And if it’s so bad, why do I keep it?
As a piece of writing, it is badly done. Full of breathless suppositions and conjectures, the authors repeatedly ask questions rather than state conclusions. Facts and fiction are woven together to try to create a whole cloth. But there are holes throughout. Since the book was published, extensive research has shown many errors of fact. In addition, there is no supporting evidence of the premise. You can read a lengthy summary of the Underground Railroad quilt code stories, and evidence refuting them, here.
It’s not at all clear if the story, either as told by Williams or as reported by the authors, is intended to be a fraud. Any or all of them may have been conveying history as they actually understood it, rather than with intent to profit off fiction. Either way, between the poor writing and the poor scholarship, this is a book that had a much larger audience than it deserved.
I keep the book because we need to keep a record of myth as well as truth. Those who know the difference can show it most easily when they have both to draw from, including myths in their original form.
As I said in the linked post, “Truth is strength. We don’t need to pretty it up with cozy quilts and homey images. We owe it to those who suffered slavery, to ourselves and our children, and to the future, to know and tell the truth.”