A message from 3rd generation quilter Delia Pettway Thibodeaux reminded me of a story I had to delete from my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press 2014, due to length. I want to share this with Delia and all who know that poverty in Gees Bend and the rest of Wilcox County is still terrible, that there is a long way to go to have true equality, but that the freedom of the people has endured for centuries. Freedom didn’t come with us civil rights workers. Rather, we learned about real freedom, the freedom of the soul, from them.
For several nights after I returned to Gees Bend in 2008, I had dreams with the quilters in them, both the women I had met in 1965, the ones I met recently and still others who appeared only in my dreams. In most of the dreams, the ladies are telling overlapping stories. I try to catch their meaning, feeling inadequate and behind, much as I did for the six years I worked on my memoir and oral history book about my experience and the experiences of others in the Wilcox County voting rights struggle.
This was the most vivid dream. There are small clusters of women around fires in four corners of an outdoor area, an irregularly shaped grounds. Two of the areas are called “Piece of Mind” and two are “Peace of Mind.” There are signs that appear to me in my mind’s eye in the dream. In the center is a circle of women, slightly younger than the 70-90 year olds at the four corners. They are called “Reflections.” Without words it is explained that Piece of Mind was where quilts made for the primary purpose of sale were being stacked. They are newer and not made as carefully.
In the Peace of Mind corners, women who made the quilts are unfolding them and draping them over clotheslines to air out. They tell me that they will be sold to split the money between themselves and an organization that helps the community. In the middle, in the Reflections circle, the women are copying the early Gees Bend designs like Housetop, Wrist and Hand, Bear’s Paw that now hang in museums and galleries. They are making these for the next generation, for themselves and for sale and show. My task is to hold threads, try to keep straight the strands of many different colors that they pull from my hands.
The Reflections women ask me to join in the quilting but I barely know how to keep the threads sorted, let alone begin to sew. It is all I can do to hold the threads, weave a story, not the same story that has been told over and over, filmed and written about, but a new story. In 2008, I didn’t know what that story would become. Although the book is completed, I might have remained a witness-participant, not a seamstress.
But I had guides to help me weave my own and dozens of other stories from the Wilcox County voting rights struggle together, to make the work feel whole. I extend deep gratitude to my supportive and generous developmental editors: Dr. Martha Jane Brazy, Samuel Torres Jr, and Cassandra Shaylor. Without their expert guidance of my collection and vision, the many pieces might still lie in fragments.
©Maria Gitin 2013