The April 3, 2007, issue of Time Magazine has run an article about the Underground Railroad quilt myth that I have discussed (but not concluded, because I have a hard time with conclusions) in the past couple of months. I read this article just after reading a post on Pharyngula about the kid-glove handling of the supporters of "intelligent design" in the media. What struck me was the similarities between the pro-Underground Railroad quilt camp and the promoters of "intelligent design." At the heart of both arguments lies the insistence that "we want it to be true, we believe it to be true, therefore it is true." They persist in their beliefs despite the fact that the evidence does not support their assertions. Moreover, both have infiltrated institutions of education, such as museums and school curricula, and are taken seriously as actual theories despite hard evidence to the contrary.
The quilt people have my sympathy to some degree because I understand the difficulties of documenting the lives of non-literate and disempowered people. The Time article cites the Michigan Plymouth Historical Museum education coordinator, Anna Lopez, who sees "...no reason why the story of quilt codes can't be fact. "What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?" Lopez challenges the children to consider the sources of history, which is wonderful. She goes a step too far, however, in insisting that her answer to "who knows?" automatically translates into "it was." She has turned speculation into fact, then turns around and teaches this "fact" to the classes of schoolchildren and visitors who visit the museum to see its exhibit on quilts of the Underground Railroad.
The author of the book that began this myth, Jacqueline Tobin, insists that she was only trying to tell the tale of one family. As to the quilt legend, she says, "'Whether or not it's completely valid, I have no idea, but it makes sense with the amount of research we did." She is being rather disingenuous, given that she does present and encourage the repetition of this one family's tale as typical. Furthermore, "the amount of research we did" involved quilt making and African textiles, which proved little more than that African folkways survived the Middle Passage. None of that "amount of research" provided a link between the textiles and fugitive slaves.
What we have here, then, goes beyond the perpetuation of a myth. What we have here is flawed methodology in studying and teaching history. That flawed methodology is being ignored in the public while the mythology is being celebrated, funded, and taught as truth. The same holds true for the intelligent design people. The very concept of a "theory" as a rigorously tested hypothesis has been discarded in favor of "theory" as "an idea I like that could have happened." "Theory" has become whatever answer that someone wants to give to "who knows?" Additionally, scholarly questions are being treated as if democracy provides answers. "I want it to be true, a hundred other people think it is true, therefore this is now true," has become a recurring answer to any serious challenge to both intelligent design and the Underground Railroad quilt story.
When I first began writing about the Underground Railroad on this blog, indeed, when I first became interested in other people's fascination (including my own) with the Underground Railroad in general, I was trying to figure out why people discard their own intelligence to believe false stories. Maybe we like to think that, were we living back then, we would have behaved in heroic ways. Maybe we like to think that, if our ancestors were heroic, then we may also have retained a bit of that heroism. Maybe to contemplate the complexity of the past, particularly if you are part of an oppressed group, but also if you are part of the oppressing group, is too emotionally taxing.
So, white southerners want to believe that slaves were happy or that their ancestors did not own slaves. White northerners want to believe that their forefathers helped fugitive slaves. African Americans want to believe that their ancestors resisted slavery or helped those who resisted slavery. People like themselves doing good things in the past. As the more eloquent David Blight wrote, "The disturbing present can always be avoided by finding the right place to live in the past, or simply declaring that past dead."
This identification with a particular version of the past lies at the intersection of both the personal and the political, filling a need within the individual for some inclusion in a collective identity that transcends time. Identification makes history about the present rather than about the past. This is a very powerful way to use history, but it is not the disciplined craft of history.
Meanwhile, I have a little idea of my own about that quilt story. When I read Tobin's book, I began to wonder if perhaps another folkway was in play. Maybe Ozella McDaniel Williams was "puttin' on ole Massa." Tobin did, after all, encounter the source for her oral history on quilts in the Charleston market, which is essentially a tourist mall. Williams may have just been a very savvy business woman. Maybe she told an exciting, folksy tale, one in which a black, female, elderly person like herself could be heroic. The story might have been devised earlier, the story might have been based on a true story, the story might have been embellished. Don't we all have something like that in our own families? In any case, the white tourists with money to spend ate that story up like candy, and Williams sold them all a quilt. Doesn't a good story always enhance a souvenir?