Blogs > Cliopatria > The Slave Quilts, a Confession

Jan 2, 2007 4:06 pm

The Slave Quilts, a Confession

Cliopatriarch Ralph in his second entry on the unfortunate myth of quilts as trail markers on the underground railroad asks this interesting question:"why [do] we need to believe this nonsense."

I don’t know that we need to believe anything, but as someone who did fall for this"nonsense," may I share the story of my fall as an answer of sorts.

1. It has a superficial plausibility, unless one knows enough about quilt making to immediately be dubious.

2. That plausibility is based on something very real, which was the need for slaves to communicate in a covert manner in a variety of circumstances. This very real necessity opened the door in my mind to the possibility of the quilt story being true.

3. When I first heard this"fact" (and I have no idea where or when, though I think it was in the past 6 years sometime), it surprised me. I was a bit skeptical of the more elaborate claims about these signals marking the underground railway, but to the extent that I thought that through, I assumed that it had a core of truth but was perhaps exaggerated. For example, maybe at a particular house, someone hung out a quilt to indicate danger.

4. Although I am an antebellum historian, slavery is not my area of expertise, there are only 24 hours in the day, I did not know of the controversy surrounding the claim, and so I made no attempt to check. Probably the bit of skepticism I had already applied had some role in my not checking further. A little skepticism is a dangerous thing, perhaps.

5. Here's where people bring up "memes" and things start to get mystical. The idea suddenly just seemed to be around and accepted. I am ashamed to say that I cannot think of examples of where I heard it. I do know that I just kept running into it.

6. Some"Iroquois and the Constitution" bell should have started ringing in my head. That was an older, similar myth (though with the added plausibility of some intriguing parallels and Benjamin Franklin’s knowledge of the Iroquois) --and maybe the bit of skepticism I mentioned above came from my making that comparison in a semi-conscious manner. If so, I wish that part of my brain had rung louder.

7. History, like other fields, functions on trust—trust in veracity and trust in competence. That’s what makes plagiarism and dishonesty so dangerous. It is also why, while I may disagree with Ralph with the way he states his charges sometimes, I agree fully that we must police ourselves more vigilantly.

7. Unlike some fields, physics, for example, the lines between the professional and the non-professional historians and the history they produce is extremely blurry. There are fine—or at least accurate—people who do history outside of the profession as well as some jokers. And there are many people on both sides of the line who do good work much of the time but not all the time. And then there is the well-produced muck. We often complain about this blurring when we discuss what students learn (the student says,“I love the History Channel"), but we rarely talk about what we learn, not always consciously, from popular sources that don't seem like muck.

I conclude my confession of gullibility by asking my audience these questions:
Have closely do you vet everything you learn and make sure it was from a reliable source?
In your professional work, have you every fallen for something seemingly plausible that turned out to be false?

PS While browsing Border’s after lunch I realized something else about the Quilt Story. It has the elements of a great story. It echoes the idea of a universe of meanings and conspiracies just below the surface; it suggests a brave and righteous underground, communicating in ways that the Masters of the world cannot comprehend. It ennobles the anonymous, not that they needed it. Now I remember that it was these qualities that made me a bit suspicious; it was a bit too good of a story. Then again, Boise State did win last night so anything is possible. Historians have to remember that, too.

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More Comments:

Alan Allport - 1/3/2007

This reminded me of some moonbat theory published last year that Shakespeare's works are seeded with a secret code revealing the author's heterodox Catholicism. It shares a conceit with the quilt myth that the code was (a) so arcanely obscure that it was completely overlooked by those who would have sought to suppress it, and yet (b) 'instinctively' recognizable by everyone whom it was aimed at. Common sense ought to suggest that a useable code cannot be fiendishly cryptic and childishly transparent at the same time.

Manan Ahmed - 1/2/2007

this reminded me of the mysterious chapatis that the British were convinced were being used to coordinate the 1857 rebellion in India. For a long while, all manners of historians believed that to be true.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 1/2/2007

"How closely do you vet everything you learn and make sure it was from a reliable source?"

I'll be happy to send my review of "Desperate Crossing" to anyone who is interested.
Jeremy Bangs
Leiden American Pilgrim Museum

Jonathan Dresner - 1/2/2007

The Iroquois Constitution thing is a myth?

We need a supplement to revised textbooks: "things we left out because nobody believes them any more".

Who can keep up? I try, however, to keep material separate in my mind depending on the source: stuff from monographs and journals gets treated differently, and even then I'm very critical of the arguments, even when I find the evidence to be quite strong.