Book Review: Hidden In Plain View

Hidden In Plain View: A Secret Story Of Quilts And The Underground Railroad, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard

Race is a freighted topic in contemporary America, and the author decides, rather sensibly in my opinion, to deal with this problem in part by making it more intimate as well as true across multiple dimensions. There are people who will dislike this book because the author presents herself as a “white savior” of a sort in being able to understand and interpret what was said by a black correspondent who had an interesting quilt and no descendants to pass the story onto. The secret story is filled with vague surmises, and it presents itself as a mystery that the author(s) do not entirely know but whose partial solution depends on the complicated communication that occurs between people who form secret societies, like Prince Hal masonry, in order to preserve their secrets and to undermine the system of slavery that existed in the South. This is a fascinating book, then, from the point of view of someone who is interested in the esoteric meaning of symbols, the social role of secret societies, and the way that information could be conveyed to illiterate but far from unintelligent people about the conditions that would lead to their freedom as well as the immense amount of help this required at every step of the way.

This book is about 200 pages long and it is divided into eight chapters with a lot of other material as well. The book begins with a foreword that discusses the transmission of secrets in African-American culture, a foreword that discusses the importance of the decorative arts in African American history, and a foreword that discusses secret African signs encoded in African American quilts. After this comes an author’s note about how it is that the white female author found out about the story of the possible significance of the signs of a particular African American quilt, followed by an author’s note about the methodology of the writing of the book by the black male author. The eight chapters of the book discuss the fabric of heritage in Africa and African American quilt making (1) and a discussion about the underground railroad (2). This leads to a discussion of the specific symbols involved, such as the five square knots (3), the monkey wrench turning the wagon wheel (4), the crossroads (5), as well as flying geese staying on the drunken path (6), with a discussion about the specific possible meanings of these symbols in relationship to the operation of the Underground Railroad. After this there is a discussion about stealing away (7) and the styles and traditions of African American quilts (8). This is followed by supplementary material that includes an epilogue, survival secrets, a timeline,k the quilt code patterns of Ozella’s Underground Railroad quilt, a chart comparing African symbols, American quilt patterns, and Masonic emblems, a glossary and a bibliography.

It is perhaps unsurprising that quilts are not the sort of items that people tend to think about obviously as being freighted with immense significance as communication, and yet the fact that the patterns on them have a great deal of meaning does encourage historians, especially female ones [1], to ponder what indeed these matters mean. The author(s) of this work explore the symbolic meaning of the materials on the quilt, the way that information can be encoded in various means and communicated by image rather than word, and the role of music in communicating information encoded in song. The author explores the logistics of the Underground Railroad and the way that masons were often involved in anti-slavery efforts and that African-Americans brought with them their own understanding of secret societies just as white Americans did. The result is a fascinating work that, if not decisive in its understanding, is at least very allusive in terms of understanding the way that messages could be sent about who was a friend and where safety could be found to allow people to escape from slavery with a great deal of chance at success as long as they were sufficiently aware of the information that was being provided to them through the grapevine and through the symbolic meaning of what was around them.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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