Back in the 1990’s, when I was a teacher, I received a grant from The Virginia Commission for the Arts to incorporate the art of enslaved people into my classroom instruction. As a part of this grant, I visited Williamsburg, Virginia and met with the director of African America Studies at Colonial Williamsburg. I learned from him that enslaved people used anything they could find to create art, and among the most treasured art forms was quilting. Scraps of cloth would be saved for quilts, and often the scraps were chosen and cherished for their sentimental value. Much like scrapbooks, they were used for remembering.
The quilt pictured above was created by Elizabeth Keckley, a freed woman who was a renowned seamstress with Mary Todd Lincoln among her clients. It seems unlikely that enslaved women would have been allowed the time or materials to make a quilt this elaborate for themselves. From what I have read, few quilts made by enslaved people for their personal use have survived. I haven't been able to find a documented example of one. This Pinterest board of African American quilts includes a few quilts that may have been made by and for enslaved people.
This poem employs a good bit of poetic license. Emmy is fictional, but her situation is plausible. My great-grandparents were not newlyweds when they made the trip from Byhalia to Littles’ Mills; they were newly re-united after having separated. Below is my great-grandparents’ story, as my father would tell it to me. The sentences in quotations are his exact words, with all their Faulknerian echoes.
Fanny Little was married to John Little, son of Thomas Little of the first set of letters. My father said Thomas was a very powerful, controlling man. Fanny had two sisters who lived to the east. They came down with either typhoid or typhus fever. Fanny decided to go east to look after them, but her father-in-law told her not to go, fearing she would bring sickness back to the plantation. He may have told her husband to order her not to go. She went anyway.
Fanny’s sisters both died, and she returned home. According to my father, Thomas ordered his son to divorce her for disobedience and “made life so miserable for the Myers that they all moved to Mississippi.” I wonder about that for two reasons: 1) there was a general migration to the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin, and their move fits into that narrative; 2) in later letters Adeline refers to social visits Thomas’s wife made to Adeline’s Mississippi plantation… suggesting the families were on very friendly terms.
At any rate, they moved, and it is certain that there was a separation between Fanny and John, because it is referred to more than once in letters to Fanny from Louise. "I mourn with you, my friend -- for truly you have a severe affliction in your separation from your husband ." My father told me that John went down to arrange for a divorce and “they ran into each other at a wedding, where they fell in-love again, no you can't say they fell in-love again because they were never out-of-love, but when he saw her, he realized he still loved her, and he brought her back to Littles’ Mills.” My father told me that Thomas accepted her back but as punishment disinherited the two sons who were born before their reconciliation. They went on to have numerous other children, the youngest of these my grandmother.
For the most part, Fanny seems to me to be a woman of her times, certainly very blind to the humanity of the people surrounding her, caught up in her own piety without the least understanding of Jesus’s teachings. Yet if it is true that in order to care for her dying sisters she disobeyed her husband, she showed clarity of vision and moral courage that did separate her from her times. For all her conventional piety, she broke her vow to “love, honor, and obey."