Reflecting on Comfort, Challenge & the Quilts
Isabel Koyama – contributing blogger
I’ve been thinking about how much American culture values excessive comfort.
Instantaneous comfort, like a microwaved meal or directions from Siri.
Or material comfort: think gentrification, athleisure and bath salts.
Are those things really comforting?
The Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry’s George Floyd quilts, which spell out his dying words, embody comfort but disrupt it.
They’re items of nurture that were made slowly during pandemic lockdown.
They beg for mercy (“Please”), scream for air (“I can’t breathe”) and call out to kin (“MAMA”).
Silently and solemnly laying bare Mr. Floyd’s final moments of agony, they prod at something deeper and more insidious present in the fabric of America.
They call forth a long history of Black suffering to justify the wealth and comfort of white people.
But comfort secured through force rather than love is fragile and corrupting, and in that way, racism is bad for everyone — though unequivocally worse for people of color sacrificed for profit.
To me, the quilts invoke burning questions, the loudest of which is “How can this keep happening?”
That question is followed by the gut-wrenching realization that our social, political and “justice” systems must be enabling it to happen by design.
Followed by the even more painful realization that in this rapid age — one of same-day delivery, miraculous quick-fix drugs and information buzzing from our pockets — the path to racial justice is still long, arduous and veiled in booby traps.
There’s grief in admitting that these systems, as a whole, are bigger and older and stronger than I am, and I might not see them torn down and rebuilt in my lifetime.
But in being items of real and basic comfort — not coddling comfort — the quilts offer peace and warmth in the face of the mammoth challenge of dismantling racism.
And that’s a good place, for many, to start the slow work of transformation.
And that brings me to challenge. Some shrink in front of it, others sigh, others want to conquer it, and still others meditate on it.
Today is the 158th anniversary of Juneteenth.
The Congregational Library & Archives in Boston will open ‘Textile & Text”— a three-day exhibit displaying twelve of the ministry’s quilts, including the George Floyd series, alongside other historic documents pulled from the archives.
Among the pieces pulled from the archives are speeches by Fredrick Douglas, a letter from Langston Hughes, poems by Phyllis Wheatley, and numerous documented examples of congregationalist women who, in some way or another, challenged the status quo.
The space is limited and so are tickets, but the event is free.
I talked with Kyle Roberts, executive director of the library, about how their team of archivists and librarians came to select, from their vast collection, a handful of pieces to complement the quilts.
“We kind of started with organizations that were run by women,” he said last Thursday. “But we were really interested in looking at the way in which they were working with Black reformers and Black voices in the 19th century.”
He said some of the selected works, like the Phyllis Wheatley poems edited by Margaret O’Dell (a white woman) are useful in thinking about what can happen when well-intentioned white people can’t see beyond their own worldview.
I asked if any Black people were involved in curating the exhibit, to which Roberts reflected that the Library and Archives world is still very white, and mostly female.
“It’s very much challenged,” he said (there’s that word again). “I mean, I think that it creates, in some ways, that kind of scenario similar to the 19th century model, where you have well meaning people who are trying to bring forth voices. But I think maybe what's different in the 21st century from the 19th century, is that people in the Library and Archives field tend to be — try to be — much more aware of their biases and their privileges, and the ways in which their interpretations and their own lived experience might keep them from fully understanding the voices and the experiences of the people whose records they steward.”
“So maybe, like, more willing to acknowledge what they don’t know?” I probed.
“Yes, there’s a lot of that,” he said.
In February, my dad, Rev. Mark Koyama, described what happens when people see the quilts for the first time over the phone:
“People come to see the quilts, and they move through the exhibit, and you can see what happens to them as they’re moving through — which is initially they think, ‘Oh, we’re coming to see some quilts!’ Then it dawns on them that they’re seeing the final words of a man who’s dying in agony. It opens people up to this conversation about race in a very gradual, opening way,” he said.
In other words, there’s something disarming about the quilts — viewers’ defenses tend to be down from the outset. After all, they came to see an exhibition of warm blankets.
One would expect a pleasant experience. But that’s not what you get.
“It’s a way to create the context for a conversation that most white people in the United States are fearful and averse to having,” he said.
Recently, I talked again with my father, Harriet Ward and Kathy Blair about this year’s Juneteenth exhibit. Quilters and ‘sacred allies’ Harriet Ward and Kathy Blair have both been indelible to the ministry’s ongoing work.
What does today mean to them?
“Juneteenth is a significant moment, each year, for the quilts,” said my Dad.
He often personifies the quilts.
Harriet Ward then reminded me that freedom is yet to arrive.
“Juneteenth, to me, has also become ‘Government-mandated-cultural-appropriation-day-to-pretend-that-you-care-about-Black-people-day,” said Ward.
Right on the nose.
Koyama, Ward and Blair expressed excitement in showing their new, twelfth quilt, “Hozho” (the Navajo term for ‘Beauty, Balance and Harmony’) at the Boston exhibit.
Hozho is an impressionist watercolor quilt dedicated to indigenous people and the suffering they’ve endured. It debuted at Dartmouth in March. Mark Charles — a Native American activist, public speaker, author, and independent candidate for president in 2020 — named the quilt after sitting with it and taking it in.
With an added quilt to their collection that deviates from the George Floyd quilts, the ministry is exploring new discursive depths and dimensions.
Come suspend your comfort and sit with the history and the present.
Sit in the space between comfort and challenge, but not too long.
We can’t be idle.