‘An American Quilt’ Pulls Back the Covers of Enslavement Culture

But why doesn’t Rachel May run with her many “what ifs” and give us a novel?

American Quilt
Paper templates from the Crouch quilt, showing 1830s handwriting.

When Rachel May was working on her first book, 2014’s Quilting with a Modern Slant, she was alerted by a professor at the University of Rhode Island of the existence of three vintage quilt tops that had long been packed away at the school. They were backed with aged, hexagon-shaped paper templates, originally intended only as temporary components. Work on the project had begun in the 1830s by a pair of newlyweds in Charleston, SC, named Hasell and Susan Crouch. A century later, the quilting process had been resumed, this time most likely by a grandnephew of Susan’s named Franklin Cushman. Clearly, some of the paper templates had been added by Cushman or others in the early 20th century, as they were made from glossy printed pages. But other papers had been inserted much earlier, by the Crouches. These were covered with handwritten ink — some apparently from a child practicing cursive, but some from letters, journals or ledgers. Certain words on the papers (“casks,” “schooners,” “Barbados”) suggested a connection to the shipping business.

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When she first saw the quilt tops, May was elated. “My intrigue became entrancement,” she would later write. She became even more interested when she examined some notebooks prepared by Cushman that had legends scrawled next to swatches of material seen in the quilts. On one page, next to a dull scrap of fabric, were the words “Probably for slave gowns.”

American Quilt
“There are strings through time that bind the past to the present…spinning back with the sound of a bobbin whirring.”

This discovery set May off on the creation of what would be her second book, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery. Work on the book would take her along the Eastern Seaboard, all the way south to Havana. In archive collections, she would find letters and business records that helped her piece together a nearly two-century-old tale of a white family with roots in both Providence, RI (where Susan and Hasell were married in 1832) and Charleston. She would also learn, in considerably less detail, of the lives of enslaved people owned by Hasell and Susan Crouch, as well as others owned by Susan’s brothers, Hilton and Winthrop Williams (the former a lumber merchant, the latter a cotton broker). It certainly wasn’t that May was less interested in the histories of the people of color, but rather that their lives proved considerably more difficult to trace than those of their white enslavers.

As it turned out, the tale of the Crouches became a perfect illustration of the adamantine links between North and South that were forged by the cotton trade — and by the slave trade. As May explains:

The cotton was picked in the South, then shipped north to be spun into cloth, then shipped south again to be sewn – by enslaved people — into their own horridly uncomfortable clothes. A vicious circle of industry.

Hasell Crouch, while a young physician in Charleston, was clearly not riddled with guilt over his role in the slavery system. Once, at a commencement address at Brown University, he had spoken in defense of the “unavoidable existing evil” of slavery. His wife was not as steeped in enslavement culture as he. Susan had sisters in New England who were abolitionists. She herself had attended boarding school in Andover, MA. But after her marriage and her move to South Carolina, she had grown rather quickly to rely on the labor of slaves to aid in her own comfort and attempts at self-advancement. Later, following the deaths of her young son and her husband, she sold her slaves and returned north to Providence. Over and over, May wonders how someone like Susan could so blithely have participated in the unspeakably cruel institution.

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An American Quilt is a scholarly accomplishment. It contains an absorbing story of an abominable tradition. But the manner in which May tells the tale may prove challenging to readers.

American Quilt
Rachel May.

Exactly what the book is meant to be, and for whom it is intended, is hazy. A customer picking up the bountifully illustrated An American Quilt might at first assume that it (like May’s first book) is meant mostly for people with an interest in the craft of quilting. But the story of the Crouch quilt seems intended only as a launching pad for May’s more important concerns. She’s an academic, keen on uncovering the lives of the historical figures to whom she’s been introduced (especially the enslaved ones), and in exploring why Susan Crouch and her contemporaries tolerated such a foul system and contributed to its longevity. You know long before May brings Michel Foucault or Susan Sontag into the mix that this is not a book geared for the arts-and-crafts crowd. It probably says something — I’m not sure what — that An American Quilt contains 40 pages of detailed source notes but no index.

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In an opening note to her readers, May explains that she is a creative writer as well as a scholar. She used her talents as the former to flesh out the stories of the enslaved characters — notably, four of the women owned by the Crouches: Minerva, Eliza, Jane and Juba. May repeatedly uses the fiction writer’s “What if?” query to make conjectures about what these women’s daily lives would have been like. She assures us from the beginning: “I make clear within the text what is known fact and where I’m imagining.” That she does. However, the frequency with which she takes us on these quickly grounded flights of the imagination frustrated me. Here are three typical excerpts from different parts of the book:

Perhaps while Eliza hauled water for the washbasins and cleaned the house, Juba was tending to the children and cooking breakfast.

Whether [the pregnant] Minerva had a husband or lover isn’t known. Maybe…she was raped. Perhaps she was in love with a man in the neighborhood whom she wasn’t allowed to marry.

If she was, indeed, able to escape, did Eliza hear of friends and relatives back in Charleston during or after the war. Did she know of Minerva’s death?

After reading dozens of passages like these, I began to wonder: why doesn’t the writer just run with a few of these “what ifs” and give us An American Quilt, a novel? To her credit, May seems acutely aware of the limitations of the kind of imaginative tangents in which she indulges. Midway through the book she wonders:

How can I reimagine people’s lives with all the knowledge of history we have now? I wonder, throughout the start of the project, if it’s better to reimagine the women who were enslaved by Susan in the 1830s, or to let them remain undefined for your own imagination to fill, untouched by my hand, which might be clumsy, or an unconscious product of its culture and time.

As this passage suggests, May is not only a scholar, a creative writer and a quilting expert. She is also something of a memoirist. On one level, An American Quilt is about her personal odyssey, her attempts to sleuth through the clues about these forgotten figures and, in turn, to understand herself and her own world better. She lets us know, early on, that she is herself a Northerner, but one who spent some time in North Carolina during her college years. She was alarmed then by the casual racism she found among the Southern locals. As she learns more about onetime slave owner Susan Crouch, however, she comes to realize more deeply that Northern whites had some badly soiled hands when it came to slavery and that white people today continue to enjoy hidden privileges because of an institution that was once central to the national economy.

I appreciate May’s soul searching, and I am glad that only occasionally does it devolve into hand wringing. She seems to know in An American Quilt, reflexively, that there would be no worse slight to Minerva, Eliza, Jane, Juba and countless other forgotten enslaved people than if she were to make this book all about herself.