‘Quilt University’ explores African-American cultural educationWritten by Kevin Moore | | email@example.com
Lucy Thelma Osbourne sees academia from a different perspective. Most people associate education with classrooms, teachers and textbooks. Osbourne, a woman now in her 80s who grew up in the sharecropping culture of the South, sees education as fabric, stitching and stories. She has shared her experience and thoughts on learning in her first book “Quilt University: Transforming Oral Learning into Academic Knowledge.”
Osbourne, who earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in 1999, returned to the University of Toledo to pursue a master’s degree in education. Her master’s thesis, which would become “Quilt University” 15 years later, was initially a struggle for her.
“I didn’t know what to write about. What I knew about was me. I grew up in a segregated town called Evergreen, Alabama, so I didn’t have the educational background for many subjects and wasn’t taught language well. Then I discovered a quilt my grandmother had made, which fell out of a cabinet when I opened the door. So I started reading quilt literature and looking at quilts going way back.”
Quiltmaking played a prominent role in the South and in African-American families and neighborhoods. The process of making a quilt was a large undertaking that took up most of the day if not multiple days. Family members and neighbors would come together to make a quilt to celebrate life milestones such as a wedding, birth of a new child or someone going to college, with each person bringing scraps of cloth from everything ranging from drapery to flour sacks. While the group quilted, the family elders told stories and passed their knowledge down to the younger generations. Even the men in the community participated in a quilt-making project by gathering wood to build a frame on which the smaller sewn pieces could be stitched together to form the full quilt.
“In the end, everybody in the family got a blanket. I would sit and listen to my grandmother, Nancy Evans, and my mother, Allie Grace, tell stories while I threaded needles. I even stitched a little bit, and my grandmother left that in there because it was my part of the story,” Osbourne said. “‘Quilt University’ is a metaphor for the quilt as an institution of learning. Quilts talked about slavery, family, slave ships, weddings, funerals, crops, sharecropping, not accepting the back of the bus. Everything about life can be recorded in a quilt, but its from a separate point of view from main culture.”
Lynne Hamer, an education professor at the University of Toledo, served as Osbourne’s thesis adviser and said she learned as much from Osbourne as she taught her.
“I was new faculty when Thelma started her thesis and I became her adviser,” she said. “I knew she had such a tremendous amount of knowledge, but it came from a different place. I had to follow her lead. As a teacher, I wasn’t used to that; I was used to saying here’s what a thesis should look like. Carter Wilson, one of the great African-American writers from the 1930s, said that people need to understand family knowledge first and then build out from that. We don’t take that seriously in education. For me, the significance of ‘Quilt University’ is in autodidactism or self-learning. It has to start with family and community.”
The quilt works as a mnemonic device.
“It’s a text, a way to communicate. It can be viewed as a historical document or in a linguistic context,” Hamer said. “Those involved in the making of a quilt can ‘read’ it and remember what was being talked about when each piece was being stitched. This function is not dissimilar from the way words in a written story also prompts the brain to recall certain knowledge.”
“It’s just different subjects,” Osbourne said. “When I was growing up, you learned a lot, but you couldn’t read or write and couldn’t put what you learned in writing. You weren’t allowed to go to the library so you couldn’t learn that way either. In ‘Academic University,’ you have a syllabus, you read and write and there’s book learning. But students aren’t contributing anything. In ‘Quilt University,’ everybody brought the curriculum.”
Taking Osbourne’s experience as a basis, “Quilt University” explores issues in contemporary education. What is the proper way to learn? Is what students have learned in the textbooks their only valid form of knowledge?
“W.E.B. DuBois talked about the ‘double consciousness’ of experience and education. If we as teachers don’t work to understand who our students are and where they come from, how can we hope for them to succeed. We can’t expect them to just know what we know,” Hamer said.
Osbourne has several indirect African-American mentors whom she looks up to, and said she gains confidence from their experiences with quilting and so-called unconventional education. Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” has said that before she would sit down to write her fiction or poetry, she would sit down with needle and thread.
“Quilting is how she got her words together,” Osbourne said.
Zora Neale Hurston, an accomplished writer from the Harlem Renaissance, also turned to quilting, returning to her hometown in Florida to sit on porches and quilt with her neighbors.
“Hurston spoke in dialect. She wrote in dialect, the ‘improper’ way of writing. Now her work is taught in high school. It’s canonized,” Osbourne said.
“Quilt University” is available on Amazon as well as from its publisher, QU Press.
Osbourne will be the featured author at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Open Book Program at the Kent Branch Library at 6:30 p.m. May 13. The Kent Branch Library is located at 3101 Collingwood Blvd., in Toledo. Osbourne will discuss her experiences, answer questions and sign books.
For more information, contact QUPress@bex.net