Hard Road to Travel
How Long, O Lord?
Historians often tell us that, at the outset, the Civil War was not about preserving or abolishing slavery. But there is no doubt that “the slave question” was one that had been present since the founding of America; one that kept resurfacing, demanding to be resolved. The elimination of slavery eventually became a stated goal of the federal government and a major driving force for the Union with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862. Shortly after the war’s end, slavery was officially banned with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December, 1865.
In an attempt to represent the mood of a variety of segments of American society in the pre-war and early war era, I began researching African slavery, as well as the Underground Railroad movement. In conducting my research I happened upon Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book is a fascinating account of an oral family history, shared with Ms. Tobin by Ozella McDaniel Williams, describing how enslaved men and women encoded messages within quilt patterns that helped fugitive slaves in their quest for freedom via the Underground Railroad.
As I began planning Hard Road to Travel, I was caught up in this intriguing story, and initially envisioned a very straightforward presentation of a slave, laying a quilt out for airing; a quilt which contained the “monkey wrench” pattern, the first pattern of the “code” as related by Ms. Williams. However, as I continued my reading, I discovered that the book was based on a single oral history and informed conjecture, not yet verified by other sources. The book did direct me to many other sources which provided information about African textile patterns and symbols, about slave-made quilts, and about the roots and realities of slavery itself. Gradually, I began to see connections of present-day racial issues to the slave issues of the past, and began to speculate on the impact these would have on the future. For this reason, I wanted to expand the image to depict more of a metamorphosis or cycle, with one segment dissolving into the next. I determined I would retain the image of a slave woman laying out a quilt for airing, as that would have been part of her seasonal work, but would take it in a different direction than originally planned: the quilt itself would become a sort of “canvas” for the road the slaves had traveled thus far; an illustrated tapestry of both their past and present conditions.
The red-and-white quilt pattern contains various images related to slave history, and gradually transforms into one version of the “flying geese” pattern, symbolic of both the slaves’ individual successes in escaping enslavement, as well as of the eventual elimination of the institution of slavery. The silhouettes of flying geese in the upper right corner of the painting are heading in the direction of the North Star, an important marker for escaping slaves as they made their way to the northern states. And the tree, with its roots growing down into the past, and branches reaching up into the future, indicates that the past and present are permanently linked, and that the quest for unity and equality continues into the present day and beyond, into the future; the lightening sky at the horizon is symbolic of a new day.
In the years since my completion of Hard Road to Travel, Hidden in Plain View has generated a tremendous amount of controversy, with historians lining up in agreement that the oral history it presents cannot be taken as proven historical fact. In this light, the title, Hard Road to Travel, actually takes on new meaning; the history of slavery continues to “travel a hard road” into the present day, as historians continue their quest to discern fact from fiction.
For a key to the symbolism used in Hard Road to Travel, please visit QuiltSymbols.htm.
Read the text of Amy V. Lindenberger's presentation, A Hard Road to Travel: the Hidden in Plain View Controversy and Historical Art, presented at The Women's History Symposium at the Cyclorama Center in Gettysburg National Military Park on April 3, 2005.
View the next painting in the series: Conflict of Interest
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August 20, 2009