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The African American Quilt Circle bolster a cherished tradition


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As I greet Sauda Zahra and Edna C. Alston, two principal members of the African American Quilt Circle (AAQC), at a Ninth Street coffee shop and we begin to settle in, I notice that the three of us have managed to overtake a substantial portion of the lounge area: one couch, two love seats, three chairs and two tables. Most of the furniture has been draped in a bright patchwork of hand-quilted and partially hand-quilted soft corduroy, striking cottons, coarse mud cloth and glinting embellishments. Resting on one love seat is a tall, brown, three-dimensional quilt, fashioned in the likeness of an African mask.

A passerby wearing a school lanyard and flip-flops wanders into our midst and twirls slowly among the quilts, eyes popping. "Wow," she breathes, "these are beautiful."

Zahra and Alston graciously accept the compliments. They should be well-practiced by now: The AAQC, founded in Durham in 1998 by four African-American women (Bertie Howard, Jereann King, Candace Thomas and Helen Sanders) now boasts over 60 members (including one man) and numerous achievements. Their works have been featured in two issues of Quiltmania magazine; in several exhibitions stretching from the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte to annual events at the Hayti Heritage Center to a recent showcase at the National Humanities Center; and on television in a 2008 episode of Heart of Carolina Perspectives.

Although the group has no formal mission, the primary idea at its formation was to preserve the tradition of quilting in the African-American community. Over the years, its philosophy has expanded to include other elements like giving back to the community through donations, teaching opportunities and community-building activities.

Both of the ladies in front of me are immensely charming. Alston, who has a warm smile and a gritty laugh, is the current facilitator for the AAQC. She says of Zahra, who possesses a quiet but intense beauty, "She's like a Picasso of quilting fabrics. She is an inspiration to me."

"What is it about quilting?" I ask. "What was it like at first, learning this art form?"

"It was very difficult at first," says Zahra. "I just kept trying and trying to follow instructions, [but] my inner creativity was trying to do it the way I wanted it done. [Finally] I said I'm gonna do it the way I want to do it, and that really released me to be the quilter that I am today."

This release is markedly apparent in the contrast between Zahra's first quilt, featuring concentric strips of contrasting patterned fabrics, and a recent creation of hers, in which a shimmery mermaid adorned in pearly beads, cowry shells and a metallic breast piece slithers off the edge of her stone-encrusted quilt of land, sea and sky. Both are wonderful, but the imagination radiating from the latter is breathtaking.

"I always thought that there was no way I was gonna sit there and sew block after block after block," Alston responds in her own time. "My very first quilt—that log cabin! I'd picked fabrics that were not traditional [like] the students had; in fact I'd picked African prints. And at the shop, the day I purchased the fabric, the lady made a comment to me, 'But you're making a log cabin.' And I said, 'But don't they have log cabins in Africa?' And then I'd picked my border, which had those long-necked birds—they may have been cranes—and she said, 'But these are cranes,' and I said, 'But don't they have cranes in Africa?' ... It's what you pick."

This is a sentiment that runs deep in the African American Quilt Circle. Although some of their great artistic contributions—a collaborative quilt donation to the replica of the famed Amistad freedom schooner; the quilts sewn for Gee's Bend, a Burning Coal theater production about a remote quilt ing community—focus on reviving historical forms of African-American quilting, the members of this circle feel strongly that all styles of quilting are encouraged.

"One of the most positive things, to me, about the group is that we have such diversity in terms of experience and the type of quilting that members are drawn to. Some may be traditional quilters. Some may be art quilters. Some may be more contemporary quilters. Whatever direction you want your quilting to go into, there's somebody in the group that supports that," says Zahra.

"You can come in with what you think is the ugliest quilt in the world," says Alston with a laugh. "When you leave an AAQC meeting you think you got a masterpiece."

To hear Alston and Zahra tell it, the AAQC has experienced a serene existence, unmarred by dissension or tribulation. Perhaps it's fitting for a group devoted to quilting. "We've experienced continuous growth," says Zahra. "We continue to grow. We know our purpose. We're stitched together."

AAQC has increased its contributions to events that stitch the community together as well. Members have quilted donation blankets for premature babies at UNC Hospital, high school graduates living in Durham public housing and graduates of the Oxford Manor Achievement School in Durham. The AAQC has also sponsored two Community Quilt Days, allowing local families to participate in hands-on quilting activities and share family quilts and quilting stories.

"Quilting is a tradition that is rooted in women's history, women's experience," Zahra says. "It was an outlet for women historically. [Not only were they able to] express themselves creatively, they were able to fulfill a need for their family.

"On a more personal level, quilting has always been important in the African-American community. It's a cultural thing—it's memories that we were able to preserve through our quilts." She explains that she grew up having never seen evidence of multigenerational quilting within her own family. "We have to keep that tradition alive. Otherwise, who's going to teach people about that legacy?"

When I ask about the AAQC's goals for the future, the women mention that they would like to participate in more of their community-service and education projects. And there's one more thing: They would love, someday, to have a space of their own for weekly meetings.

"Hayti Heritage Center [where the group has been gathering once a month] has been very nice to us. But having a space of our own is our dream."

The AAQC meets on the first Saturday of every month at the Hayti Heritage Center. Call 683-1709 for information.


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