By LaWanda Dickens
This month The MLP is celebrating the life of literary icon, Toni Morrison, who died one year ago. In our remembrance of Morrison’s legacy, we are highlighting the artistry of Dr. J. Janice Coleman. Her creation of The Beloved Quilt, which she designed thirteen years ago, began as a tribute to one of the most significant characters in Beloved, Baby Suggs, but developed into a larger project.
There are many ways to tell a story.
Dr. J. Janice Coleman, Professor of English at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, is known for her gift of storytelling through quilting.
In one of her most unique creations, The Beloved Quilt, she combines artistry with her appreciation for Toni Morrison while celebrating the tradition of quilting – as she experienced it during her childhood and as Morrison addresses it in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.
Coleman is a native of the historically Black city of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, known for its rich heritage as a place founded by two African American men, Isaiah T. Montgomery and Benjamin T. Green.
While Coleman says she grew up in a rural community where “not many things were available” to her, one valuable resource she did have was scraps. Old, discarded pieces of cloth, which she considered golden because of her mother, aunts, and other women around her – all masterful quilters.
“I think I started sewing quilts in the womb,” Coleman told The MLP, “since quilting was just a part of everyday life in my world, and fabric scraps were so plentiful. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, which turned into a lifelong passion.”
Describing her childhood in Mound Bayou as characteristic of certain scenes from any given Morrison book, Coleman appreciates life as it is presented in Beloved. Not only did Morrison write about the rural Black woman’s experience in communities much like Coleman’s, but quilting was a common theme in her work.
When Coleman read Beloved for the first time, she developed an immediate interest in the matriarchal character, Baby Suggs, a quilter. In January of 2004, Coleman reread the novel and experienced a renewed bond.
Referencing a passage from Beloved, Coleman discussed the psychological trauma Baby Suggs suffered as a former slave, “Morrison describes her life as a ‘sober field’, which is represented in one of Baby Suggs’ quilts, made of black, brown, navy, and gray wool. Among the dull colors are two bright orange squares.”
Coleman explained that the orange squares, overshadowed by dark squares, “highlight the lack of color in Baby Suggs’ life”.
Although Morrison’s description of the quilt is limited to a brief mentioning of color, it is often viewed as a ringing examination of systemic destruction in the Black community.
Coleman’s 2004 reacquaintance with Baby Suggs inspired her. She started designing The Beloved Quilt on July 5th of that year. It was her way of honoring the indelible character.
“Since Morrison didn’t go into detail about patterns, you have to use your imagination to picture how the quilt looks, so I created what I saw when I read about the quilt.”
Based on Morrison’s description in the novel, Coleman designed a miniature version of Baby Suggs’ quilt, seen above. When she crafted The Beloved Quilt, her own version of Baby Suggs’ design, she built on Morrison’s description, adding personalized text and images to underscore central themes in the novel. Coleman’s quilt is an expression of empathy with not only Baby Suggs but the protagonist, Sethe, as well.
“On the front of my quilt, the centerpiece represents Beloved’s headstone,” Coleman told the MLP.
A ghastly presence in the novel, Beloved, is Sethe’s deceased daughter.
“In the book, ‘Dearly Beloved’ were the only words on Beloved’s headstone because Sethe didn’t have the resources to purchase all of the letters she really wanted.”
Through her imaginative thinking, Coleman delivered a tremendous gift to Sethe.
“I had the resources to help her get exactly what she wanted, so I put the ‘Rest in peace’ on her baby girl’s headstone, at no charge.”
Coleman added that, “Seamstresses can do things like that when they’re creative.”
The tribute continues on the back of Coleman’s quilt. Meticulous and deliberate, she stitched 132 headstones framed by two trees positioned at the left and right margins.
Text appears in two areas.
In the top right corner, Coleman stitched, “If recovered, please return to 124 Bluestone Road Cincinnati, Ohio,” the address to the home that Sethe moved into after her escape from slavery.
The bottom right corner holds Coleman’s label, displayed in the tradition of quilting research. Explaining the significance of each line, Coleman, stated, “People who study quilts often want to know who made them, where, and the time frame.”
After Coleman completed the quilt in 2007, she realized that she had more work to do. The project led her in an unexpected direction.
“Once you start creating something, it will take on a mind of its on, and if you don’t listen, it will start making demands. It’s no longer yours.”
What began as a tribute to Baby Suggs evolved into a collaboration between Coleman and other characters.
Coleman told The MLP that, “other characters and certain images from the novel wanted to be involved, so it turned into a separate project, a storage sack for the quilt.”
Just as Coleman’s quilt points to Morrison’s examination of the psychological trauma and systemic destruction seen in Black communities, so does her storage sack.
Positioned in the top left corner, is Coleman’s redesign of the Beloved book cover, reflecting the approach she would have taken had she created it.
All other images on the sack reflect a character or prop that serves as a supporting element for Morrison’s critique of an oppressive culture and the lasting effects.
While Coleman’s quilt features Morrison’s more dominant characters, her sack hands the spotlight to characters who are less visible in the novel, yet highly influential.
The Beloved Quilt and storage sack were designed thirteen years ago, but both are timeless works of thought-provoking art.
Dr. J. Janice Coleman was nurtured by a community of powerful, quilting women in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. When she read Beloved for the first time and observed Morrison’s attention to the quilting tradition, she immediately saw pieces of her own story.
Her creations are instinctive representations of Toni Morrison’s legacy.
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