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An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

This book can be downloaded and read in Apple Books on your Mac or iOS device.


Following the trail left by an unfinished quilt, this illuminating saga examines slavery from the cotton fields of the South to the textile mills of New England—and the humanity behind it. 

When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of back-breaking fieldwork on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic slaves. Rachel May’s rich new book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to the Caribbean, the role it played in the growth of mercantile America, and the bonds between the agrarian south and the industrial north in the antebellum era—all through the discovery of a remarkable quilt.

While studying objects in a textile collection, May opened a veritable treasure-trove: a carefully folded, unfinished quilt made of 1830s-era fabrics, its backing containing fragile, aged papers with the dates 1798, 1808, and 1813, the words “shuger,” “rum,” “casks,” and “West Indies,” repeated over and over, along with “friendship,” “kindness,” “government,” and “incident.” The quilt top sent her on a journey to piece together the story of Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba—the enslaved women behind the quilt—and their owner, Susan Crouch.

May brilliantly stitches together the often-silenced legacy of slavery by revealing the lives of these urban enslaved women and their world. Beautifully written and richly imagined, An American Quilt is a luminous historical examination and an appreciation of a craft that provides such a tactile connection to the past.

From Publishers Weekly

Jun 11, 2018 – May (Quilting with a Modern Slant) uncovers layers of history and tragedy in this imaginative, if occasionally naive, reconstruction of the lived experience of slavery in antebellum South Carolina. The discovery of a multicolored quilt top in a dusty archive prompts May to delve into the story of its white creators the Crouch family of Charleston and the Africans they kept in bondage Minerva, Eliza, Juba, and Jane. May explores how slaveholding and resistance colored the practices of everyday life, from haggling over vegetables at the market to making quilts from fabric scraps. May draws both history lessons and intimate secrets such as the Crouches' guilt over the death of their infant son, whose brain was injured by a fall from a high crib from her analysis of letters and domestic objects in the antebellum world. Tackling household production, the slave trade, and textile mills, the book argues that the early republic not just the South was knit together through slavery. While May's writing can verge on melodramatic, as when she recounts "wanting to scream" warnings to a family member unaware of suffering about to befall her, her commitment to recovering the experiences of the enslaved people at the story's heart is admirable. "Imagine," she writes of Juba, having been freed: "Juba Simons chooses her dress carefully that morning, trying to decide if it will be the blue calico or green and yellow striped dress." It is a moment worth savoring, in a book full of them. Photos.
An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery
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  • $14.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: History
  • Published: May 01, 2018
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Print Length: 384 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: This book can only be viewed on an iOS device with Apple Books on iOS 12 or later, iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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