Sauda A. Zahra never crouched beneath a quilting frame in her grandmother’s kitchen. That familial experience many of her fellow quilters in Durham’s African American Quilt Circle (AAQC) remember — waiting for a needle to emerge through messy lining, led by a grandmother’s steady hand — wasn’t shared in her home. But that doesn’t mean Zahra won’t pass the tradition to the next generation.
“Quilting is part of the fiber of who we are as a country,” she says. “Ever since slavery, pieces of old work clothes, curtain scraps — anything you could find that you could tear up and put back together — were stitched to keep families warm. Our circle wants to ensure that as long as people are quilting, African-Americans are quilting, because it is entrenched in who we are as a community.”
The narratives woven through historical quilts bind the experiences of generations. And looking at these quilts offers insight into their creators’ struggles and triumphs. Harriet Powers, a slave and folk artist from Georgia, depicted biblical stories and local tales that inspire today’s artists. “African-American quilters walk in her footsteps,” Zahra says. “From her quilts, we glean insight about the time she lived.”
Zahra, whose quilts are displayed across the state and around the globe, takes comfort in the meaning others find in her work. Once, she saw a mother and her young daughter looking at one of her quilts, named “Sisterville.” Featuring images of women framed by words like “motivate” and “nurture,” it reflected Zahra’s appreciation of the AAQC. “The mother told me that she used that quilt as a teaching tool to empower her daughter,” Zahra says. “Through the words on my quilt, she connected with my intention, but made it personal.”
Those first quilts sewn by Zahra’s ancestors in the 1700s may not have been viewed as art. But their creators’ capacity to find beauty in everyday objects, and to pass on stories through their worn fabrics, finds life in every quilt shared through the AAQC. “Once you start quilting, it grabs ahold of your spirit,” Zahra says. “You have to do it. The first thing that touches us when we come into the world is some kind of cloth. When we pass, a cloth is put over us before we go in the ground. There’s something about the quilt that connects us all.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a freelance writer based in Greensboro. Find her archived stories here.