Almost all of us are at risk of being treated as though we don’t count. The African Americans from the Black Belt hamlet of Gee’s Bend may appear quite different from well-off urbane people of any race, but they know what it’s like to work very hard with almost no reward. This is happening now to people of all races. People, if employed, are laboring for little pay and no benefits while billionaires try to manipulate them with fabricated narratives. This a story of how people are treated as though they don’t count, how the public’s memory is undermined to suit those who run society, in how they do it with tales passed off as truth. And of how to resist.
In 1997 when Bill Arnett came to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, he scooped up all the artful, improvised quilts on the cheap. Most rural the women did patchwork from patterns, but some also improvised, giving their quilts one-of-a-kind designs. In the Bend, the Freedom Quilting Bee had started in the mid-sixties. This co-op had a long run (lasting to the nineties), bringing in money, raising the status of the women, and training them in leadership. When Arnett began showing the patchwork, he and two sons said anything about the place and its people if it suited their purposes.
Knowing what happened around Gee’s Bend allows insight into what it means to treat a population as disposable over time. Mitt Romney attacked the 47% of citizens “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it” when they couldn’t pay for it on their own. Americans call this stance conservative, but in much of the world it is called neoliberalism. Ironically, a paraphrase of Marx’s Communist Manifesto is appropriate for the current threat of plutocracy: a spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of neoliberalism. (A word that derives from the 19th century doctrine of allowing markets total “freedom,” that now, with the prefix, means opposition to all regulation of the economic system.)
Well-heeled, the Arnetts are not anywhere near the very top. They may not consciously hold right-wing ideas. But, they go about pursuing their goals with the modus operandi of the upper elite: ruthless thoroughness, academic support, and excellent connections. When it suits their purposes they make up a preposterous tale. They emulate the rightwing who give us far-fetched stories (e.g., that Obama wasn’t born here), understanding that controlling the imagination adds to their power.
While the Census Bureau last year showed that nearly half of the population was either poor or barely scraping by, many have forgotten that it took regulation, progressive taxation, a good union, and government programs to alleviate the exploitation of his class.
Maurice Halbwachs’ Collective Memory says, “No memory can preserve the past.” What remains is only what society in each era can reconstruct within its “contemporary frame of reference.” Those in charge of most of the messaging currently makes sure that the myths that prevail are that Big Government curbs everyone’s freedom, that it is always inefficient, and that everyone benefits when the rich do. We hear that the antidote is unfettered private enterprise.
In 2008, when asked about the relationship between those he was showing at the Philadelphia Art Museum and those produced by the Freedom Quilting Bee, Bill Arnett bellowed, “The best thing the Freedom Quilting Bee ever did for Gee’s Bend was fail.” But the co-op was hardly a failure. A white activist founded it, with African American women from the community, as a project of the civil rights movement, and, like Arnett’s Collective in this century, had members who lived outside of Gee’s Bend.
History of Gee’s Bend
In a bend in the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend was a plantation purchased by white Pettways in 1845. They owned it until 1895, after which it had absentee owners. In the archives at the UNC library in Chapel Hill anthropologist Olive Stone’s notes record her interviews with a group of farmers who mostly farmed as renters before 1935, These toilers ‘cleared a little’ 21% of the time, other times broke even or went in debt, and were foreclosed 6% of the time. When they made any profit, it was more than $100 a year only 9% of the time.
As renters the Benders crammed their large families into pole-and-log cabins. There are memories of brutalizing work, hunger, cold, inadequate clothing, lack of schooling, informal schools that met only when there was no fieldwork, and of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease. The homes built with the aid of a government agency, are still lived in. Their two or three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a screened-in front porch seemed incredibly spacious. Even features like the backyard pump and an iron stove for cooking and heat were hailed as luxuries because water didn’t have to be hauled from afar and there was no open fire to smoke up the place.
Morton Rubin reports in Plantation County (1951), a study of Wilcox County, that a supervisor told him that the big landowners won’t need the new mechanical cotton pickers because they have so much cheap labor: “We’re raising more cattle every year, and when cotton out West gets too tough for us to match we’ll just stay with the cattle. Don’t know what will happen to all the niggers then. Guess they’ll have to go North.” When cattle and timber became the moneymakers in the late sixties and seventies, the man’s words became prophetic.
In Gee’s Bend tenancy had ended unusually. In 1932, as always, the Benders were in debt to supply merchants for feed, pesticide, equipment, and so on. The drop in cotton prices brought a squad, sent to the Bend by the chief creditor, that took literally everything. Fortunately, a philosophy that had feeling for the common good prevailed federally. The government bought the plantation, creating an agricultural cooperative that included the Bend’s first school to be publicly-funded, brought in medical personnel, and started a store and a cotton gin. By 1945, Congress ended the collective farm, and a government agency began selling the land at a low price and interest rate, to those with roots there.
The Department of Agriculture, reluctant to extend credit to blacks, was unfair about cotton allotments too. The businessmen that allocated county revenue did not see why taxes paid by blacks should produce paved roads. Nevertheless, the independent Benders lived much better than the tenants around them. The project houses may have lacked indoor toilets, and the proportion of arable land was diminishing, but the people had enough space and were comfortable. In the late sixties the farmers switched from cotton to cucumbers and pigs.
In the seventies, with segregation over, most of the remaining young, now with cars or sharing them, got jobs in urban textile factories. These paid better than the Bee. Older quilters stayed on at the co-op. People working for the communal well-being is anathema to rightist ideology, which defines “individual rights” as being at odds with the commonweal. But that attitude had not yet hit the Bend nor taken over in the country. Big Government aided the Benders in the thirties and forties, as did cooperative enterprise in the thirties, and then again, starting in the sixties.
Quilting in the Bend
Southern blacks, before the Civil Rights Movement, were a caste unprotected by the law. The Civil Rights Movement was supposed to change this, and it did. Yet, over thirty years later, under the brave new order of things, the Arnetts, took advantage of the quilters as though they did not count. Capitalism, as it is today, with the plutocracy growing stronger, makes life harder for almost everyone though the condition of African Americans is much worse.
The Quilting Bee came after tenancy for the Benders, and it provided hope and opportunity even if nobody got rich. But when Arnett’s companies put information on the Internet in 2002, they belittled the co-op. Nothing beats a passage the Arnetts put on a United States Postal Service website about Gee’s Bend commemorative stamps in 2005: workers for the Bee “felt constricted by the standardization of their improvisational techniques,” and the members would rather give up their earnings “than lose the unique aesthetic practices” that were traditional. This lie rests on the notion that the Bend’s traditions were timeless and immutable and reveals no awareness that members needed those earnings.
Actually, those that worked there say they “loved the Bee,” and the patchwork could hardly have been sold in department stores without the standardization the Arnetts deride. Members talked constantly about quilting, were given good cloth, and were lent good sewing tools. Their interest in patchwork reignited, they made one-of-a-kind quilts at night at home.
Arnett claims to be the “discoverer” of Gee’s Bend, and fostered the notion that he had found masterpieces from a lost place (his subtitle for an early catalog). But the Bend had already received public attention. In the 1930s the cooperative farm had spurred the first articles about it, one in the New York Times, and photos, some now in the Smithsonian, by New Deal photographers Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott. In the 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee and its quilts occasioned pieces in the New Yorker and in the Times, and its patchwork was sold in high-end New York stores. Vogue ran photos of its products. In the ’80s and ’90s there was Nancy Callahan’s 1987 Freedom Quilting Bee; a documentary film, “From Fields of Promises” (1995); and J.R. Moehringer’s “Crossing Over” (1999) in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
The Bend Becomes Famous (Again)
The Arnetts’ version of what they did for Gee’s Bend was transmitted so successfully that hardly anyone could believe, after the quilts were famous, that the Benders were still poor. In June 2007 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Matt Arnett said his family had put a million and said they would put in another. Neither happened. Paul Arnett’s research produced the notion that a slave-girl from Africa, later named Dinah, ended up in the Bend by way if an illegal slave ship that actually did spill its human cargo off Mobile in 1859. When an octogenarian getting Alzheimer’s first “remembered” parts of this tale, even her family had not heard it. The entrepreneurs were quick to recognize that an African slave in the Bend would have popular dramatic power.
The catalogs describe the Bend as “isolated,” with no influence from Western Art traditions. Surrounded by water on three sides, the place was hard to reach before cars, which gave its 10, 000 acres something of its own culture. But from emancipation on the people had found employment off-season outside, and brought home newspapers and magazines, usually for insulation. Modern artistic conventions could trickle down into their iconography because of this contact with the world.
After the show at the Whitney, Michael Kimmelman, New York Times art reviewer (November 29, 2002) described the abstract, often bold-colored, geometrical, frequently asymmetrical quilts as “miraculous works of modernist art.” He and others since have compared the quilters with a plethora of other modern painters.
As the exhibits appeared across the nation, the quilts’ reputation rose. But in December 2007 two women sued Bill, two sons, and two corporations. The plaintiffs rejected the claim that the Arnetts owned the intellectual property for older patchwork. Annie May Young, who never even tried to join the Freedom Quilting Bee—despite the Arnetts’ story that she was rejected by it—complained that she wasn’t paid for the use of images of her work. Both she and Loretta Pettway charged that they were paid only a “pittance” for their designs. In August 2008 the cases were settled out of court.
The population has shrunk to about 750 from twice that in the sixties. Present are paved roads, and gone is the buzz of young males hanging out in front of the general store. Cars have replaced wagons pulled by mules. Congress built a dam on the river just below Gee’s Bend in 1965, and a third of the rich bottomland was flooded. Soon the state took half of what was left for a park, paying $200 an acre. No one farms for profit there anymore.
County Road 29 runs from Gee’s Bend (officially, Boykin) through another hamlet, Rehobeth (now the unofficial name), and on to a third: its really all one community now. But in the Bend itself older people live mostly in houses built during the New Deal project that have been expanded and are in good condition. Brightly painted murals of quilts stand on the roads near the new ferry landing.
Qunnie Pettway was on her porch, festooned with small quilts that had asymmetric abstract designs and price tags. She had belonged to the Quilting Bee, and now was in the Arnett-organized Quilter’s Collective, which sells to tourists that visit. Defending Bill, she said, “He took a chance. Nobody know how things go when he lay out money to buy the quilts.” But she also complained, “Tourists mostly buy small things ’cause quilt is too high, and Matt won’t let us lower it.”
Tinnie Pettway came home after decades in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the heart of the Gee’s Bend diaspora. She owns “That’s ‘Sew’ Gee’s Bend,” which makes quilted items, and sells them on line, in her daughter’s store in Birmingham and in what had been the Bend’s general store. As a member of the Collective, she traveled to exhibits until Bill threw her out when she began her own business. He tried to keep her from using “Gee’s Bend” in the name but failed. In her small, cluttered parlor, she said, “Don’t he have nerve? And the ferry was took away ’cause we worked for voting rights, bit Bill act like we trapped here for forty-four years. You never know there’s County Road 29 to get to Camden and beyond!”
Rennie Miller, the Collective’s first manager, returned to Gee’s Bend after heading North, attending college in Rochester, New York, rearing a family, and having a career as a hospital administrator. She spoke in the spacious workshop that a New York architect built for the Bee back in 1969, and explained that when her family sharecropped in adjacent Rehobeth, the worst of it was the teenagers from the white landowning family. They taunted her and her siblings while they worked in the fields. Rennie said, “The humiliation was much worse than the poverty.” She added, “In 1997 Bill came to the area, grabbing quilts paying very little. I thought he would do right at first. But he thought of us as his goldmine.”
Bill’s fable about the Bend made it a place where time had stopped. He painted the residents as humble, simple, and rooted. Interviewed on public TV he said that they “stay in one place, and they marry within the community” (actually there was always some interchange of people). The Arnetts’ Internet articles used to say that the former slaves were still working there as sharecroppers or tenants!
His story has it that the community profited financially, yet the only ones that made any real money are Mary Lee Bendolph; her niece, Loretta Bennett, who designs at home in Huntsville; and her daughter-in-law, Louisiana Bendolph, who works at home in Mobile. The choice of this family seems to be related to it knowing not to make trouble. The exception was a cousin, extraordinary artist Loretta Pettway, a plaintiff.
The Arnetts used proxy propagandists. Elyzabeth Wilder’s play “Gee’s Bend” does not mention the back road or the cooperative farm. These parallel omissions indicate that she was influenced by the Arnetts’ “script.” The play has the husband able to buy land in 1941 because his strong work ethic makes the purchase possible. (At market prices, the cost was more than any tenant could earn.).
In Patricia McKissick’s picture book, Stitchin’ n’ Pullin’ (2008), a child is told that her “Great-Gran” did not belong to the Quilting Bee, which made members stick to rules, because she “chose to stay free. And Matt Arnett’s introduction declares, “Gee’s Bend has remained unchanged over the years.” But the Bee itself brought positive change. Kids were sent to college with money earned there. They acquired indoor plumbing, refrigerators, washing machines, added rooms, and have Social Security.
Lovett and Loretta Bennett, high school sweethearts who loved their youth in the Bend, now live in Huntsville but remain involved. As president of the Arnett’s Foundation, Lovett knew that when gallery sales occurred, the checks were made out to and sent to the their office in Atlanta, rewritten, and then sent on to the bend. No one knows how much went to the artists. To get back fourteen of Loretta’s quilts, the Bennetts had to get legal help. (Others too never saw their quilts again.) After the lawsuits and the economic downturn at the end of 2007, the kind of sale involving hefty sums stopped. Lovett and Matt “had words” because Matt didn’t want the Collective to sell quilts on line.
Born in Rehobeth, where they sharecropped, Rennie’s mother Nettie and her husband bought property in the Bend in 1955, and in time she became the competent assistant director of the Freedom Quilting Bee. When she died, Matt Arnett was asked to bring to the funeral two of her quilts that he had borrowed. He came without them, making a sentimental, almost fulsome speech about the deceased, with the family’s usual veneer of intense feeling.
Nettie, moreover, was never paid royalties for a design from a 1971 patchwork that has been used repeatedly in rugs the Arnetts sold to corporations. None of the quilters received royalties. The designs were sold in rugs and in quilt-making kits or as replicas to housewares companies. Dissolved as a nonprofit in Georgia in 2005, the company got nonprofit status in Delaware, a “corporate haven.” If the company is not for profit, why sell to home decorating companies?
In 2008 had there been a jury trial, it seems likely that the judgment would have been in the artists’ favor. Matt had offered Loretta Pettway a thousand dollars for the rights to her designs. Illliterate, she wanted a copy, and he said that unless she signed immediately the deal would be off. Wouldn’t a jury have asked why her signature was needed, if, as the Arnetts claimed, they already owned the intellectual property for the older quilts?
Nowadays the hardship of Gee’s Bend’s inhabitants is eased more by property from the long-ago Big Government project than by income from patchwork. Many folks have grandchildren or great-grandchildren with them. Sometimes their adult descendants, poorer still, live, with their own kids, in trailers on their land. Since the Recession the quilters worry about progeny who went to cities for a better life, now anxious about jobs and homes. In the Bend, like elsewhere in the South, despite land ownership, there was a large migration to urban centers. The migrants did all right for a while, and then manufacturing disappeared. Then some, or their progeny, got caught in the financial crisis and foreclosure trap. The impact of our financial crisis on African Americans has been catastrophic: “almost all of the economic gains of the last 30 years have been lost” (National Urban League report, 2012).
Arnett still has about seven hundred quilts in his warehouse, a heist of the Bend’s heritage. Yet in 1993 “60 Minutes” had charged him with shady practices, and Andrew Dietz’s The Last Folk Hero (2006) tells of his unsavoriness. The Benders might have been more wary, but so much was being said about how they lucky they were. The dealers sought to convince the public that their object was the advancement of African American art, and they make sure that is how they are depicted.
Assault on Memory
The Benders used to help each other and enjoy one another’s company, but since the entrepreneurs from Atlanta came, there are arguments over whether Bill’s stories were true, and if Benders should be proud of the recognition they received, or say, as some do, “the Arnetts made fools of us.” The wider society has moved away from community values, and residents and recent migrants are affected by exposure to this and to the entrepreneurs’ myths. Many are unsure of what to believe and to recall.
This time the Bend’s fame gave the quilters travel opportunities, and the promise of money and celebrity which only one actual resident achieved). The positive impact of the Bee and its values slipped from the recall of some whose families were not involved. In an Arnett catalog, Louisiana Bendolph says that there was nothing in her experience for which to feel pride until she became, in her words, “Louisiana Bendolph, the Artist.”
Loretta Bennett was also born in the Bend in 1960, yet has a different frame of reference. Growing up feeling good about herself and her birthplace, she remembers her mother Qunnie working as a member of the Bee, and passing on the credo that the Bend was special because of its cooperative values. Bennett cares about individual accomplishment, but, like the civil rights generation, she believes that community matters.
Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), writes about Communist Czechoslovakia. One of his big concerns is the assault on memory. For him, kitsch is part of how it’s done. Ironically, the threat today comes from the rightwing economic and political policies that became widespread in the developed world in the last thirty years.
When Bill put Matt at the helm in 2010, many descriptions of the Bend were removed from the Web. But the information provided is still often incorrect and remains kitschy: that is, stereotypical, fake, marketable, and sentimental. A Wikipedia entry states that many of the quilters “now have real money for the first time.” They don’t. This is the type of thing that prompted Kundera to define kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit.” He means everything that is unpleasant is replaced by a sanitized version. When the Arnetts transformed the quilters into lovable folk characters, Tinnie said, “Why they always say we humble? We got pushy women too.”
A description of an Alabama public TV film used to say about the Benders: “They leave behind a sort of residual joy—as though they are . . . examples to the world that the key to true happiness possibly does exist in human relations, not in material wealth.” This treacle should be compared to some recent bitter remarks about the Arnetts.
Rifts and Resistance
Bill stunned an exhibit last spring by announcing, ” Traditional quilting is over in Gee’s Bend!” Mary Ann Pettway, a quilter and the Collective’s manager, felt abandoned at first, and there were the inevitable quarrels about what to do. The group continues to sell to visitors, and in Gadsden, Alabama Mary Ann has organized on her own a fine show of her quilts and those of others. Furious about how the Collective was treated, she is searching for other opportunities for exhibits. Meanwhile, Matt Arnett has reconsidered discarding the Benders, and some quilters contributed to his exhibit of their work, near Atlanta. He wants them to sign “exclusivity agreements,” another bid for total control.
Unless Americans learn how to create a movement that will stop the power of the very rich, most folks, including those not yet poor, are likely to live deprived and humiliated on a figurative plantation. Activists are laboring to help people to resist—e.g., the labor action at Walmart. These efforts don’t get enough attention from disheartened workers who don’t recall narratives of successful political activism and haven’t seen participant-led small business, such as the reborn, energized Collective. More should be done with narratives – memoirs, movies, plays, songs, TV shows, fiction – about how resistance has come from workers’ organizations and small, independent enterprise (including co-ops). Think of Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” The Benders and all those made to feel insignificant must be offered modes of resistance that sound effective and provide cheer, to remind folks that the neoliberal spectre can be subdued.