Every stitch tells a story: A Black quilter confronts injustice

For generations of Black women, quilting has been a way to tell stories and protest injustice. In this video, we profile a world-renowned quilter whose work has taken a new turn as the country wrestles with racism. 

The stitches holding the cloth together trace a jagged, zigzag path – a pattern quilter Ed Johnetta Miller has never used before.

It represents the shape of her life, she says, as a Black woman living in the United States in 2020.

The quilt, which Ms. Miller made after the killing of George Floyd, is part of a new series of African American quilt exhibits opening in Minneapolis. The exhibits showcase a centuries-old tradition among Black women that’s drawing new attention in light of a national conversation on race.

Since the era of slavery, Black women have used quilts not only to keep warm, but also to tell their stories and protest injustice. Quilters use a variety of fabrics and other materials to form figures, words, and symbols to convey their message. Ms. Miller, whose work has been shown around the world, is known for her improvisational combination of colorful fabrics. It’s one of the distinct styles of African American quilts, “like a riff in jazz” with color, she says.

“We Black women, who know that injustices exist, have been using the needle, the thread, and the cloth to tell our story,” says Ms. Miller. “We will continue to tell our story. We will never stop telling our stories.”

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Reporters on the Job
The Monitor’s multimedia producer Jingnan Peng gives the inside scoop

I was researching how the death of George Floyd has impacted Black visual artists when I learned about the Women of Color Quilters Network. That group put me in touch with Ed Johnetta Miller. I instantly became intrigued when she told me the subject of her latest quilt: a fellow hospital patient she had encountered before the November election. The woman was terrified of not only getting COVID-19, but also being targeted by white supremacists at the polls. Ms. Miller, a quilt artist, sketched the woman’s face and then transferred the image to cloth. Looking at it, I was struck by art’s ability to make ordinary people monumental. 

Ms. Miller’s work is made for video. Her studio is full of vibrant colors, and quilting has a unique physicality in its cycles of ripping, snipping, sewing, and pressing. It was a joy to follow her hands with my camera, and I was fortunate that she was so open about her creative process.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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