As recently underscored by the Pussyhat Project, craft—and especially fiber—has long been used as a tool of political activism and community unification. Such is the case with the 1930s TVA quilts designed by Ruth Clement Bond, of which MAD has three appliqué panel versions, made by Rosa Marie Thomas, in its permanent collection. In her only venture into quilt design, Ruth Clement Bond (1904–2005), and the African American women who executed the panels, broke ground for art entwined with political messaging crafted in the home. Through this project, Clement Bond, an educator and advocate for social change, redefined the practical uses and artistic limitations of quilting.
Despite being born to an affluent African American family from Kentucky and having a Master’s degree in English from Northwestern University, Clement Bond spent the years 1934–1938 in a segregated housing community with rudimentary amenities in Alabama. She moved there with her husband, J. Max Bond, PhD, who was working for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as director of the black workers in the construction of the Wheeler Dam—a New Deal initiative established the prior year. During this time, Clement Bond designed a series of quilts for a “home beautification” project for the wives of the black TVA workers, including Rosa Marie Thomas. The title of the series, “The TVA Quilts,” reflects not only the context of the pieces but also their subject.
Clement Bond’s designs were foremost a celebration of the expanded opportunities for African Americans under the New Deal. She undertook the quilts as part of a larger project to inspire other black women to self-reliantly make homes through craft. Perhaps because she herself did not know how to quilt, she deviated from the traditional geometric or floral patterns associated with quilting. Instead, she drew shapes on brown paper and selected colors and fabrics, which were then sewn into quilts or panels by communities of black women to create compositions reminiscent of the work of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.
One panel directly depicts the work of black men at the TVA through the black silhouette of a man directing a crane, surrounded by brown forms representing the dam. Another, colloquially known as the “Lazy Man quilt,” shows a black man holding a guitar, choosing between a life of pleasure, represented by the abstraction of a woman on his left, and a TVA job, represented by a uniformed arm tugging at his right shoulder. According to Clement Bond, “He chose the TVA job. It has a hopeful message. Things were getting better, and the black worker had a part in it.”
The most important piece in the series is the “Black Power” quilt, in which a black fist breaks through the ground, holding a red lightning bolt; a shining sun and an American flag occupy the panel’s upper corners. It was meant to signify the electric power that these men were providing to the area, but the quilt was interpreted by young black men interning for Bond interpreted it as a symbol of the power of African Americans as a people. Today, the raised fist of solidarity is most widely recognized for its use as a symbol by the Black Panther party in the 1960s, and Clement Bond herself stated that many believe the term “black power” to have originated with the TVA quilts. This panel in particular became an emblem of the effort to improve the quality of life of African Americans by African Americans 30 years before the civil rights movement. For Clement Bond, the quilt was evidence that “we were pushing up through the obstacles—through objections. We were coming up out of the depression, and we were going to live a better life through our efforts. The opposition wasn’t going to stop us.”
In subtle ways and in the comfort of their own homes, Ruth Clement Bond and the black women of the TVA conveyed messages about the importance of black labor and about their authority over their own lives. Clement Bond continued her work as an educator, diplomat, and advocate for women, becoming a founder of the African American Women’s Association and an active member of the Foreign Service Women’s Association, among many other organizations. The story of the TVA quilts honors the African American men who labored on this project, their wives who stitched their reality into these panels, and the legacy of black craft, which has transformed the very fabric of American history.
—Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy, Curatorial Assistant and Project Manager at MAD