Oct. 6, 2023

The Fabric of History

Quilting our intricate, messy, beautiful society into art.

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! God is making the American!” David Quixano, the main character in Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot, praises cultural unification in the United States after fleeing a Russian pogrom. Zangwill’s play was well-received and highly influential in making “the melting pot” a commonplace analogy for United States society—but how accurate is the phrase? 

Even at the time, critics asserted that the metaphor deprives immigrants of their cultures and customs, denying the existence of different cultural roots—never mind that at the play’s opening, fewer than 50 years after the Civil War and the subsequent dismantling of Reconstruction, the celebrated harmony of United States society referred only to Europeans. It points somewhat meaningfully to the contemporary mindset of white homogeneity in the U.S.; which people and cultures were welcome in the melting pot?  

Since then, the idea of a melting pot has fallen away in favor of other metaphors, such as a salad bowl or a cultural mosaic. These phrases attempt to honor differences in culture and to recognize the complexity of the past: acknowledging that some of those cultures come from people stolen from their native lands, and that the land where these cultures now mix was itself stolen from its native people. 

During the development of Intelligence, the creative team may have come across a new metaphor, surrounding something that is not only central to the opera’s story, but also speaks to the multiculturalism of the United States. How about a quilt? 

In the first scene of Intelligence, Mary Jane and Lucinda sing a duet that begins playfully and jauntily about sewing and stitches, that then transforms into gorgeous, sweeping melodies through the poetry of needlework inspiring storytelling: “Which pieces of cloth will tell the story? My story. Our story. The story of what came before. Though I don’t know where I come from, and I don’t know where I’ll go, I know there will be more to sew into my story. Our story.” 

They sing about sewing because Mary Jane is working on a quilt. In the opera, she is a seamstress to the Van Lew family, and so, too, was her mother. We do not know anything about Mary Jane’s mother from history, but we know Mary Jane herself was a skilled sewer. In an 1870 letter to Elizabeth Van Lew, the last known source of information on Mary Jane’s life, she declines Elizabeth’s offer of money or returning to Richmond—Mary Jane says she will make money on her own, taking up sewing and teaching. 

Later in the opera, Mary Jane examines the opulence of Varina Davis’s dresses. She has an idea for sending intelligence to Elizabeth Van Lew: sew the secrets into the hem of those dresses. “What does it cost to make such things? … All so beautiful. Threaded with flesh, and blood, and bone, and despair…and secrets…sewn into the hem.” The operatic plot point comes from a historically accepted narrative of the Van Lew spy ring that has since been disproven. Though we have no historical evidence for Mary Jane sewing secrets into quilts or dress hems, it remains a poignant metaphor in the context of a quilt representing the cultural makeup of the United States. What secrets are sewn into our history? What stitches do we need to tease out to let the truth be told?  

As the Mary Jane in our opera learns the truth about her family and her history, Lucinda shares the shirts, dresses, and quilts she has sewn. “Mary Jane, take the things I sewed and make a new quilt. And with clothes from the children torn from their mothers on the African shores, the American shores and the auction blocks, you will piece it together—a quilt so vast we will see it from heaven and know that we are not forgotten. You are here to tell the story. The whole story.” 

Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, coincidentally has a unique relationship with quilts. It was here, in 1974, that Karey Bresenhan started the International Quilt Festival, now the largest quilt show in the world, attracting over 50,000 visitors annually. This year the festival takes place November 2-5 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, concurrently with Intelligence, offering an interesting perspective that highlights the historical significance of quilting, its connection to our opera, and how both art forms serve the power of storytelling. 

Bob Ruggiero, VP of Communications for the International Quilt Festival, spoke to us recently about the history of the festival and quilting as an art form. “When quilts first started being made, they were strictly utilitarian, to keep warm, to put on the bed, to carry things with,” he said. “They slowly became—in the last 50 or 60 years—a majority not to be used, but to be displayed and hung on the wall. It’s art, just like painting and sculpting.” 

Art is storytelling, whether narrative or symbolic, and quilting is no exception. Ruggiero spoke about a collection of quilts by one artist, whose brother had a mental health issue and was killed in a tragic encounter with authority figures. Her series of quilts was related to her grief, to her brother, to mental illness, and together, they told the story of her journey. 

Melting pots don’t tell stories the way quilts do. For a city and country as large, diverse, and complicated as ours, we could use a metaphor that not only represents where we all come from and celebrates the cultures we honor, but that also tells the story—the whole story—of our intricate, messy, beautiful society.  

After you experience Intelligence, imagine the quilt of Houston, of the United States; smile at the patch of fabric that represents your life; learn about the square next to yours on the quilt, and appreciate its differences; understand the artistry that exists in each section of fabric—and remember that we are all part of one magnificent quilt. āˆŽ 

about the author
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works for Houston Grand Opera.