Thank you, Satyna.
The most lasting and authentic gifts are given from the spirit. In planning exhibits as the Curator of the Tennessee Valley Art Association, I can become blind to the beauty right in front of my eyes. I rush around planning exhibits for this year, reaching out to artists, installing artwork, racing to teach a class at UNA…..the list goes on, just like everyone else's. I don't stop near enough to feel, breathe, and simply be. I'm not unique in that.
Today (October 19th), I was given a real gift of communion and quiet with some of the ladies of the Mt. Willing Quilters, Reverend Dale Braxton, and retired Judge Susan Russ Walker, all of whom are working on the Sew Their Names - Hopewell Project in Lowndes county. I often say that my position with the Tennessee Valley Art Association has allowed me to meet people I have no business knowing - - folks I would likely have never met. Sometimes, these people are gifts that have fallen in my path. We should be aware and grateful that, for whatever reasons, some people, experiences, and moments are placed in our journey.
The Sew Their Names - Hopewell Project is working to document the names of enslaved people lost to our memory by pulling their names from some of the still extant church roles in the Black Belt of Alabama. This project may well be the only place where their names exist. Only a rare few appear to have been listed with a last name, which speaks to the majority being viewed as chattel property rather than full individuals with unique personhood. After we listened to Reverend Braxton offer his opening comments, we were treated to an acapella singing of How I Got Over that imbued the space with a deep, rich resonance and put our minds in the right headspace to take on the work of embroidering a name of one of these near-forgotten souls. Retired Judge Susan Russ Walker spoke about her research that uncovered the trove of names and how she and Reverend Braxton decided to embark on the launching of the project. Walker told us about her first conversation with Reverend Braxton – I began with, "I'm sorry." It was obvious that the two of them had had many, many conversations about the hard topics. We watched a short film, Sew Their Names, created about the project. You can find it on YouTube. We were given patient instructions on creating a piece for placement in future quilts. I scanned the pages of the names of the enslaved. Satyna jumped off the page to my eyes as if she was the only name on the page. I took it as a sign that she wanted me to stitch her name, remember, and bring her forward through a century of forgottenness.
There were many gifts from this day. I think the gift was not in the work of my hands. The gift was in giving honor to Satyna in some small way. To acknowledge a soul that lived through horror and whose visage we will never know. For so many on the lists, even their graves are likely unknown. Their name is the last part of them that may yet remain. The gift was in being able to do something so small for someone who had little opportunity to be a whole person in the system that wanted to dehumanize them - a system that I have to acknowledge some of my ancestors had a hand in shaping. The gift was in the beautiful regard we all held for each other as we ate, worked, and laughed together. The gift was acknowledging the past's wrongs our ancestral connections, and simply seeking to raise the forgotten out of the darkness. The gift occurred with the movement of my needle through the fabric as I slowly formed the letters S-A-T-Y-N-A. The whole afternoon was a gift. I will remember Satyna and try to carry her with me in my heart. Thank you, Satyna, for the gift you gave me.
Jonathan D. Cain
Tennessee Valley Museum of Art
511 N. Water St. • Tuscumbia, AL 35674