Sweet Clara and My Own

During a visit to the local library back when my daughter was four years old, I checked out several picture books, but the one I was most interested in reading with her was Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. For those unfamiliar with the book, it details the story of a young slave girl, a seamstress, who learned the specifics of the underground railroad from older slaves and then stitched a hidden map to freedom into the design of the quilt. She used the quilt map to stage her own escape, bravely leaving it behind so that others would know the way. The picture book is, of course, based on a true story.

While I was excited to share this empowering and beautifully illustrated book with my daughter, I was surprised by her reaction to it. In the first scene, Clara is set to work in the fields picking cotton, an occupation she’s deemed unfit for, and so she is taught to sew. I realized as I read the text that my daughter not only didn’t know what “picking cotton” meant, she didn’t know what slavery was. I told her plainly there had been a time in our country’s history when some white people owned black people and made them do all the work for them, like the tedious, back-breaking work of picking acres of cotton. Seared into my mind is the way my baby girl turned her big brown eyes to me, and, in absolute horror, asked, “They owned black people?”

The moment felt a little like I’d just made her watch a decapitation on live TV. The concept of slavery was unfathomable to her, terrified her. Instantly, I feared I’d made a huge mistake. I didn’t want to upset my daughter. All I wanted was to read a good book with her, give her a warm fuzzy or two about time spent with Mom and books.

She turned back to the book and pointed to twelve year old Clara. “Someone owned her? Like a dog?”

My instinct was to protect my daughter from such a harsh reality, to distract her with another story, to answer “Yes, but hey, you know what? I just realized we haven’t been to the park all week. Let’s go!”

Her eyes were back on me, demanding I answer her truthfully, hoping I would say slavery was a made up part of the book, a fiction. I took a deep breath. “It was a horrible thing, slavery. But yes. It used to be like that.”

Once again, my little girl pulled her eyes away from me and, with them, devoured the details in the illustrations. I knew I couldn’t yank the book from her hands. Not now. But I wanted to. I really did. I felt her innocence being crushed and my nature screamed to stop it from happening.

And then the Spirit spoke up, whispering to me if four year old girls could live a slave’s life, my four year old daughter could certainly withstand hearing about it.

And so we dug into the picture book. I read the text and we soaked details from the illustrations. I provided her the backstory of slavery, including some of the darkest details, only because the Spirit had just told me, if Sweet Clara had lived it, my daughter could hear it. A book that probably should’ve taken ten or fifteen minutes to read took us over an hour to get through. She never looked at the other books I brought home, but carried Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt with her, scouring the pages she couldn’t read but desperately wanted to understand.

I wasn’t prepared for how deeply this book effected my daughter. Years before she was born, I’d taken a trip to New Orleans with my mother, who purchased a souvenir ragdoll for me—a slave girl with brightly colored bows in her plaited hair. I’d felt uncomfortable receiving the doll, but didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feeling. I kept the doll on a shelf in a closet. But my little girl remembered where it was.

I gave Minkie to her and she carried that doll everywhere. Walking into a Walmart in Mesquite, Texas holding the hand of a little white girl who is holding the cloth hand of a little black slave doll is not an experience for the faint of heart. Oh yes, people looked. Sometimes long and hard. I tried to explain to my daughter that a white girl carrying a slave-like doll might bother some people, but she only gripped the ragdoll tighter. Her reaction taught me I’d be wiser to stop worrying about what others might think I was teaching my daughter and concentrate on re-enforcing her compassion. By the time my daughter gave up dolls around 10 or 11, her room was filled with black dolls. If there was ever a choice between the light-skinned version of a doll and a dark-skinned one, she chose the one with the darker skin.

I’m nearly 50 years old now. It’s a stunning thing to age. Yet in all my life, save people encountering the scriptures for the first time, I’ve never seen a book so powerfully shape a human life. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt taught my daughter kindness, compassion, responsibility, courage, free will, and to stand strong when your mom suggests you shouldn’t do something, even if it’s a good thing, because of what other people might think. It astonishes me how close I came to closing that book and taking it away from her, all because I feared it might be too harsh a reality for her tender, four year old sensibility. The Spirit whispers such wise things and I’m very grateful that sometimes I have ears to hear.

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15 Responses to Sweet Clara and My Own

  1. Grant says:

    It’s in stories like this that the phrase “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” really hit you on the head. Great story!

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    A very powerful story that encapsulates many of the issues that surround storytelling and how it can impact our lives. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  3. Mary Walling says:

    I love this story. It has truly touched my heart. One of my nearest and dearest friends in high school was a beautiful black girl. I loved her dearly. Thanks for this story.

  4. JoAnn Arnold says:

    What an amazingly, beautiful story. Thank you.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks all who took the time to read this.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, that was beautiful, thank you.

  7. Brett Wilcox says:

    Thanks for sharing such a powerful story!

  8. Vicki Firth says:

    Your story has effected me. I have never read this book, but I will now. I am proud to say that my ancestors were a stop on the Underground Railroad in Ohio. I am thankful you shared this with me.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      You should be proud to be descended from such brave people, Vicki. Really, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt is a wonderful book. Many schools incorporate it in their curriculum about 3rd grade, I think. I didn’t say this in the post because I weary of the old “tears in our eyes” lines, but by the time Rachel and I finished reading, we were both crying deeply. I’m not sure if my crying made her cry or vice versa. Its just so painful to think of what people–children–had to endure under slavery.

  9. Marilyn McPhie says:

    What a beautiful memory. Thank you for sharing it.

    Historians are still working on the traditional idea of a “freedom quilt.” Lots of research on-line and off. Here’s one article: http://www.quiltersmuse.com/an-american-quilt-myth.htm

  10. Harlow Clark says:

    Lovely story, Lisa. Thank you. So did anyone ever say anything to you about the doll?

    The story reminds me of a haunting passage from Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace. In chapter 5, “The Burden of Race,” he says that race is a far greater burden to him than AIDS. He mentions being at an AIDS benefit with his wife and daughter Camera and her friend Austin, who brought Camera a doll, a white doll, and he couldn’t get away from the voices in his head telling him what other people would say about a black girl playing with a white doll on national television and he had his wife do something clever to get the dolls out of sight, make the dolls disappear.

    He knows perfectly well that if a white person had made a black doll disappear it would be a profoundly racist act, and the anguish of that knowledge gives the story a poignance that has stayed with me probably 15 years, even though I put the book down at that point because I had to take it back to the UVSC library. I found a copy at DI, though, so I’ll get back to it eventually.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      No, Harlow, no one ever made a comment that I heard. People did look and I was often uncomfortable. When I was out with my daughter and her “slave” doll, I kept my chin up, trying not to make eye contact, but I did feel as if my ears and all other mommy-senses were on high alert. I feared someone might say something my daughter would hear that might upset her. Never happened. I’m sure she thought everyone was looking at her bc her dress was pretty. Its interesting how much time people spend afraid of being misunderstood where race is concerned. I felt on edge everytime Rachel and Minkie came shopping with me.

      There were mom-friends of mine who commented because it seemed unusual for a child to repeatedly prefer dolls that don’t look like her or her family. But those comments were always pleasant and based on curiosity. I simply told them the story of reading this book.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Hm. Just reread that and it sounded a little contradictory. When she first began carrying the doll, I was always on the watch for anyone who might be offended. After a while, I learned to ignore the looks, keep my eyes in other places, but I still felt alert to potential problems. Hope that’s clearer.

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