|Lukasa, therefore, translates as
"memory boards." In 1993 Mary Nooter was curator of an earlier exhibition,
Secrecy:African Art That Conceals and Reveals, and editor of the publication by the
same title. Art, knowledge, and secrecy in Africa were the focus of that important work,
which demonstrated how history, religious beliefs, and cultural stories were translated
into designs and exhibited for all to see but few to read. We realized that it was
possible to hide messages in plain view using patterned, "decorative" designs.
We asked ourselves the obvious questions: Did these African traditions, celebrated
in what is today Senegambia, Angola, the Republic of the Kongo, and other regions from
where many slaves were brought to the Charleston area, have any influence on encoding
quilts? Did the American quiltmaking traditions, in which geometric patterns were given
names and meaning, invite appropriation by Black slaves and their descendants seeking ways
and means to continue their own encoding traditions? Is Ozella's story-code a cultural
hybrid, mixing African encoding traditions with American quilt patterning conventions? Can
we consider the African American quilt a form of lukasa? Was the lukasa
limited to the sculptural boards, or might there be other forms of lukasa? How were
colors used in this tradition? In Africa there was one person who might answer our
questions: the griot.
Stories were the primary medium of the African griot, whose task it was to memorize all important historical events for the village community and to recite history in a creative fashion. The African griot was the living repository of history in Africa and on foreign soil in the Americas. Anthropologists, historians, and folklorists have studied the continuation of this African tradition in plantation life and beyond emancipation. In fact, the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia have long been the focus of study for many scholars, such as Margaret Washington Creel, who wrote A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs.
The telling of history continues today within the African American community as stories are surfacing at family reunions where elders are breaking with decades of silence and are telling their stories, no longer in fear of retribution from vindictive whites or of being ridiculed by loved ones of younger, disbelieving generations. Many African American elders are saying, "Now it can be told." We must listen and respect their stories if we, both Black and white, are to preserve a valuable part of our American heritage, This is why we, the authors of Hidden in Plain View, looked to related stories about quilts, maps, and the Underground Railroad in order to glean information that might assist us in understanding Ozella's Underground Railroad quilt story.