Publication Date

November 3, 2023

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

I was very pleased to read Bryan A. Banks’s “The Unessay: A Creative and Audience-Focused Assignment” (September 2023) on innovative projects students can create to communicate their knowledge of a particular topic in history to audiences that otherwise would not read an essay on the same topic.

However, I was dismayed as I read the article to see that one of the projects that was discussed and illustrated was based on the very contested theory, first published in 1999 in Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard’s Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, that antebellum quilts made by the enslaved contained coded messages that would point those escaping slavery to freedom. A simple internet search for “quilt code” will bring up many websites and articles that discuss the quilt-code theory as accurate history, as oral history, and as fake history. There is no indication in Banks’s article that this particular student’s project is based on a controversial book and idea.

Every February, the quilt-code story makes its way into classrooms, students’ projects, and Black History Month features. We cannot discount the value of oral history and its importance in telling the stories of those who had no other way to record and remember their own histories. But with a topic like the quilt code, it is important for authors to note that this is a topic that still—after almost 25 years—is as controversial now as it was then.

I do think that students’ unessays can be useful in presenting topics that are controversial or have been shown to be wrong. But they need to be identified as such, and this student’s unessay project was not.

Martha Katz-Hyman
Independent Curator

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