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Remembering black history: Hystercine Rankin

I’ve long admired the mythical legend of the phoenix: a firebird bursting in flames of ethereal light, able to rise above even its own ashes. The depiction of the phoenix ranges across cultures, but its symbolism remains virtually the same: one of immortality, resurrection, and rebirth.

My grandmother had a talent for taking frayed and spare materials and incorporating those old pieces into beautiful new quilts. The pieces within these quilts, often tattered and worn, were given a second chance at life: a resurrection of sorts. She often called these scraps “remembrances of things.”

"Cotton Sunrise Quilt "(Official Title Unknown)
“Cotton Sunrise Quilt”

Born September 11, 1929 on a farm in the Blue Hill community of Jefferson County, Mississippi, she was taught hand stitching by her grandmother to help keep her 10 siblings warm. With time, my grandmother’s craft developed into one of an art form. She used her thread and needle to capture what I consider the dichotomy of past life in the rural south: both remarkable and agonizing, both beauty and cruelty unrivaled. One quilt tells the story of a dawning Mississippi sun: orange flames breaking a purple sky, smiling down of fields of cotton.

Another shares the poignant story of her father, murdered in the road by a white man in the Jim Crow south. Her father was murdered in 1939, a time when murdering black men was an acceptable pastime. His murderer was never brought to justice. The narrative from this quilt reads, “I will never forget that morning. [Dad] sent me to the spring … as I went to dip the water, I heard the 4 shots that killed my father.”

"Memories of My Father's Death" (1989)
“Memories of My Father’s Death” (1989)

A master quilter, my grandmother’s needle and thread took her all the way to the White House, where in 1997 she met former First Lady Hillary Clinton and was a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship: one of the nation’s highest honours for artistic excellence. She has been featured in countless articles, books and magazines, of which I am still discovering.

I’ve learned so many lessons from my grandma, and have most recently immersed myself in the concept behind her scrap quilts: how something imperfect serves as the foundation for something greater. She didn’t allow a flaw or blemish to discount a fabric’s place in a quilt because the end result was a collective beauty greater than any individual flaw. I’d like to think that those scrap fabrics used often represented seasons in my grandma’s life: beautiful and unique, but not without the tatters and frays wrought by the challenges of life. Toward the end of her life, she endured many hardships, including the loss of her husband and failing health. But she was fiercely independent up until the day she died. No individual hardship kept her from rising.

As an adult, admiring my grandmother’s scrap quilts have prompted me to reflect on my own life. Whenever I am tempted to look at past experiences and relationships with regret or frustration, I am reminded by her quilts that, like the phoenix, my tatters and tears are for a greater purpose. They are what strengthen and shape me: as rising from our personal ashes is what makes us most beautiful.

"Parchman Prison" at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, MS (Photo Compliment:
“Parchman Prison” at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, MS. (Courtesy of

My Grandma Rankin passed away in February 2010. I’m grateful that she left a legacy for the world to admire. I will always look to her scrap quilts and those tattered fabrics that she embraced, giving life anew. Here I recognize the character, the courage, and the contributions of my late grandmother, Hystercine Gray Rankin. She’s taught me so much about life; how the pieces, somehow and someway, tend to fall together. And life is to be embraced, flaws and all.

This post is dedicated to my friend Chris Davis, in the recent loss of his grandmother, Sarah “Baby Doll” Davis.