Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Tears of joy


I have known about the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama, for some time. My friend Candace in the Art Department ordered books on the subject for the college library, which I have perused. Astonishing that a group of older black women from one of the poorest communities in America took the art world by storm with their quilts of inspired and idiosyncratic design.

But I was not prepared for my reaction when I watched last evening an hour-long documentary, The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend (produced by Alabama Public Television, directed by Celia Carey). It recounted the history of the quiltmakers, spoke of the uniqueness of their work, and ended with a bus trip of the women to a major show of their quilts at Milwaukee's futuristic Art Museum (designed by Santiago Calatrava).

I don't cry easily, but the film brought me to tears.

Why, exactly? Why did I weep? I have no immediate connection to the women or their work. There was something of the Cinderella story, of course -- a few dozen desperately poor descendants of slaves become the toast of major museums, their quilts suddenly selling for thousands. There was the beauty of the quilts, and of the women who made them. There was the haunting loveliness of the Negro gospel songs that figure so prominently in the film and make up so much of the soundtrack. And the goodness.

William Blake wrote: "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps."

The tears -- nature or nurture? Are we born with empathy, or do we learn it? There has been some discussion here on the possibly innate origins of male aggression. A genetic predisposition to empathy might be even more problematic. There are reasons why natural selection would favor empathy between mothers and infants, and between close kin, but that hardly accounts for my weeping with the women of Gee's Bend.

Tears are physiological, and can be triggered by cold, onions, irritants, and other purely physical stimuli. But what is the connection between emotion and tear ducts? Studies have shown that women and girls are more empathetic -- and prone to tears -- than men and boys, but that doesn't overwhelmingly suggest nature or nurture, since boys and girls tend to be raised differently. Tom Lutz has written a book on the subject of weeping -- Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears -- which I read some time ago, and, although interesting, I don't recall that it threw much light on the nature vs. nurture question.

We'll know eventually, as the genome is decoded. I suspect it is a bit of both -- genes and nurturing. Still, what a thing it is that the story of quiltmakers from a one-horse town in rural Alabama can have me reaching for the tissues.

(The quilt above by Minnie Sue Coleman, born 1926.)