The Monument Quilt owes its existence to Black leadership. Last year, we interviewed Dr. Joan Gaither, whose master quilting practice sparked the inception of the Quilt and whose support and guidance continues to be woven in.
To kick off Black History Month we look to honor another leader who has been a part of the Quilt since the beginning– Deletta Gillespie. Deletta is a writer, musician, teacher, and activist who has traveled the world to share her incredible music and spirit. She attended the VERY FIRST Monument Quilt workshop at the Spiritual Empowerment Center, and toured as a performer during the 2014 Monument Quilt Tour (the very first displays of the project). We are absolutely blessed to have Deletta’s support and to work beside her. Check out our interview with Deletta to learn about her past with the Monument Quilt, her music practice, and how she sees the fight to end rape culture.
Read the full transcript here:
FORCE Studio – Interview with Deletta Gillespie
Interviewer: Thank you so much for being here today. So, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself.
Gillespie: Okay, I am Deletta Gillespie. I’m a teaching and performing artist, and my work sort of intersects in the area of social justice, civil rights, spirituality, and history. And I have been part of The Monument Quilt—let’s see—from the very beginning, and I was very passionate about the project from the beginning, and it ticks all the boxes in terms of things that are important to me, and then being a survivor myself, I felt really compelled to be a part of it.
Interviewer: What has your involvement been?
Gillespie: I was one of the—or, my church, The Spiritual Empowerment Center—was one of the first places where the workshop was held. And I just remember it being this really emotional—but there was a sense of kinship and a sense of sisterhood, even though many of us were meeting each other for the very first time. You know, there were people from outside that came into the community to assist with the quilt-making, and it was just a really beautiful experience.
Interviewer: Yeah! Yeah, do you want to talk about the story of that day? You know, maybe, how you heard about the project, how you got involved.
Gillespie: I am not exactly sure what the details are, if I have them correctly, but the short version is that our church was approached by two MICA students, and they were starting this project and wanted to come and make quilts to support survivors or to start a process of healing for survivors, and they were starting this big quilt that was going to end up on the National Monument lawn in a few years’ time. And also, we—our church—was also looking for more opportunities to engage with the community, as well, so it was just a natural fit from day one.
Interviewer: Is there anything else from that day that you remember that stands out to you?
Gillespie: I just remember Hannah and Rebecca being there, and all the fabric pieces, and I remember saying, “I can’t sew worth a crap!” [laughing] But it was okay! You can glue, you can write things down, and they just took the stress completely out of it. We have some people in our congregation who are really good at sewing, so we were like, “Oohh” and “Ahh,” and they had little pockets and messages under pockets! But the beautiful thing about it, again, like I said, was the sense of sisterhood and kinship, and that it didn’t matter what you brought to the table—that you were welcomed and accepted no matter what your skills were or weren’t, that there was still a place at the table for you and your story. So we were just sitting down in the basement, having refreshments, and sewing and writing, and expressing messages. And, if I remember correctly, Hannah was there asking questions and that sort of thing, so it was really a neat spot. People were very open, allowing their vulnerability to be present, and, yeah, it was just a really moving experience.
Interviewer: Thank you! That’s awesome. So, why do you think that this kind of work is important? Specifically, Monument Quilt workshops and The Monument Quilt.
Gillespie: I don’t remember exactly if this is—if the language is in The Monument Quilt’s or FORCE’s mission statement—I know it’s woven in there somewhere—about it being a public space for healing. And that is important because as we’re hearing now with the “Me Too” and all the other things the happened before that, you know, women and other folk who are survivors have been dealing with this for a long time and feeling the shame around it, feeling ostracized, or you know, just carrying around a really heavy load for having to deal with the emotional fallout of being a survivor. And, you know, I’ll share my own experience: I just published a book—shameless plug, panties UP, dress DOWN: Things My Mama Used to Say—and I talk about the abuse that I suffered at the hands of my abuser, and that happened when I was—35, 40 years ago, and some of the people in my family are gonna read this for the first time. I’ve not been in a place where I felt comfortable sharing that with them. But they’ll find out. I’ve kinda warned them. And you can see the un-comfortability about it. But, again, we need to talk, and we need to talk about these things so that maybe one day we don’t have to talk about them. That there won’t be a reason to talk about them. And maybe it’s pie in the sky, but we gotta start somewhere.
Interviewer: Yeah, we have to try, or we won’t get there unless—
Gillespie: Yeah! At least make it better for the women and other survivors coming behind us and know that there may be fewer survivors that are sharing this story—these kinds of stories.
Interviewer: And what you mentioned about your family finding out through reading and stuff—yeah, I think that a lot of survivors have to contend with that when they decide if they want to speak out generally, and if they want to become involved as activists in the work because, you know, people who are in your family or people you’re close to will ask you questions about it. Or, you know, they’ll see an interview with you or something and be like, “what’s happening?” [laughs]
Gillespie: Yeah, exactly. The other thing is that, even people that don’t know they’re impacted by survivors and their lives need to understand what it’s like—or, not what it’s like, but at least to begin to be open to having conversations about it. I think people are still really afraid to talk about it. And people that are not survivors are, sort of like they don’t want to talk about it, like there’s a fear around it. But I just remember when The Monument Quilt went to Oklahoma, and we had an event in Tulsa, and I was there, and I invited my brother to come. And at first he was like, “you know, it’s a women’s thing.” And it’s like, yeah, but you’re a minister and you have a congregation, and your congregation is comprised of women as well, and I think you need to come. And he says, “You’re right, Sis.” So he came, and my brother is like six-foot-two—he’s a big dude, right—and he’s standing there with tears rolling down his face like, “Sis, I’m so sorry.” And more people need to be impacted in that same way. You know? He said, “Oh, it’s a women’s thing.” No, it’s a human thing.
Interviewer: You know, we all live on Earth, so we have to take some kind of responsibility for it, yeah.
Gillespie: And I love it—the statement that Hannah and Rebecca were saying at the time when we visited Colgate—the number statistically of how many people are going to know a survivor or date a survivor at some point. You know, math is infinite, but at some point, we’re gonna run out of numbers [laughs]. You know, so we gotta sort of stem the tide while we can.
Interviewer: Yeah. So, you’ve been on tour with The Monument Quilt?
Gillespie: Several times.
Interviewer: Yeah, where did you go?
Gillespie: Oklahoma twice, Colgate…yeah, Oklahoma, Colgate…I think just those three times.
Gillespie: Yeah, I didn’t get to do the cross-country thing. Yeah! It’s a lot. The first time I went I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, there’s so much work to unpack in the trunk and getting everything laid out and measuring the quilts—
Interviewer: And that was back then!
Gillespie: That was back then. Right, I remember the one time, we didn’t have enough of—we couldn’t find the tape measure, and trying to eyeball it, and then the volunteers…but the first time I was like, oh my god. It’s a lot of work. So I was prepared the next couple times…and overwhelming! It’s like, we gotta get—ah—all—those—yeah. [laughing]
Interviewer: So what did you do when you were at those displays—were you helping set up?
Gillespie: Mostly helping set up, helping to answer questions, driving, helping to conduct the road songs—we sang a lot of songs on the way—yeahhh—we would take turns playing DJ and singing songs, and that was a lot of fun. But yeah, no, it was a lot of fun. That was primarily what I did, and then as I went on subsequent tours to be able to sing and share my music at the displays was really, really important and powerful for me to be able to do that. So I was really grateful for that opportunity to do that.
Interviewer: Yeah! Do you wanna talk a little bit more about your music? I know that you have been practicing playing music that has a history of revolution, right? Or resistance, I guess, might be a better way to put it.
Gillespie: Yeah, yeah! I do all kinds of music, but I have a show that has two versions: songs of protest, songs of peace. And one version is primarily focused on songs of the African diaspora—the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and we sing songs of both peace and liberation, and songs about, you know, the struggle for civil rights. And then I have a second version that caters primarily to women and to transgender folk and LGBT folk that are questioning their identity, or, you know, shifting in between. And so I have music that deals with—or the whole show deals with those kinds of songs that help people find—well, I mean, you know, it’s feel-good stuff. You know, a lot of sing-alongs. It’s evolved from the very first version—it had a very narrow focus at first, but it’s broadened since its inception, and so I like the opportunity to go out and share that as well.
Interviewer: When did you start doing the show?
Gillespie: That show had been on the books for a while, but the first time I actually premiered it was with The Monument Quilt.
Interviewer: That’s awesome.
Gillespie: It was in Oklahoma, at my brother’s church, actually. There weren’t a lot of people that were there, but it was still a really nice—it was still an opportunity to premiere that show in a safe space.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Gillespie: Yeah! And then we got to go out and eat with my brother, so it was really cool.
Interviewer: What other kind of music do you do? Or other general art stuff that you do.
Gillespie: I work in a variety band based out of Pennsylvania, I work with a lot of blues artists in the area, and I’m also a really big advocate—or I’ve grown into be an advocate—for roots in indigenous music in the United States. I think we’re losing our grip on that music, and so I feel like I’m a one-woman wrecking crew to try to bring that music to consciousness—you know, more people’s consciousness. So that, and then a lot of the music I write myself, I don’t intend for it to come out as being an anthem or social justice kind of thing, but I figured out that that’s what I’m supposed to do—it’s like I show up and that’s what comes out. So I don’t fight it anymore, I just say, “Okay, alright, let’s get to work.” One of my favorite songs—actually, it’s trending again, globally—is “If You Loved Yourself, You Would Do No Harm.” So that was inspired by me watching the Dalai Lama on television one day, and “Do no harm,” that just kept resonating with me. So I was actually trying to watch a soccer game—you know, I was flipping through the channels and I saw that and then I was trying to go back to the soccer game, and it was like, No. Go write the song. So it wrote itself in about forty-five minutes. So, I feel like that’s what I’m steered to do.
Interviewer: Yeah, absolutely. When did you start your music practice? Was that when you were a kid or when you were an adult?
Gillespie: Oh gosh, well both my parents are musicians. And so, I grew up with music in the house all the time. Everything from country—we had Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn—to blues—Della Reese, Joe Williams—and then pop people like Perry Como, and then gospel of course—my mother was a musician, she played eighteen instruments, and played in the church. She was the Director of Music at every church we ever went to. And so lots of gospel music and lots of sacred music in the house—it didn’t matter if it was “handle” as she would say, or, you know, old Negro spiritual. So there was just always music in the house, and I really didn’t think seriously about doing it as a career until much later. I had gone to school at the University of Oklahoma, studied broadcast journalism—that’s what I intended to do—moved to Seattle and I worked for the Seattle community colleges as an administrative assistant in the PR department, but the music just kept calling my name. So at 26, I ditched it all, and thank God, got a scholarship, and a year and a half later I sailing across the world on a cruise ship. So…that’s the Reader’s Digest version.
Interviewer: That’s amazing.
Gillespie: Yeah, and haven’t looked back. I always wanted to go live overseas, so I did—I lived overseas for fifteen years doing music.
Interviewer: Where did you live?
Gillespie: In Bermuda primarily. But I bounced around in the U.K. quite a bit as well—Canada, places.
Interviewer: Do you miss it?
Gillespie: A lot. A lot, yeah. I’m sort of subconsciously planning my escape—I really do want—you know, the U.S. is always gonna be home to me, but I really miss living overseas. There’s a completely different orientation to life in other places, and I miss that. The longer I’m away from it, the more I miss it.
Interviewer: Yeah, do you feel like there are lessons that people should be listening to over here for how to live, from stuff that you learned there?
Gillespie: That’s an awesome question. Yeah, the first thing is that it’s not about your stuff—it’s not about your stuff. It’s not about how big your house is. It’s about connecting to people. And, you know, we’re seeing the rise of a lot of alt-right stuff, and, you know, racism and prejudices everywhere—you never get away from it. But in other places you seem to be able to be a human being first. And that’s the pull. And I think that’s the lesson—I tell my students that one of the best things about our country is we’re separated by two oceans. I also tell them that’s one of the worst things about our country. We’re separated from the rest of the world by two oceans. And how obnoxious is it—how obnoxious it must be to call ourselves Americans, right? But there’s Central America, there’s South America, there’s Canada. Aren’t we all kind of on that same patch of land? So, what does that say about us, that we call ourselves Americans, but we’re just North American—we’re smaller than South America, even! So that tells you a little bit about our orientation and our identity and how we see ourselves in the world. And most people around the world, they just want, you know, a decent income for their family, they want to raise their kids, send their kids to good schools, and just have a good, comfortable, safe life. And if you’re living in a two-bedroom apartment in a tiny house—cool. You know? So I think that’s a lot—we’re just so into our stuff. And not each other.
Interviewer: Yeah, and then you can’t finish getting stuff ever.
Gillespie: Planned obsolescence! That’s one of the things I learned from my early training at the University of Oklahoma. Everything is planned, and as soon as you pay your phone off, it starts flipping out—okay, yeah, that’s by design. All the features you want in your car, they could have given them to you ten years, but no! They want to make you wait another five years and charge you another ten thousand dollars for it. My car is eleven years old. I go to D.C. and Pennsylvania on any given weekend, and I get home, and it’s good, and I’m driving that puppy ‘till the wheels fall off. Right. Anyway. That’s a long, extractive rant, but yeah. [laughs]
Interviewer: Yeah, and then I guess I wanted to ask, you mentioned when you first found out about this project, you knew that it would end in a display on the National Mall in Washington D.C. So I just wanted to ask: would the understanding that we are still in the planning phases of that event, what is your vision for…you know?
Gillespie: Honestly, you know, I’ve not participated in any of the planning or the movements or the retreats as I had wanted to—you know I’ve been very involved and not very involved at the same time. And that’s just sort of a circumstance of my life. But in so many ways, I think from my own limited perspective, that The Monument Quilt has already achieved—there’s no display on the Mall, per say, but people know about it. I can travel almost anywhere in the country and mention that and drop a couple of lines and get halfway through the description and people know what it’s about. So I think, in many ways, creating awareness—and again I go back to the idea and the initial plan to create a public space for gathering of survivors—I think it’s already been successful. And I think that—as we all do, I think, in life, when we are artists and visionaries—we have our view of what we intend for things to happen. And at the same time, there’s an energy that can take it way beyond what we ever envisioned it to be. And I kind of see The Monument Quilt evolving to meet—or should I say, the initial vision continues to evolve. But I think it’s already met its goals. And as far as where I’m from, it doesn’t matter if it ever gets to the Mall. It’s already done what it was supposed to do. And everything else is just expansion of that initial vision. Does that make sense?
Interviewer: Yeah, totally! Thank you. Do you have a message or a lesson that you’ve learned that you would want to share with other artists who are interested in social justice-oriented work?
Gillespie: One: follow your heart. Follow your heart. Every cause is not for you. And you can’t be a part of everything. Find what’s closest to your heart and do that. And the other thing is don’t feel overwhelmed because sometimes—you know, I don’t read the newspapers on most days…I pick a Sunday and I’ll do the Sunday edition, or if something grabs my attention, I’ll read it…I rarely watch newscasts unless I’m trying to find out what’s happening with the weather—I very much monitor my intake because you can get very much overwhelmed, and it’s very easy to get despondent about what’s happening. So, filter that. Go on “news fast”—I always advocate that—a lot of spiritual teachers advocate that—and then just serve in an area that makes sense for you and don’t get overwhelmed. Everything you do has a ripple effect. And somebody seeing you serve in a way may inspire them to serve. And it can be just a really small thing. But don’t discount the vibrational impact that it can have. There’s a Ted Talk—and I can’t remember the lady’s name right now—but she talked about meditation and meditating for peace, and apparently, when we descend into the deepest levels of meditation, we are at “delta wave” or “delta state,” and apparently the crust of the Earth is also comprised of delta waves. So when we get to that level where we can be that much at peace, the area, the Earth, around us also becomes peaceful. So the studies that they did years ago where, you know, they were trying to reduce crime in certain areas, or certain cities—I think it was five cities—and everybody says yeah, we’re gonna get more police out, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, and a group of people said, okay we’re gonna meditate. And during the times of that meditation, there was a noticeable decrease in the level of crime. So, everything matters. And the smallest thing you can do matters, so just be at peace with that. So, find something specific, do that, and don’t worry about the rest of it. ‘Cause you’ll go crazy.
Interviewer: Yeah. That’s good advice.
Gillespie: Yeah. I wanna do so much—I want to be a Greenpeace volunteer, be in the middle of the ocean. And then I want to be Black Lives Matter. Then I want to wear my pussy hat! And I’m an adjunct professor and I have a music career and things have to get done and you just can’t do it all [laughing].
Interviewer: Totally. Well, I think that that is most of the questions that I had, so, unless there’s something else you’d want to add.
Gillespie: No, just thanks for inviting me!
Interviewer: And thank you so much for making the time for this. Your contribution to the project has obviously been over several years and has made a big difference, and we’re really lucky to be able to have your music performances be a part of our programming at any time.
Gillespie: Any time you call me.