Quilting to Freedom
By Emily Novogradac
The potential depth a quilt can have is amazing, the time and effort that is put into it to make it unique and personal is something not many people can comprehend. I have made a few quilts in my lifetime and they are nothing compared to the skilled craftsmanship that Harriet Powers exhibits through her work of her second Bible quilt, which displays several scenes in an appliqued design. One thing that drew me to Power’s design was her use of the applique through her story telling understanding of specific Bible stories and other life events. The Bible quilt shows the religious beliefs that African Americans held on to while they were trying to endure slavery, as well as some of the undocumented skills that some of them gained while trying to survive such horrendous conditions during slavery.
Harriet Powers was born a slave in 1837 in Georgia. After she survived the Civil War, her and her husband established a small farm on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia, where she lived until 1911 when she died at the age of seventy-four. Her first Bible quilt was exhibited at the Cotton Fair of 1886 in Athens. This quilt displayed appliqued depictions of stories in the Bible that included: the tempting of Adam and Eve in the garden, the killing of Abel, Jacob’s dream, Judas at the last supper, and the crucifixion (Weisenfeld 21-22). The quilt is now in possession of the Smithsonian institution, and most of what is known about Harriet Powers comes from Jennie Smith, a women who took a liking to the designs she created. Ms. Smith was an art teacher and artist of considerable reputation, who was intrigued by the quilt and was curious about the woman who formed such an original design. Harriet originally refused to sell her first design to Smith, then a need for money arose. After Smith put her first quilt on display at the Colored Building of the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, Powers was commissioned to make another quilt for the wives of professors at Atlanta University. This second, more complex Bible quilt took more thought from Powers and is much larger than her first work, depicting fifteen different scenes, ten of which are familiar Bible stories (Weisenfeld 21-23)
This artifact was created after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted by President Lincoln, and African Americans were supposed to be done living under the conditions of slavery. Powers was freed and was unrestricted by slavery for the rest of her life. “Distorted views of African American made quilts began during slavery. Thereafter, it was difficult to document slave made quilts” (Cash 31). Although Powers was free when she was commissioned for her second design, her quilt making skills were poorly documented, only being recorded by Smith. Although not documented the quilt demonstrated skills that Powers’ most likely learned while living as a slave, through subsistence production. Most of the time when a slave was finished with their assigned work from their masters, they went off to work on producing commodities for local and distant markets as well as generating the surpluses that granted their masters such lavish lifestyles (Dunaway 151). Because of subsistence production, women ended up working, on average, longer and harder hours than men, “slaves built and maintained their own cabins… and crafted their own clothing, bedding, and shoes” (Dunaway 151). In readings about how slaves gained extra knowledge and skills, it is easy to ignore the fact that gaining a helpful knowledge in those certain tasks came at a great cost to those performing them. They were not always respected in regards to their talents, which is evident across many different skills including quilt making, referring back to the above mentioned comment on the difficulty in documenting slave made quilts.
Another observation that caught my attention was how Harriet Powers’ designs seemed to be mocking or putting down the very people who were interested in her work. She chose stories from the Bible which “concern the threat of God’s judgement” (Weisenfeld 23), making it seem as though deep down, or not so deep down, she wanted the white women that were interested in her quilts to question why those particular stories were chosen for them. Harriet Powers could have given them some of the less thought provoking stories that were simply about life and God, but she used the common stories that were passed down by word of mouth, that were told to help oppressed slaves overcome their hardships and endure through their challenges. Under the conditions of slavery, slaves did not have the permission to read or write, many stories were remembered from sermons or folk traditions (Weisenfeld). The second Bible quilt was commissioned for a Board of Trustees member of an educational institution, many of those establishments could not have been in existence if it were not for the economy that the slaves brought in for them.
Folk art is made “typically in cultural isolation by untrained often anonymous artists or by artisans of varying degrees of skill and marked by such attributes as highly decorative design, flattened perspective, strong forms in simple arrangements, and immediacy in meaning” (“Folk Art”). According to this definition, Harriet Powers is the epitome of a folk artist. However, during slavery some African American men and women were thought to lack aesthetic talents and engage primarily in field work (Cash 31), so the effort in hiding them and keeping their talents and skills a secret is what made people like Powers, folk artists. Of course whites were not willing to recognize the talents of the men and women they were enslaving, which would be admitting the two cultures were in some ways similar, proving their whole premise of enslavement invalid. This is also similar in the ways that some African Americans were unable to get married under Christianity, and how they were seen as a different family structure by some. It is interesting that when whites oppress blacks it is not a big deal, which is what they were doing to the African Americans at this time, and that is why it is still evident today as well.
Africans who were brought to the United States lost many cultural aspects all while they were denied basic human rights, they lost their families, and much of their faith and religion. One scene from Powers’ second Bible quilt depicts an event involving a rich couple and a runaway pig, four of the other images are of meteorological or astronomical events, only one of these events actually happened in Harriet Powers’ lifetime. Due to the fact that Powers had a very religious background, she interpreted these events as messages from God to mankind about punishment, apocalypse, and salvation (Weisenfeld 21-24). Powers focuses on the injustices that occurred when she was in slavery, yet she commissions a quilt for people who were slaveholders. In other ways this demonstrates how little African Americans had after their emancipation, many were left with no jobs and no money or land. Although Powers did have land, she still sold her first quilt and was willing to make a second one because she needed the money.
Something that I was glad to find out was that they have gained knowledge and documented how the African Americans of this time period influenced certain cultural elements, such as quilting. It would be a shame if we never knew the true impacts that another ethnic group provided just because the whites were all ‘high and mighty’ in their own eyes of the past.
Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of the African-American Tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80.1 (1995): 30-41.
Dunaway, Wilma A.. The African-American family in slavery and emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print
“Folk Art.” Dictionary.com. Web. 12 November 2015.
Powers, Harriet. Pictorial Quilt. [c.1895]. cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Weisenfeld, Judith, and Richard Newman. This Far by Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.