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HARRIET POWERS DISCUSSES HER QUILT

The article in fact reveals Powers's attitudes and personality. After the introduction it proceeds to the eleven panels of the quilt and Powers's comments on them. These comments are written in dialect—at the time practically a literary convention in transcribing the words of African Americans—but the ideas are precise. Powers presents herself as an artist working out of the deep sense of personal humility many firstrate artists feel in approaching their work, of thankfulness for the artwork as a given—as received rather than produced—and of herself as a channel through which a greater power was speaking. She says that her intention was to “preach de Gospel in patchwork, ter show my Lawd my humbility.” In other words, the oral tradition of the African American slave, through which all religious beliefs and legends were communicated, is transmuted into the rich African American visual tradition. Moreover, in the patchwork—pieces of fabric otherwise unusable—the quilter finds a fitting metaphor for herself as the humble individual willing to offer herself and her talents to a great task.

Could this humility have been a pose? Possibly, considering the skill southern African Americans achieved in communicating self-effacement in the presence of whites. Yet the religious feeling Powers brought to her work is undoubtedly genuine, and much of it must have been evident in her life—one of her sons, we know, became a minister. Whatever her intent in construing her claim and her metaphor, however, she establishes here yet another important characteristic in her makeup—a highly poetical sense of language. She discusses her work pithily and at times cryptically in the article and in her metaphors gives evidence of that abstract quality of mind that is clearly visible in her designs. But she also remarks, with more than a hint of the prophetic in her voice, that the quilt will not simply tell a story but make plain an event of universal importance. Having established herself as the humble artist, she feels empowered to enter onto a great theme: “Dis heah quilt gwine show where sin originated, outen de beginnin' uv things”—the five panels of the Garden of Eden story.

Powers's references to the first panel show her keen sense of humor, some of it directed at herself, but also the care with which the quilt has been wrought. Lucine Finch praises her fine stitching but must have been surprised at the meaning invested in every figure. Even the smallest


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item is significant. Powers knows exactly why a figure was portrayed in a certain way. For instance, the devil, in the form of a snake, is presented with feet—an obvious reference to God's curse on the snake in the Book of Genesis, that it would, forever after the events in the Garden, move on its belly. The reason given for the feet is humorous but not without serious implications: “ter get aroun' man, chile.” Here is our first indication of how very aware Powers was of the symbolic quality of her work. The feet are not merely feet but a sign of guile, which itself points, in a later panel, to even more mysterious and terrible qualities of the devil.

In the same panel, Powers illustrates “forbidden fruit, or original sin.” The figure with which she represents original sin is a dressmaker's form (drawing from the astute Miss Finch an exclamation point). Here the form signifies not only the vanity through which Eve is traditionally supposed to have been seduced by the devil but also, with deliciously comic and ironic effect, Powers's own talents as a seamstress. Asked about the intricate trimming around the neck, Powers responds that it was designed “to ketch de eye er mortal man.” That is one of the aims of her quilt as well, indicating that catching the eye of mortal man was, at the least, a morally ambiguous act. The next panel continues the symbolism and the moral message. It represents Adam and Eve in the presence of a peacock, added to symbolize “dey proudness befo' de fall”—an extension of the idea of the dressmaker's form. Interestingly, the dressmaker's form and the peacock are female and male symbols respectively—a hint that Powers might not have been content with the traditional view of the Fall as the consequence of Eve's sin alone. Where there is iniquity in the story, there is also equity. Not for the first time in the quilt, Powers steps forth in feminist guise.

The third panel is one of the quilt's most striking. It represents “Satan in de Seven Stars,” the seven stars being the Pleiades. Shorn of his creaturely mask in the Garden, the devil appears in his real form—a black figure with one pink eye (“sinister in its effect,” Finch comments). The movement from the local event in the Garden to the dominant place of evil in the universe here goes back to Powers's intention of explaining how evil sprang from the beginning of things. She is not entirely forthcoming about this figure, however. The devil's “yuther eye is behin'” and “wusser 'n dis one,” she says. Asked to explain why Satan is holding one of the stars, she replies, “Dar ain't no tellin' dat, chile; no tellin' dat.” Such is the weight of meaning of all the other


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figures in the panels that Powers probably could have given a direct answer had she so chosen. Perhaps she only wanted to exaggerate the mystery of the figure, perhaps she was commenting on the ultimate unknowability of the great powers of the universe, perhaps she was working out of a symbolism (rooted in African lore) that Lucine Finch would not have understood. Or perhaps she knew that to explain too much about a work of art is to risk explaining it away. One of her most powerful figures, in any case, remained her secret, and remains so to this day.

Panels 4 and 5 focus on the story of Cain. Powers establishes firmly here a major part of her color scheme: positive figures (like Abel) are portrayed in white, and negative or at least morally ambiguous ones (like Cain) in what Lucine Finch calls “drab” or black. Abel also has sheep, which are sewn in white. Along with the small doves pictured in the first two panels, we see here the visual interconnections in the panels that lead up to the appearance of Christ the Lamb, as well as the Holy Ghost. Of Cain's slaying of his brother, Abel, Powers remarks that the stream of blood from Abel's death wound is “flowin' over de whole worl'.” In other words, Cain's act ushers death into the world, just as Christ's crucifixion and resurrection later bring in life, attained through the shedding of his blood. In such instances, Powers proves that she is theologian enough to know that the Creation story, in Christian belief, prefigures Christ's coming. It is no small matter, however, that the color white in much African symbolism is associated with the supernatural. Further, in panel 5 we see another possible African symbol: the lion, associated with Cain, according to Powers, “fer to prove de strength of Cain.” Such use is reminiscent of the Fon tapestries, where animals are portrayed not for their own sake but as totems of kings.

Panel 6 shows Jacob's wrestling with the angel in a dream. Powers whimsically remarks about the spotted ladder: “I couldn't turn myself loose in color, honey! De animals' calico 'blige ter run over in de ladder. Dar wa'n't no yuther way.” This explanation provides yet another instance of Powers's artistic eye at work. It reminds us that she makes two kinds of statements about the quilt in the article: the first is about meaning, related to the traditional Christian story, at which we are invited to experience wonder; the second is about craft. The first falls into the category of mystery; the second, of knowledge. Powers is never more sure of herself than when she explains why she adopted a certain


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color or design, saying flatly that there could be no other approach to the subject. But there is yet another arresting feature of this panel: the angel with whom Jacob wrestles is female. Quite apart from the possibility that the angel is an anima figure, Powers again takes a proto-feminist stance, countering traditional illustrations of such angels as male. Panel 6 also operates as a bridge between the story of the Fall in the Old Testament (panels 1–5) and the story of Christ in the New (panels 7–11). The choice of subjects for the panel is particularly apt because it shows man at odds with God as the result of the Fall, summing up the entire human experience from Adam to Jesus in one panel—a remarkable example of Powers's narrative economy.

The five panels presenting the life of Christ, in contrast to the Old Testament story with its linear development, dispense with chronology. They are ordered as follows: Christ's baptism, the crucifixion, Judas's betrayal, the Last Supper, and a portrait of the Holy Family. Powers carefully chooses her emphases to balance the older story. For instance, the baptism, in which the dove of the first two panels reappears, symbolizes the rebirth of the spiritual in the world, severed by the events of the Fall. Powers says that “de dove is kissin' him, an' John a-leadin' him by de han' like a chile,” stressing not only Christ's renascent spiritual quality but also his humility, which stands in such contrast to the pride of Adam and Eve in panels 1 and 2.

Panel 8, the crucifixion, counters the image of Cain's killing of Abel. Powers sews three suns into this panel to show the various stages in the event. Lucine Finch, quoting Powers, says, “First it [the sun] is black, the rays white, when ‘darkness come over de worl’ in dat minute.' Then it is white, ‘when de good Lawd accepted,’ and then turned to blood.” Also in red is the wound in Christ's side. The phrase “when de good Lawd accepted” hearkens back to the initial dispute between Cain and Abel, which revolved around a sacrifice; God accepted Abel's sacrifice and rejected Cain's, just as here Christ's sacrifice is accepted. Powers makes one remark that seems to baffle Finch: “Wipe it out in de worl', wipe it out in de worl'.” Yet these words are not so difficult to interpret: the “it” is original sin and its sign, the blood shed by Cain; Christ's blood has come to “wipe out” the stain of both sin and Cain's villainy. Powers was not, as Miss Finch assumes, being mystical.

The ninth panel shows Judas with his thirty pieces of silver: the man of sin, the human equivalent of the devil in the third panel. Referring to the silver coins, Powers says, “Missy Coomby counted 'em for me. Cos


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I kin count 'em backwards same as I kin count 'em forwards, an' dat ain' no way to count!” I have been unable to identify “Missy Coomby,” but the notion of counting backward is part of the folklore associated with witches and conjurers. To do anything backward is to upset the proper order of the world for evil purposes; thus counting backward is “no way to count.” Further strengthening the identification of this panel with panel 3, Powers produces a disk at the bottom, representing the “whole worl' wid sin on top of it.”

Lucine Finch's discussion of panel 10, the Last Supper, marks the last time we hear Powers's voice. Once again, she is concerned with the design elements of her quilt: “I giv' de Lawd a plate,” she says. “I couldn't spare no plate for de 'ciples.” This seems a small point indeed, but great works of art are made of many small points considered. In such comments we see the working out not only of Powers's meticulousness—also represented, for instance, by the fineness of her stitches—but also of her keen ability to see the relation of parts to the whole and to use symbols precisely. Christ alone has a plate because he is the true feast of the Last Supper from which all will feed. As always, her artistic economy is striking.

The final panel presents the Holy Family, the antitype of the family of Adam and Eve. What begins with a family ends with a family. The individuals who produce the beginning of history are replaced by individuals whose appearance heralds history's end. A certain circularity is involved, though the idea of loss and restoration is foremost.

Lucine Finch's article ends at this point, rather sentimentally, as she notes her own “wistfulness” in the presence of the quilt and her view of it as deriving from the “unbidden pathos” of the “deep heart” in all its sincerity. As I have tried to show, however, there is much more involved. Powers's comments both reveal her personality, invisible until the recovery of Lucine Finch's article except for what could be inferred from her quilts, and show how her mind worked—its basic generosity and its ability to deal with dramatic and complex events in concise form.

Since the 1970s much has come to light about Harriet Powers. The layers in which her life had been concealed have slowly been peeled away. Her life, family, and background are now, to a greater extent than ever before, accessible. But there is still much to learn and much work still to be done. For example, I have suggested that Harriet Powers may have encoded African images into her quilt. If so, for what purpose?


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Was she engaged in Africanizing Christianity? Was the quilt really a visual means of passing on oral material about an African belief system? Did Harriet Powers fill a role in the African American community apart from her apparent roles as mother, good Christian, and quilt maker? In investigations of this kind, one hopes, the core of the Powers story will be revealed.


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“A SERMON IN PATCHWORK”
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