This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces

By Kyra E. Hicks. 2009. Arlington, VA: Black Threads Press. 180 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9824796-5-0 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Laurel Horton, Kalmia Research

[Review length: 936 words • Review posted on January 12, 2010]

The experience of conducting historical research on obscure subjects frequently takes on the character of a detective story. The thrill of compiling clues in the form of small bits of relevant data rewards the hours spent deciphering handwritten documents or searching un-indexed public records. In the process of preparing research findings for publication, however, the author generally includes only the clues resulting from the detective work, perhaps lamenting that the full story of the search and discovery must remain untold.

What if an author decided to publish a volume that showcases the various episodes of such a detective story rather than attempting to place the findings within a single narrative strand? In essence, Kyra Hicks made that choice in presenting the results of her research into the life and work of Harriet Powers. Hicks first intended to compile an annotated bibliography on Powers, the African American woman whose two known pictorial quilts have received much public attention. And, indeed, this bibliography takes up over a quarter of the book’s pages, starting with “Major Works” in various formats, followed by books and catalogs, periodicals, unpublished works, plays and poems, and multimedia formats.

But in the process of asking “What does the literature say about this noted quilter and her memorable works?” (11) Hicks found that many published statements lacked verifiable references, were based on mistaken assumptions, and provided contradictory details. Starting with the most reliable sources, Hicks committed her efforts to uncovering the facts of Powers’ life and untangling the trajectories of her now-revered quilts.

Anyone seeking a simple, straightforward, chronological narrative of the Harriet Powers story will not find it here. Hicks directed her book “primarily for those, whether layperson or academic, interested in this marvelous quilter” (12). In short, this is not a one-stop primer on the subject, but a record of the author’s search for the fragments that, taken together, suggest the contours of that elusive story. Hicks assumes the reader’s familiarity with the basic story of the public exhibition of Powers’ pictorial Bible Quilt and her decision to sell it, “ownin ter de hardness of de times” (28), to Jennie Smith, the white artist who recorded Powers’ descriptions of the images in the blocks. Hicks addresses the individual elements of the story, examining each in turn, working through the various layers of retelling, identifying who added what, seeking first-hand accounts by actual participants. In addition to reviewing the literature, Hicks presents new research, primarily about the second of Powers’ surviving works, the Pictorial Quilt, which hung in the home of a wealthy Massachusetts family for several decades before the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired it.

One of the most remarkable episodes Hicks recounts from her treasure hunt is the discovery, in the files of a county historical society in Iowa, of a hand-written copy of a letter from Harriet Powers to Lorene Diver, who had tried to buy the Bible Quilt in 1895. Preserved in the handwriting of the unsuccessful buyer, the letter contains biographical information about Powers in her own words, including descriptions of two additional quilts. Hicks recalls that, upon reading the letter and recognizing its significance, she “just screamed and cried and screamed some more” (40). The reader shares the author’s exhilaration in the discovery of this previously unknown first-person narrative. However, it is possible that in her excitement, Hicks may have experienced a lapse in her rigorous commitment to verifiable facts. She sees the text of this letter as evidence that Powers was literate, contradicting a notation in the 1870 U.S. Census that Powers could neither read nor write (157). However, another interpretation seems equally plausible. The first three sentences of the letter, as copied by Diver, are cast in the third person before shifting to the first person for the remainder. While this might be a rhetorical device, it might also indicate that another person wrote the letter from Powers’ dictation, first attempting to provide a formal introduction, then transcribing Powers’ words—with or without modification. This possibility does not diminish the historic importance of this source nor should it cloud the joy emanating from its discovery. But it does suggest that this letter should not be considered unassailable evidence of Harriet Powers’ literacy.

Hicks clearly anticipated the difficulty in finding a publisher willing to accept a book focused on the process of compiling historical research and opted for self-publication. Did she make the right decision? Probably. It’s difficult for this reader to imagine how she could have done otherwise. An attempt to produce a simple, straightforward narrative of Harriet Powers and the other individuals who touched and were touched by her quilts would necessarily be overloaded with extensive citations for the various layers of interpretation and misinterpretation. Though some readers, particularly academics, will be put off by the unorthodox format and the informal comments of the author, those who relish the detective work of historical research are probably more willing to put up with the resulting convolutions and digressions. (I must admit that, in the process of reviewing this book, I have resisted the urge to share my own stories of similar treasure hunts in my research.)

Anyone who includes the quilts of Harriet Powers in their teaching or lecturing, or is simply “interested in this marvelous quilter,” will want access to the information in this book. Our American heroes and the stories we tell about them may indeed be heartwarming and inspiring, but knowledge about the specific events, interventions, and accidents that made them famous adds another dimension that helps us see them and present them as real human beings creating meaning in their everyday lives.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.