by Suzanne Labry
The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.”
However, in the case of novelist Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, which topped the New York Times bestseller list in early 2014, art definitely imitates life.
A pivotal character in the book—an African-American slave woman whose “story quilt” plays an important thematic role in the novel—was modeled after Harriet Powers, the real-life African-American slave women famous for her pictorial quilts.
In an interview with Goodreads, Kidd was asked how she was inspired to make this character, Charlotte (called Mauma by her daughter, Handful), a quilter.
Kidd replied, “… I wanted a quilt in the story. It started way back with the old Greek myth of Procne and Philomela, which I read a long time ago. It has to do with two sisters, one of which wove her very tragic story in tapestry and sent them out into the world because she lost her voice. Her tongue had been cut out. So that was in the back of my mind.
“I wanted Charlotte to tell her story in some way, and yet she was illiterate. And then I came upon the slave quilts of Harriet Powers, who was an enslaved woman in Georgia who was born in 1837. Her quilts are just masterpieces of storytelling and narrative. And they hang in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Smithsonian. I made a trip to see the one in Washington, and I was just struck by its beauty. And it inspired me to have Charlotte be a quilter.
“So I wanted the quilt to be a visual memoir in which she could make meaning of her life and have her life witnessed and tell her story, which I think is very healing.”
Although the idea of a quilt as a means of providing a “voice” to those women whose circumstances gave them no other means of self-expression is not a new one, it is nevertheless valid.
However, new research by quilt historian Kyra Hicks has revealed that Harriet Powers was not illiterate.
Hicks discovered a letter written by Harriet Powers in which she states that she learned to read with the help of her white family’s children. Interestingly, in another art-imitating-life example in The Invention of Wings, Charlotte’s daughter, Handful, is taught to read with the help of the white girl to whom she has been “given.”
This remarkable woman, born into slavery prior to the Civil War, married at 18 and mother to nine children, had an unimaginably difficult life. And yet through her quilts, she is still inspiring us today, and even serving as the model of a fictional character who, like Harriet, uses a quilt to tell her story.