Possessing Harriet

It’s 1839, and Harriet Powell, an enslaved woman who can pass for white, disappears from the Syracuse Hotel where she’s been staying with the white Southerner who owns her … 

Kyle Bass, Possessing Harriet, Book Cover

A worker at the hotel, a free Black man named Thomas Leonard, has whisked Harriet off to the home of his employer, an abolitionist named Gerrit Smith. While they await the cover of darkness to complete Harriet’s escape, she is engaged in conversation with Leonard, Smith, and Smith’s young cousin, Elizabeth Cady. In dialogue that crackles with energy and wit, all four characters reveal more than they intend. Finally, Harriet faces a wrenching choice: Return to the relative safety of her master’s household, or risk everything by fleeing to Canada? 

You may think you’re familiar with the debates leading up to the American Civil War — North v. South, white v. Black, abolitionists v. slaveholders — but playwright Kyle Bass offers a fresh take on old history. Drawing on real people and events, he unspools a narrative that contains “truth truer than the facts” (his words). Spoiler alert: It turns out that even some of our heroes (and heroines) had blind spots big enough for a horse and buggy to drive through. 

Kyle Bass, author of Possessing Harriet

A longtime resident of central New York, Kyle Bass is the author of salt/city/blues, Tender Rain, Bleecker Street, and Baldwin vs Buckley: The Faith of Our Fathers in addition to Possessing Harriet. He spent several seasons at Syracuse Stage, first as associate artistic director and later as playwright in residence. He is now an assistant professor in Colgate’s theater department.

“I did my research, but then I really worked to forget it and did what I call freehand portraits of these people,” says Kyle Bass in his three-question Living Writers interview about Possessing Harriet.

Meet Kyle Bass at Colgate on Nov. 10

We’re sorry that you missed Kyle Bass’s visit. If you’d like to see an archived copy of his presentation, please join the Living Writers mailing list.

Tell Us What You Think

We're sorry you missed our Nov. 7 discussion with Kyle Bass about Possessing Harriet. You can listen to a recording of the first 20 minutes below.

Follow the discussion on Twitter @ColgateLW using the hashtags #ColgateLivingWriters and #PossessingHarriet

Go Beyond the Book

  • Watch this trailer from the Syracuse Stage production of Possessing Harriet
  • “Nicole King is captivating and brilliant in the role of Harriet Powell. She delivers each line with power and intensity and her extraordinary acting skills are evident throughout,” writes the Broadway World reviewer of Possessing Harriet.
  • The Syracuse Library has correspondence between Gerrit Smith and other abolitionists as well as papers regarding Harriet Powell. Read more here.
  • “This historic location has become mostly forgotten. The name Gerrit Smith has little recognition. But this man and this place have earned their place in the history books.” Read more about Gerrit Smith and his estate here.

Tell me, Elizabeth: What color will my freedom be?

Possessing Harriet

Living Writers is organized by the Department of English at Colgate University with generous support from the Olive B. O’Connor Fund as well as the President and Provost/Dean of the Faculty. Support from the Arnold A. Sio Chair in Diversity and Community and the Upstate Institute helped make this event possible.


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