Monday, June 20, 2022

Quote of the Day (Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, on a Slave Mother)

“She is a mother pale with fear,
   Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kirtle vainly tries
   His trembling form to hide.
“He is not hers, although she bore
   For him a mother's pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
   Is coursing through his veins!
“He is not hers, for cruel hands
   May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
   That binds her breaking heart.”—African-American poet, abolitionist and temperance and women's suffrage activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), “The Slave Mother,” originally published in her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), anthologized in American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals, edited by John Hollander (1993)
I am glad to see historians’ growing attention to Reconstruction and the far longer Jim Crow era of reaction to the political and economic gains of African-Americans. It’s important to realize how easily such advances can be reversed.
But with the federal holiday of Juneteenth occurring today, I think it’s also important to remember that emancipation—and the horrifying Civil War that made it possible—also ended practices that would never be repeated. One of these was the breakup of slave families by their owners, a dread evoked in the above verses.
I had never heard of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper before I began looking for a quote in observation of Juneteenth—she never came up in my college courses on American literature nor American history in the 19th century—but I think her life and career are worth recalling.
Particularly in the antebellum era, this child of free blacks bore witness, through her writing and lectures, to the horrors of slavery—and implicitly refuted whites who perpetuated the myth of innate African-American intellectual inferiority.
For a deeper consideration of what Harper meant—for her time and ours—I recommend Eric Gardner’s 2015 post on OUPblog, Ohio University Press’s Website offering “Academic Insights for the Thinking World.”
The image accompanying this post, Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble's The Modern Medea (1867), was inspired by Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who, after being recaptured in the North through the Fugitive Slave Act, killed her own daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery.
Garner’s case—an example of the plight faced by African-American women under slavery depicted by Harper—also gave rise, a century later, to Nobel Literature laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), as well as her libretto for the opera Margaret Garner (2005).

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