Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Frances E.W. Harper's "Undisputed Dignity"

"Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing for special patronage, then and there, the whole Negro race enters with me.'"--Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892

February 22nd marks the centennial of the death of abolitionist, feminist, poet, novelist, and Unitarian Frances E. W. Harper* (September 24, 1825-1911). My literature students and I will be celebrating the life of this great American during our Tuesday class meeting. We are using Harper, who lived across the span of the long nineteenth century, as our bridge from the antebellum era to the beginnings of 20th century black modernity. In terms of literary output, Harper was known primarily as a poet during the antebellum era, but published a number of novels (including Iola Leroy and Minnie's Sacrifice) in her later years. 

Her short story, "The Two Offers," wherein she responds, as other scholars (such as Hildegard Hoeller) have noted, to Emersonian ideas of "self-reliance" as she considers the condition of women in the 19th century, is widely regarded as the first short story published by an African American (in 1859). It is a fascinating look at the role of the artist, whose aesthetic and spiritual self-development often precludes traditional romantic notions of what constitutes happiness. I have posted links to "The Two Offers" and a few of her more well-known poems below.  Links to more of Harper's oeuvre can be found online with a simple Google search--the Plainfield Public Library also has several of her works.

In addition, we will be looking at two post-Civil War Harper speeches ("We All Bound Up Together" and "The Great Problem to be Solved") as our classroom discussion moves into the Reconstruction Era to consider how the preoccupations of African Americans moved from strategies for the abolition of slavery to strategies for becoming full participants in American society.

I hope folks will take a few minutes to look at these works by Frances E.W. Harper--I have posted excerpts from "We Are All Bound Up Together" here. Speaking at a women's rights convention one year after the end of the Civil War, Harper delivers remarks on overcoming harsh circumstances in her own life, excoriates President Andrew Johnson as an obstacle to American progress, and also takes white feminists to task for ignoring the struggles of black women in what she viewed as a serious betrayal of their common purpose. Harper also notes her protest of discriminatory treatment of blacks in public accommodations nearly one hundred years before Rosa Parks's planned act of civil disobedience helped push forward the momentum of the modern civil rights movement. 

This is an important speech--I hope that, after reading it (along with the other readings), you will agree that Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a true exemplar of the "undisputed dignity" of African American women. Links to the other readings are below the excerpts.

Excerpts from "We All Bound Up Together" 

"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and so¬ciety cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society can¬not afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members."

"This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail toreach its climax of success, until throughout the length and brea[d]th of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain."

"In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out its hands to a feebler race, and asked that race to help it, and when the peril was over, said, You are good enough for soldiers, but not good enough for citizens."  


Frances E.W. Harper, "We Are All Bound Up Together" (1866)

Frances E.W. Harper, "The Great Problem to be Solved" (1875)

Short Story:

"The Two Offers" (1859)
Selected Harper poems:
*The Frances E.W. Harper Literary Society operates out of the Newark Public Library.


sej said...

Following a week long celebration of the life and work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper organized by the Moonstone Arts Center, Philadelphia, PA, a graveside commemoration was held Sunday, February 27, 2011 in Eden Cemetery, Collingdale, PA.


Prof. Williams said...

Yes, I wish I could have gone--I had a scheduling conflict--I am sure it was great!