"We Are Rising as a People": Frances Harper's Radical Views on Class and Racial Equality in Sketches of Southern Life

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After all whether they encourage or discourage me, I belong to this race, and when it is down I belong to a down race; when it is up I belong to a risen race.

Frances E. W. Harper, Letter to William Still, Greenville, Georgia, 29 March 1870 (Still 773)

These words of Frances Harper encapsulate the loyalty many African-American writers felt to their race during the social instability following the Civil War. As activists, they immediately set out a blueprint for the newly reconstructing nation, advocating the moral values, education, and suffrage that they felt were fundamental to attaining equality. As creative writers, their stories, poems, and novels represent the "trials and triumphs" of the emerging black middle class and affirm its upward social mobility to a white and black readership (Harper, Trial and Triumph [1888-89]). Between these roles, a crisis in political confidence arose among middle-class black and white reformers, who struggled to secure black suffrage while anxious about maintaining their own social level.

As a black woman, Harper would have been sensitive to charges that she was less genteel than her middle-class audiences, and, in a radical response, she sought to dismantle the class structure upon which discrimination against African Americans rests. Whereas, like Frederick Douglass and other African-American slave narrative writers, she could use Christian rhetoric and elevated diction to affirm arguments against slavery and to align with middle-class readers, Harper also aligned with former slaves and poor whites and envisioned a classless society. In her impressive sequence of poems, Sketches of Southern Life (1872), she promotes political solidarity among freedmen and the grass-roots workings of democracy. Sketches retells the history of reconstruction from the perspective of a freedwoman, Aunt Chloe, but refrains from dialect, thus rejecting stereotyped black voices. In so doing, Sketches enacts the social elevation for African Americans its author espoused, and it also answers contemporary critics who take an apologetic tone toward the recovery of poets like Harper, who, despite their political importance and artistic contributions, have been deemed artistically inadequate. (1)

As the most widely read African-American female poet since Phillis Wheatley, Harper's poetry has been unduly neglected. (2) The reason lies in the ambiguity of Harper's place in the modern literary canon, whose critics devalue the simple, vernacular phrasing and even rhythms of oral poetry--qualities that endeared her to a nineteenth-century audience. On the one hand, Harper's lyrics use the vocabulary of sentimentality that associates her with writers Mary Kelley calls "literary domestics" who press for political ideals--abolition, temperance, and Christian humanism. On the other hand, Harper's poems interrogate the very economic and class structure of society underlying racial oppression. Harper's talent emerged when she was only twenty. Forest Leaves, a manuscript of poems written in 1845 and now lost, places her within the context of nineteenth-century American women's nature poetry--spontaneous, untutored productions of a sensitive soul. Her commitment to politics became evident with Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, first published in 1854 when Harper was twenty-nine, and reissued with additions in 1857. It sold in the tens of thousands. Her most popular poems, such as "Bury Me in a Free Land" and "The Dying Fugitive," reflect her unparalleled success in speaking to her audience on political questions that were fiercely debated during Reconstruction. Their relevance alone should rescue her lyrics from obscurity for readers attentive to historical context and nuance.

Activism Vs "True Womanhood"

In order to appreciate fully the depth of Harper's literary response to the political situation for African Americans, consider her view of the Johnson administration's black suffrage policies in Sketches. …