Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State

Synopsis

A prominent early feminist, abolitionist, and civil rights advocate, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote and spoke across genres and reform platforms during the turbulent second half of the nineteenth century. Her invention of a new commonplace language of moral character drew on the persuasive and didactic motifs of the previous decades of African-American reform politics, but far exceeded her predecessors in crafting lessons of rhetoric for women. Focusing on the way in which Harper brought her readers a critical training for the rhetorical action of a life commitment to social reform, this book reconsiders her practice as explicitly and primarily a project of teaching. This study also places Harper's work firmly in black-nationalist lineages from which she is routinely excluded, establishes Harper as an architect of a collective African-American identity that constitutes a political and theoretical bridge between early abolitionism and 20th-century civil rights activism, and contributes to the contemporary portrayal of Harper as an important theorist of African-American feminism whose radical egalitarian ethic has lasting relevance for civil rights and human rights workers.

Excerpt

If this government has no call for our services, no aim for your chil
dren, we have the greater need of them to build up a true manhood
and womanhood for ourselves. The important lesson we should learn
and be able to teach, is how to make every gift, whether gold or tal
ent, fortune or genius, subserve the cause of crushed humanity and
carry out the greatest idea of the present age, the glorious idea of
human brotherhood.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (“Our Greatest Want” 160)

We don’t yet understand the distinction between the rhetoric of teach
ing and the teaching of rhetoric.

Shirley Wilson Logan (Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical
Education in Nineteenth-Century Black American
5)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State reconsiders Frances Harper’s work as primarily pedagogical and works towards an interpretation of the pedagogical constitution of nineteenth-century African American rhetorical culture. From its beginnings in the immediatist politics of early-century uplift organizations, African American reform rhetoric became the platform for moral suasion from which the nascent African American community employed social, economic, and theological theory to build a practice of resistance against the racial politics of the state. Focusing on the work of one historic exemplar, this book examines the ways in which didactic language, and in particular rhetorical instruction, can function as part of the political life of a people. Throughout, I make the case that African American nationalism in the nineteenth century existed largely by virtue of rhetorical action, the forming and maintenance of communicative networks that are ultimately difficult to conceptualize apart from the broader practices of social organization among reform communities. Harper helped forge a powerful political idiom from the perilous social ground of the post-emancipation era in the United States, and her writing and oratory, exceptional in their own right, open an important critical window on the innovations of political thought and rhetorical practice within the broader traditions of African American protest. Melba Joyce Boyd’s Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life and Work of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911 (1994) remains the only book-length study devoted to Harper’s life and work, and the subsequent chapters are intended to redress in part the relative lack . . .

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