Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: A Proto-Africana Womanist

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: A Proto-Africana Womanist

Article excerpt


It is generally conceded that Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is one of the most important figures in African American intellectual history (Logan, 1999; Boyd, 1994; Loewenberg and Bogin, 1976). Login (1999, p. 44) describes her as "perhaps the most prominent, active and productive black woman speaker of the nineteenth century." But Harper was much more than a speaker. Emerging at the age of thirty-four as one of "the outstanding figures of her day," her professional career spanned fifty years as public lecturer, writer, poet, educator, journalist, activist and advocate of emancipation, human and civil rights and social justice.

The subjects of her writings and lectures represent an impressive intellectual range and included enslavement and abolitionism, human rights and dignity, women's rights and equality, racial and social justice, lynching and mob violence, voting rights, moral character, racial self-help and uplift, and multiracial cooperation for common good (Foster, 1990). Active in both Black and White organizations, she posed challenges to both communities to correct themselves internally and to work together based on common interests. She argued that freedom and justice were the rights of all humans and that each and all were obligated to struggle to secure these goods.

Perhaps Harper's most well-known literary accomplishment is her best-selling novel, Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted (1892). Moreover, she became an internationally recognized journalist and was the nineteenth century's best loved Black poet before Paul Laurence Dunbar with her work, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), which the community greatly applauded. By 1874 the volume, which included poems on the tragic circumstances of slavery had gone through twenty editions. In 1859, she became the first Black short story writer in the United States and her essays, novel, short stories, poems and letters established her place firmly within an African American womanist intellectual tradition. Therefore, Harper's speeches and essays provide insight into the Africana's woman's lived experience in an age of white supremacy in the nineteenth-century America and offer key concepts to the Africana womanist project.

As Harley and Penn (1978) state, many of the studies done on women including Frances Watkins Harper's life and philosophy have been done outside of the discipline of Africology or Africana Studies and as a result her work has primarily been placed in the feminist and literary studies field. (p. ix) However, recently strides have been made in recovering and critically responding to Harper's literary and oratorical accomplishments and the history of her Africana activism which can be counted as a contribution to of the tradition of Africana womanist thought. Also, over the years there have been many works published on the contributions of women to the history of Africana Studies, but there still remains a considerable void to be filled. My aim is to provide a critical examination of Harper's life and work that express the Africana womanist thought and practices she laid out and to explore how her conceptualizations might contribute to Africana womanist theory over a century later. (Dove 1998, 2003; Hudson-Weems, 1993, 2004; Phillips, 2006). I have designated her womanism "proto-womanism" to indicate her status as one of the first womanists in African American history and among those most important in laying the essential ground for the emergence of womanist in the 19th century (Logan, 1999; Loewenberg and Bogin, 1976).

The African-Centered Womanist Perspective

At the core of the past Black women faced challenges in giving their "voice" in concerns regarding the needs of themselves, their families and their communities. The imperative of pushing forth the agenda of the Black woman has been clearly demonstrated in the literature on Africana womanism, Kawaida womanism and womanism in general and Black feminism. …

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