Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"In the Sunny South": Reconstructing Frances Harper as Southern

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"In the Sunny South": Reconstructing Frances Harper as Southern

Article excerpt

A woman of words and might, with poetic sensibilities, "enlightened" intelligence, and professional savvy, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper rarely recorded personal reflections of her life and career. She was a popular writer and political activist as well as a devoted wife and mother. Though she had few close relatives, she operated within a supportive network of prominent nineteenth-century African Americans like abolitionists William Still and Frederick Douglass, the evangelist Francis J. Grimké and his wife, the poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. This rich historical context has both its advantages and disadvantages. These references provide clues about the circumstances of Harper's own life in light of her contemporaries. They often lived in the same areas (or visited each other), participated in the same political organizations, and/or attended the same social events. Yet, such important details about Harper's life uncollected make writing a full-length critical biography a necessary though unfinished project to date.1 It is because of her extensive literary canon that she is memorialized at all.

Frances Smith Foster has made archival materials for Harper more readily available. Her critical reader, A Brighter Coming Day ( 1 990), is a career-spanning collection of Harper's letters, poetry, fiction, speeches, and essays. Consequently, without a published autobiography or even an interpretative "literary biography," Foster maintains that we must look to Harper's literature as "her presentation of self."2 The complexity of this task however lies in the many selves Harper presents in the fragmented biographical details found in her writings to William Still, especially her letters written during her tour of the Reconstruction South, from 1867 to 1871. In these condensed episodes, Harper's various self-perceptions as a freebom black Southerner, an adopted Yankee/sometime northerner/ southern expatriate, and a "race woman" in America appear. The time, place, and format in which her letters were composed can help us to understand Harper's hybridity considering the epistolary tradition of travel writing.

When she ventured South after the Civil War, Frances Harper did so to experience "a brighter coming day" for black freedmen and women. She was no longer the agent of an anti-slavery society touring the North on an exhaustive lecture circuit, but, during the post-bellum southern tour, she was just as overworked yet optimistic of racial equality and progress for African Americans after centuries of enslavement and degradation. Her charge and experiences as a field reporter for the liberal press was similar to other black women who volunteered for such assignments: "they had to confront racism [and sexism] ... that influenced their assignments, and that regularly allocated them less salary and their projects smaller budgets."3 As Foster notes, some of these women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, and Elizabeth Keckley were former slaves returning to familiar locations and others like Charlotte Forten (later Grimké) would encounter black and white Southerners with marked cultural differences. Harper is included in this latter group, according to Foster, who were at a disadvantage with their reliance on "abolitionist theory and ignorance of rural culture."4 While I agree that Harper's urban and bourgeois background influenced her perceptions of the newly freed populations, I am less inclined to dismiss her cultural acclimation. Harper may present the "sunny South" in her tourist letters, but she also deconstructs this image for curious readers and, in effect, for herself too.

As a politicized genre, Harper's correspondences are subject to cultural (re-) historicization. First, we can situate these epistles in the tradition of private women's writing, for most of her letters were not intended for publication.5 They therefore expose the personal and feminine interiority of the writer. …

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