"I Will Gladly Share with Them My Richer Heritage": Schoolteachers in Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and Charles Chesnutt's Mandy Oxendine

By Jackson, Cassandra | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

"I Will Gladly Share with Them My Richer Heritage": Schoolteachers in Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and Charles Chesnutt's Mandy Oxendine


Jackson, Cassandra, African American Review


Through the figure of the black schoolteacher, Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy, published in 1892, and Charles Chesnutt's novel Mandy Oxendine, unpublished during his life-time but believed to have been written between 1893 and 1896, (1) both reflect on the roles of black leaders in the age of self-uplift. What makes these texts' portrayal of teachers significant is that they reveal part of a conversation about the historical role of black teachers as agents of the self-uplift movement and about the direction of African American communities. The two books diverge in their views of the potential roles for black teachers. Harper's text promotes education as a means of moral and political improvement for black people and teachers as a part of the forefront of that movement. In contrast, Chesnutt's novel high-lights the cultural distance that education, class, and color can create between a teacher and the black community in which he teaches, challenging the notion of representative black leaders.

Harper's and Chesnutt's portrayals of schoolteacher figures as nearly white complicates the implications of their texts. By combining the figure of a black schoolteacher with a mulatto character, both writers highlight the tension between communal duty and personal ambition, the very conflict that self-uplift ideology posed to middle-class African Americans. Because the mixed-race figure has the option to pass as white and abandon collective interests entirely, he or she functions as the ultimate symbol of this friction. The choice to become a schoolteacher, a symbol of black leadership, serves as the decisive moment in choosing between these paths. Thus, the merging of teacher and mulatto figure ignites a mediative exploration of self and communal desire. For Harper the pairing initiates a moral polemic to demonstrate that the purpose of self-improvement is to contribute to community advancement. Chesnutt, on the other hand, challenges this notion of an interdependent community in which individual and shared interests intersect in a uniformly negotiable terrain. Indeed, Chesnutt disputes the very idea of a knowable monolithic black community whose needs can be assessed and gratified by paradigmatic black leaders.

Harper's and Chesnutt's depiction of mulatto figures as teachers reflects the legacy of education as an integral part of black resistance and self-help movements in the nineteenth century. In an essay entitled "A Factor in Human Progress," (2) Harper characterized the role of education within community service movements:

   The education of the intellect and the training of the morals should
   go hand-in-hand. The devising brain and the feeling heart should
   never be divorced, and the question worth asking is not simply, What
   will education do for us? But, what will it help us to do for
   others? (Brighter 276)

When Harper published this essay in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review in 1885, many African Americans were increasingly looking to education to solve the problems of African American communities. With the failure of Reconstruction, the increasingly hostile atmosphere of exploitative work conditions, disenfranchisement, segregation, and growing violence led many blacks to look to internal development in the form of various mutual-aid societies, businessmen's organizations, fraternal societies, women's clubs, and church-sponsored social support groups to improve the condition of African American communities. (3) However, as John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., have put it, "Negroes could be certain of an improved status only in the field of education ..." (239).

Harper's and Chesnutt's notion of education as a primary means of both self and communal advancement reflects this sentiment. In Iola Leroy, the advantages of a western education allow the title-character to transform from a white pro-slavery advocate to a black community leader. …

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