Haakonsen, Kari and Christina Jenckes. Headnote to Frances Harper's Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects.The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Winter 2000. http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/FH/headnote.html

Frances Harper
by Kari Haakonsen and Christina Jenckes
     The social activist and celebrated author Frances Harper, also known as Frances Ellen Watkins, was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland to free African American parents.  At the age of three, Harper’s mother died, putting the small child into the custody of the her uncle, William J. Watkins, a minister, abolitionist, and owner of a school. It was at her uncle’s school that Harper first began reading and composing literature in the popular style of the time.  At the age of thirteen, Harper was self-sufficient; she worked as a domestic until she moved to Ohio to teach in a local school.  After Ohio, she moved to Little York, Pennsylvania, where she became affiliated with the Underground Railroad.  She was first exposed to the horror of slavery as a young girl in Baltimore; as a young woman in Little York, she heard shocking tales told by escaping slaves housed by the Underground Railroad.  Harper invigorated these tales with her art and made them  the driving force of her first abolitionist speech.   Given in Pennsylvania, this speech launched her career as orator and woman of letters.

        By the time she married at age 35, Harper had published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), which became popular with both black and white audiences.  By 1857, more than ten thousand copies were in circulation and, over Harper's lifetime, the series was reprinted twenty times by various publishers, a fact that complicates textual scholarship on this important author (Graham; Foster).  The success of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects,which included poems and prose about religion, civil rights, racial equality, patriotism, and pride made Harper the most well-know poet of her time.

        Although many of her poems did not focus on issues of abolitionism and feminism, most did respond to the social pressures of her time.  Maxwell Whiteman states that Harper "defined the essential positive ingredients of black power,” quoting her as saying, during the war, that “we have the brain power, we have the muscle power, and in all the rebel states, we have political power.”  After the Civil War, Harper traveled to the South for the first time and was appalled by the disgraceful mistreatment of freed blacks.  Violations abounded and were evident throughout Southern society especially in terms of education, voting, and labor abuse.  Most importantly she abhorred the poor treatment and severe hardships of thousands of black women, which seemed to have worsened since the Emancipation Proclamation.  Harper felt, “a free people could be a moral people only when the women were respected.” 

        Perhaps Harper’s most influential poem to women of her time was “An Appeal to my Countrywomen,” which first appeared in 1896. “An Appeal to My Countrywomen” addresses not only the black community but is mainly targeted towards “well-sheltered” white American women in a plea to support and encourage the black freedom cause.  As Patricia Liggins Hill states, Harper’s main objective was “to draw from women the leadership qualities and talents necessary to ensure the rights of the freedmen" (1984).  Harper asks white women that while they are praying for the Armenians and other foreign women not to forget the mistreatment and suffering of the black men and women in their own country.  In order to gain white participation and support of the black liberation movement, Harper reminds white women of their common womanhood and addresses them as women, sisters, and mothers.   She pleads for sorrow, recognition and compassion.  She further believed that the community of interests does not consist in increasing the privileges of one class and curtailing the rights of the other, but in getting every citizen interested in the welfare, progress and durability of the state.” Racial unity was also essential to Harper and she emphasized this by stating “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” 

         In her lifetime, Harper achieved a prominent position as the preeminent African American poet of the nineteenth century. She was also the first popular female black poet and often outshined her male counterparts.  Her undying drive was to educate both races in order to form a unified and equal society and correct the social ills which plagued both North and South.  Despite her failing health during the last years of her life, Harper remained politically active and attempted to touch as many people as possible.  She was dedicated to improving the lives of African American women and to achieving equality with white women.  Moreover, she not only appealed to her “countrywomen,” but to all, working for the abolition of slavery, the equal representation of races in the political system, and for the unification of every American race.  Harper states as much in a poem entitled “The Burdens of All”:

     “We may sigh o’re the heavy burdens
 Of the black, the brown and white;
 But if we all clasped hands together
 The burdens would be more light.”

The present edition reprints all the poems included in Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, 1857, the "Tenth Thousand" edition.

Next: Francis E.W. Harper's "The Syrophenician Woman."

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