Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most prolific and popular African American writers prior to the twentieth century. Born to free parents in Baltimore. Harper received an uncommonly thorough education at her uncle’s school, where she showed promise in writing and elocution, a strong interest in radical politics and religion, and a special sense of responsibility and devotion to lofty ideals. Hired as the first female teacher at the Union Seminary. Here frequent encounters with fugitive slaves and her own refugee status (the result of a Maryland law that made it a crime, punishable by enslavement, for a free black person to enter the state) moved her toward more direct political involvement. Around 1853 she quit teaching and moved to Philadelphia to devote herself to the antislavery movement.
The 1853 publication of Eliza Harris, one of the many responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s vastly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought Harper national attention. She worked hard and did well. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects includes several of the works for which Harper is most famous today, poems that are generally agreed to have ushered in the tradition of African American protest poetry. She wrote on the need to end slavery and the importance of Christian living, equal rights, and racial pride. As the repressive measures against blacks, especially slaves, increased, Harper’s writings became increasingly militant. It is also likely that she violated the Fugitive Slave Law herself by accompanying runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Development as “true men and true women” was a high priority. Harper emphasizes the importance of personal faith and self-discipline.
To support her family, the widowed mother returned to the lecture circuit, where she attracted large and receptive audiences. American Equal Rights Association. Equal rights advocacy was complicated by the racism of her feminist colleagues and the sexism of some of her black brothers. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” she repeatedly admonished.
“Between the white people and the colored there is a community of interests,” she asserted,” and the sooner they find it out, the better it will be for both parties.” Emancipation had opened a new era, a time for blacks, particularly black women, to “consecrate their lives to the work of upbuilding the race.”
In 1872 Harper published Sketches of Southern Life, a significant marker in African American literature as well as in Harper’s carer. Unlike the slave narratives and much of Harper’s antebellum writings, Sketches treats slavery as a literary construct. The heart of this volume is a series of six poems, narrated by Aunt Chloe, that form at once the autobiography of a former slave and an oral history of slavery and Reconstruction. Aunt Chloe may well prove to be Harper’s most important contribution to American letters. Although she is sixty years old, Aunt Chloe learns to read, takes an active interest in politics (though she cannot vote), and does what she can to ensure that the men “voted clean.” She helps build schools and churches for the community, and she works to buy herself a cabin, which she enlarges to accommodate her children after they are reunited.
In 1896, Harper took part in founding the National Association of Colored Women, for which she served as vice president and as a consultant for several years.
Vashti (Poem 1857)
A king is hanging with his crew. He wants Queen Vashti to come to him so he can show off her beauty.
Vashti said she was Persia’s queen. She ain’t got no time to be shown off to no rusty men. Queens don’t do that sort of thing. I must be a role model for the women of my country.
The message is brought to the king. His advisors make sure he knows that if Vashti can scorn him, then what will all the other women of the land do? The advisers say to take her crown!
Vashti was like, whatever dude. You can have my crown. “And left the palace of the King, Proud of her spotless name–A woman who could bend to grief, But would not bow to shame.”
King Ahaseurus’s command for the appearance of Queen Vashti is interpreted by several midrashic sources as an order to appear unclothed for the attendees of the king’s banquet. Though it was common in the culture for dancers to entertain the king’s guests, the Persian custom that “the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze” suggests that this command was highly inappropriate.
Vashti’s refusal to obey the summons of her drunken husband has been admired as heroic in many feminist interpretations of the Book of Esther. Early feminists admired Vashti’s principle and courage. Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Some more recent feminist interpreters of the Book of Esther compare Vashti’s character and actions favorably to those of her successor, Esther, who is traditionally viewed as the heroine of the Purim story. Michelle Landsberg, a Canadian Jewish feminist, writes: “Saving the Jewish people was important, but at the same time [Esther’s] whole submissive, secretive way of being was the absolute archetype of 1950s womanhood. It repelled me. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect. She said: ‘I’m not going to dance for you and your pals.'”
Bury Me in a Free Land [poem 1864]
Bury me anywhere BUT where men are slaves. I wouldn’t be able to rest with them rambling around above me. The chains would wake me; the cries of the mothers would keep me up. The whip…the taking of babies…the baying of hunting dogs. Young innocents sold into prostitution. I don’t need a tombstone or anything to catch the eye. I will only be able to rest if I am buried in a free state.
Learning to Read [poem 1872]
The Rebels hated it when the Yankees came down and set up a school. Our masters had always kept us away from books and knowledge; they didn’t want us getting too smart. This made us want books more and we would sneak and try to learn on the sly. My Uncle Caldwell used to hide a book underneath his hat. The Yankees and all us trying to learn just kept on, even though the whites didn’t want us to be in school. I wanted to learn to read my bible. They said my learning was too late, but I was sixty so how much longer could I wait? I got myself some glasses, learned to read, then got my own little cabin so I could be my own queen.