I had the misfortune to read the remarks made by the current president at a luncheon in honor of Black History Month today.
In an attempt to scrub them from my brain, I thought I would share some information about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th-century African American writer. I wrote a chapter of my thesis for my master’s degree on her serialized novel, Trial and Triumph (1888-1889), so I hope you will indulge me quoting myself at times.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825 to a free black mother, Frances Ellen Watkins spent the years after her mother’s death with her uncle, William J. Watkins, a minister and abolitionist. Little is known about Watkins’s father; some have speculated that he was a white man. She received a first-class education at her uncle’s school and worked as a seamstress and in a bookstore before joining the faculty of a school for free African Americans in Ohio in 1850. After three years of teaching, Watkins left education to begin her life’s work as a speaker, poet and activist for the equality and advancement of African Americans. In 1860 she married Fenton Harper and retired from public life. They had a daughter, Mary. After Fenton’s death in 1864, Harper returned to her speaking and writing. She was a member of the Underground Railroad, and after emancipation traveled extensively in the South. She joined a number of organizations of both African Americans and women, continuing to speak until she was eighty years old. During the course of her life, Harper produced at least eight volumes of poetry, one short story, three serialized novels, one full-length novel and numerous articles. Harper dedicated her life to the advancement of her race; as Foster says, “To Harper, literature was not separate from life. Her writing was but one of the ways in which she sought to live her convictions and to work for the betterment of the world within which she lived and the people with whom she identified” (135). Her commitment to a number of social causes—temperance, suffrage, civil rights—comes across in all of her writing, forcing her readers to recognize the intent of her work to shape society.1
1 Maryemma Graham, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 50: African American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance Ed. Trudier Harris, (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986) 164-173.
Foster’s novel, Iola Leroy (1892), falls in the tragic mulatto genre: Iola, a mixed-race young woman, born free, who could “pass” as white, is sold into slavery after the death of her white father. Iola Leroy was one of the earliest novels written by an African American.
I chose the shorter, and earlier, Trial and Triumph for my study because the protagonist, a young African American woman named Annette, has aspirations of becoming a poet. I was interested in how 19th century women writers portrayed themselves — women writers — in their fiction.
In Trial and Triumph, Harper has her young poetess turn away from her writing to pursue “race work.” Readers in the 19th century expected their literature not only to entertain, but also to uplift. There was supposed to be a moral purpose to the story. Harper embraced this trope and turned it to her purpose, using her writing to inspire pride, hope, and self-respect in her audience.
Noting that “The literature they read was mostly from the hands of white men who would paint them in any colors which suited their prejudices or predilections” (240), Harper shows her reading audience the importance of the text they hold—written by a black woman, a member of the traditionally voiceless—to the battle for social equality. By authoring their own texts, African Americans have the opportunity to shape the images displayed in popular culture.
Trial and Triumph is such an interesting text, for its blending of genre, for its African-izing of the common stereotypes of white women, and for its unflinchingly optimistic portrayal of the prospects of Black America.
Harper creates the character of Annette, who is both a poet and an activist, in part to argue that a race capable of contributing to the cultural tradition of its nation surely has the intellect to contribute to that nation’s political processes. Literature is concerned with the nature and state of humanity. It addresses moral, philosophical and political questions of human experience and examines the phenomenon of society. Harper’s work stands as testament to the humanity of her race and thus argues for the inclusion of African Americans, including African American women, in the political life of America.