Thursday, January 18, 2018
January 18, 2018: MLK Day Figures: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
[To celebrate one of my favorite American holidays, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of inspiring African American leaders, starting with my annual post on more fully remembering King himself. And leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite current scholars and writers!]
On an author and reformer whose efforts and works spanned virtually every significant 19th century period, issue, and literary genre.
Many of my nominees for the Hall of American Inspiration have been folks I have called Renaissance Americans, historical and cultural figures whose work, writing, interests, and influences spanned many different subjects and disciplines, communities and events. Such figures, to echo what I wrote about historical and literary inspirations in this post on Anna Julia Cooper, exemplify the deepest meaning of an interdisciplinary AmericanStudies approach, making clear that inspirational American identities do not adhere to specific categories or boundaries for where and how their influences are felt. And I don’t know that any American has crossed into more spheres of influence, nor done so by overcoming more significant obstacles, than Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper).
Watkins (her maiden name) was born to free African American parents in Baltimore, but in 1825, a period when (as Frederick Douglass’s slave experiences of that city around the same time illustrate) the lives and prospects of free blacks were not often far removed from those of slaves. Yet before she had turned 30—while slavery was still the law of much of the land, including of course in Maryland—she had published multiple collections of poetry, including the very successful Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854); had moved to Pennsylvania and was helping William Still run his portion of the Underground Railroad; and was traveling throughout the north delivering lectures on behalf of both abolitionism and women’s rights. Her 1860 marriage to Fenton Harper briefly removed her from such public efforts, and had she concluded her public careers at that time her life and works would already constitute an impressive and inspirational part of our histories and community.
Fentor Harper tragically died only four years later, however, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (as she would remain known for the remainder of her life) returned to the public sphere, or really many spheres, with renewed passion and power. She not only continued to work for African American rights, during and after Reconstruction and the many other post-war challenges, but became as eloquent and important a voice for women’s rights and suffrage as any American. She contributed so many journalistic pieces on those and other issues that she came to be known as the mother of African American journalism. She released many more collections of poetry, creating in Sketches of Southern Life (1872)’s Aunt Chloe one of the era’s most compelling characters and voices. She also published multiple novels, including one of the most important Reconstruction novels in Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). And throughout she dealt with her period and its far too often dark histories with the combination of realism and optimism reflected in Iola’s subtitle and best captured in her most famous lines of poetry (and one of the principal inspirations for my most recent book): “Yet the shadows bear the promise/Of a brighter coming day.”
Last figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories you’d highlight?