Poetry

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911):
“The Slave Mother,”
“On Learning to Read,” and “Bury Me in a Free Land”

 

The Slave Mother

Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light
That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,
Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
Is breaking in despair.

 

 
Learning to Read

Very soon the Yankee teachers
Came down and set up school;
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—
It was agin’ their rule.

Our masters always tried to hide
Book learning from our eyes;
Knowledge didn’t agree with slavery—
’Twould make us all too wise.

But some of us would try to steal
A little from the book.
And put the words together,
And learn by hook or crook.

I remember Uncle Caldwell,
Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
And hid it in his hat.

And had his master ever seen
The leaves upon his head,
He’d have thought them greasy papers,
But nothing to be read.

And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,
Who heard the children spell,
And picked the words right up by heart,
And learned to read ’em well.

Well, the Northern folks kept sending
The Yankee teachers down;
And they stood right up and helped us,
Though Rebs did sneer and frown.

And I longed to read my Bible,
For precious words it said;
But when I begun to learn it,
Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,
Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;
But as I was rising sixty,
I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,
And straight to work I went,
And never stopped till I could read
The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin
A place to call my own—
And I felt independent
As the queen upon her throne.

 

 

Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

 

[These poems are in the public domain.]

 

Born in Baltimore in 1825, poet, fiction writer, journalist, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the only child of free African-American parents. Her mother died when she was three, and Harper was raised by her aunt and uncle. She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle, until she was 13, and then found domestic work in a Quaker household. After teaching for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she traveled as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. Now called the mother of African-American journalism, she helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and wrote for anti-slavery newspapers.

In 1860, she married Fenton Harper, who brought three children from a previous marriage, and they had a daughter. When her husband died four years later, Harper supported her family through speaking engagements and as an activist for civil rights, women’s rights, and educational opportunities. She was superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, cofounder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women, director of the American Association of Colored Youth, a member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association, and active in African Methodist, Episcopalian, and Unitarian churches. She died in 1911 and is buried in Philadelphia’s Eden Cemetery next to her daughter Mary.

Harper published many poetry collections, including Autumn Leaves—also published as Forest Leaves(1845); Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), reprinted 20 times; Sketches of Southern Life (1872);Poems (1857); The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (1892); The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems (1894); and Atlanta Offering (1895). She also published essay collections and novels, including Iola Leroy (1892), and was the first African American to publish a short story, “The Two Offers.” Her poetry has been collected in Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper (1988, ed. Maryemma Graham) and her prose in A Brighter Coming Day (1990, ed. Frances Smith Foster). [From The Poetry Foundation, here]

 

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