Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: “Aunt Chloe’s Politics,” and Marilyn Chin: “19th Amendment Ragtime Parade”

[From WVFC Poetry Archives. First published November 1, 2020]


Aunt Chloe’s Politics

Of course, I don’t know very much
About these politics,
But I think that some who run ’em
Do mighty ugly tricks.

I’ve seen ’em honey-fugle round,
And talk so awful sweet,
That you’d think them full of kindness,
As an egg is full of meat.

Now I don’t believe in looking
Honest people in the face,
And saying when you’re doing wrong,
That “I haven’t sold my race.”

When we want to school our children,
If the money isn’t there,
Whether black or white have took it,
The loss we all must share.

And this buying up each other
Is something worse than mean,
Though I thinks a heap of voting,
I go for voting clean.


This poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is in the public domain. It was published in Poem-a-Day on June 23, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. Listen to a staffer from Poem-a-Day read the poem here.


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free in 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a prominent abolitionist, teacher, public speaker, and temperance and women’s suffrage activist, as well as one of the first African-American women poets to be published in the United States. Her numerous books include the poetry collections Forest Leaves (1845) and Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854). She worked at Union Seminary in Ohio, enjoyed a long writing career, and died in Philadelphia in 1911. Read more about her life here.






19th Amendment Ragtime Parade

Birthday, birthday, hurray, hurray
The 19th Amendment was ratified today
Drum rolls, piano rolls, trumpets bray
The 19th Amendment was ratified today
Left hand bounces, right hand strays
Maestro Joplin is leading the parade
Syncopated hashtags, polyrhythmic goose-steps
Ladies march to Pennsylvania Avenue!
Celebrate, ululate, caterwaul, praise
Women’s suffrage is all the rage
Sisters! Mothers! Throw off your bustles
Pedal your pushers to the voting booth
Pram it, waltz it, Studebaker roadster it
Drive your horseless carriage into the fray
Prime your cymbals, flute your skirts
One-step, two-step, kick-ball-change
Castlewalk, Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear waltz
Argentine Tango, flirty and hot
Mommies, grannies, young and old biddies
Temperance ladies sip bathtub gin
Unmuzzle your girl dogs, Iowa your demi-hogs
Battle-axe polymaths, gangster moms
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Lucy Burns and Carrie Chapman Catt
Alice Paul, come one, come all!
Sign the declaration at Seneca Falls!

Dada-faced spinsters, war-bond Prufrocks
Lillian Gish, make a silent wish
Debussy Cakewalk, Rachmaninoff rap
Preternatural hair bobs, hamster wheels
Crescendos, diminuendos, maniacal pianos
Syncopation mad, cut a rug with dad!
Oompa, tuba, majorette girl power
Baton over Spamalot!
Tiny babies, wearing onesies
Raise your bottles, tater-tots!
Accordion nannies, wash-board symphonies
Timpani glissando!
The Great War is over!
Victory, freedom, justice, reason
Pikachu, sunflowers, pussy hats
Toss up your skull caps, wide brim feathers
Throwing shade on the seraphim
Hide your cell phones, raise your megaphones!
Speak truth to power
and vote, vote vote!

Nitwit legislators, gerrymandering fools
Dimwit commissioners, judicial tools
Toxic senators, unholy congressmen
Halitosis ombudsmen, mayoral tricks
Doom calf demagogues, racketeering mules
Whack-a-mole sheriffs, on the take
Fornicator governators, rakehell collaborators
Tweeter impersonators, racist prigs
Postbellum agitators, hooligan aldermen
Profiteering warmongers, Reconstruction dregs

Better run, rascals     better pray
We’ll vote you out      on judgement day!
Better run, rascals     better pray
We’ll vote you out      on election day!


Copyright © 2020 by Marilyn Chin and reprinted here by permission of the author. First published in Poem-a-Day on March 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets. Listen to Marilyn Chin’s rousing recitation here.

Project 19, for which Marilyn Chin’s poem was commissioned, was a collaborative effort launched in February 2020 by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic to mark the centennial of the passing of the 19th Amendment. Read more about the project and poems by luminary women poets here.


An award-winning poet and author, Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of books that have become Asian-American classics and has taught in classrooms all over the world. Her books of poems include A Portrait of the Self as Nation, Hard Love Province, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, and A Portrait of the Self as Nation. New and Selected Poems (Norton 2020) was released this year and is available for order here.

Chin has won numerous awards, most recently the 2020 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation, one of the most prestigious poetry awards given to American poets. She has read and taught workshops all over the world, is Professor Emerita at San Diego State University, and serves as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. Her website has an amazing collection of writing, reviews, interviews, and resources.



Commentary by Amanda Moore

Today’s poems continue the Poetry Sunday special series which, through November, will feature poems by women about voting, and about our country. In just a few days, many but not all Americans—due to various disenfranchisements—will vote in what promises to be the most significant election of our time. Voting has never been more important. Today’s poems emphasize the urgency and potency of the vote, reminding us of the difficult paths many have walked to secure our representation. They also celebrate the power we wield when we exercise our right to vote, defend against voter suppression, and work to protect the rights of all Americans. If you haven’t already voted or made your plans for Tuesday, these poems will hopefully offer the impetus to do so.

“Aunt Chloe’s Politics” is one of six poems written by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in the voice of formerly-enslaved Aunt Chloe in Sketches of Southern Life (read the entire Aunt Chloe sequence here). Melba Joyce Boyd writes about this series of persona poems in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, exploring how they emulate “the slave narrative, a literary form that characterized much of the literature written by and about African Americans during the nineteenth century.” She examines Harper’s use of dialect to approximate Aunt Chloe’s speech, recognizing her innovation in employing a technique that uses “aural association and syntax rather than phonetics to create an authentic black voice” and “captures the dialect without reducing folk characters to stereotypes or caricatures.” [Id.] These poems depict the life of a woman during slavery and Reconstruction, and Harper’s approach to her character helps Aunt Chloe’s voice succeed in providing a necessary, mostly-otherwise-absent perspective on a complicated historical moment.

As its title implies, this poem is musing on politics, and although Aunt Chloe claims from the beginning that she doesn’t “know very much,” the indictments she goes on to make about politicians assure us she knows plenty. She mentions their “mighty ugly tricks” in the first stanza, and, in an excellent example of character development and dialect, goes on to decry the way they “honey-fugle around.” “Honey-fugle,” also spelled “honeyfuggle,” is a colloquial term defined by Chloe in the next line as to “talk so awful sweet.” Humor is introduced in the second stanza with the simile “you’d think them full of kindness, / As an egg is full of meat.” Cracking open an egg yields no meat, but the sentence structure leads us momentarily to expect some modicum of kindness from these politicians, an expectation thwarted by the second part of the sentence. It’s a nuanced simile, as an egg produces a chicken that can, of course, become meat as part of its life cycle.

The poem’s ABCB rhyme scheme adds musicality to the folksy tone, and Aunt Chloe’s voice is neighborly and authentic, elements that make her point of view all the more relatable. She addresses serious hypocrisies and brutalities as the poem investigates crooked politicians who lie, gaslight, segregate schools, deny opportunity, and support legal processes that uphold slavery and slavery-like conditions. All the while, the steady rhythm and rhyme clip on, buoying Chloe’s durability and refusal to be bogged down by dirty politics.

Marilyn Chin’s “19th Amendment Ragtime Parade” likewise uses rhythm and rhyme to propel the poem forward, in this case through myriad cultural references from the early 20th century and evolving to the current day. The poem is a celebration of the passing of the 19th Amendment which, on May 21, 1919, gave women the right to vote by law if not by practice. The titular “ragtime” reference foreshadows the poem’s syncopated rhythm and ragged rhyme patterns. Rhyme is recurrent but not patterned, starting with end rhymes of the long “a” sound (“hooray,” “today,” and “bray”) before moving into more spontaneity with internal, end rhyme, off rhyme, and assonance. Musicians know ragtime keeps 2/2 or 4/4 time, and the rest of us probably recognize the pattern even if we can’t name it. Scott Joplin, or “Maestro Joplin” in line 6, wrote the Maple Leaf Rag, and the feeling both the song and poem evoke is a joyous invitation to “Celebrate, ululate, caterwaul, praise.”

The evocation of ragtime music in the poem’s title also strikes a note of irony. Ragtime music comes from the African-American community, a population with a long history of exclusion and disenfranchisement from legal voting through means such as poll taxes, literacy tests, early poll closings, violence, and intimidation. Even as Chin hails Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “ragtime” will remind some readers that in pursuit of suffrage, those suffragettes split from their abolitionist roots and opposed the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote before white women. Come one, come all! / Sign the declaration at Seneca Falls!” the poem says, but it’s important to note that this declaration did not guarantee the vote for African-American women in practice, and it purposefully excluded Asian-American immigrants and Native Americans. To learn more about the complicated truth about the 19th Amendment, read or listen to this article by Melissa Block at NPR.

Like Harper’s poem, which acknowledges the conflicts and inequities that surround voting rights, Chin’s poem notes but pushes through sticky historical moments to consider the larger picture of what the 19th Amendment ultimately makes room for. For example, in her next stanza, she charts an evolution from “Lillian Gish” and “Preternatural hair bobs” to “pussy hats” and “cell phones,” a shift that becomes more expansive, inclusive, and modern. There isn’t always harmony between the factions (“skull caps” and “wide brim feathers”) that comprise the vote, but the essential nature of an ability to “Speak truth to power” is a uniting element. The poem’s first section concludes with a powerful injunction we should all take to heart: “vote, vote vote!”

What feels particularly significant about both poems on this Sunday before the 2020 election is the way their endings inspire or demand action of us, their readers. Harper’s Aunt Chloe leads by example, declaring “I go for voting clean” and urging us to avoid the candidates who are “something worse than mean.” Chin ends her poem with a stern “WARNING” against a delicious, delirious list of politicians, from “Nitwit legislators” and “Toxic senators” to “Fornicator governators” and “hooligan aldermen.” Both poems remind us of the significance of our individual votes and of their collective power. When we vote, we empower people to act on our behalf to build the world as we want it—a noble, necessary reason. Voting also confers the ability to punish and disempower politicians for not serving the best interests of our country, a sanctioned form of revenge Chin relishes in her poem’s rousing, final quatrain—which I will be chanting to myself in line at the polls on Tuesday:

Better run, rascals     better pray
We’ll vote you out      on judgement day!
Better run, rascals     better pray
We’ll vote you out      on election day!




Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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