Saturday, May 30, 2020 3:14 pm
The poem of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper that you are about to read is evocative of racial discrimination in the United States. This becomes more poignant in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by Derek Chauvin, a cop with the Minneapolis Police Department.
Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer, one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20. At 67, according to Bacon, Margaret Hope (1989) in their “One Great Bundle of Humanity” she published her novel Iola Leroy (1892), which was widely praised. Writings of her biographers as aggregated by Wikipedia reveal that as a young woman in 1850, she taught sewing at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, a school affiliated with the AME Church. In 1851, alongside William Still, chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped refugee slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. In 1853 she began her career as a public speaker and political activist after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society.
“Her collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) became her biggest commercial success. Her short story “Two Offers” was published in the Anglo-African in 1859, making literary history as the first short story published by a black woman.
Harper founded, supported, and held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1883 she became superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president. Harper died aged 85 on February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote.”
Now, her poem
Bury Me in a Free Land
BY Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
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.