This article surveys six African American women whose work was represented in the Woman's Building Library exhibit at the Columbian Exposition: Elleanor Eldridge, Victoria Earle, A. Julia Foote, Frances Harper, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, and T. T Purvis. These women's writings cover a variety of genres and styles from novels, short stories, poems, sketches, autobiographies, rhymes, and essays that address such topics as suffrage, partnership, a woman's marital rights, and black enterprise and entrepreneurship.
No single term can classify the American 1890s. It was the age of millionaires, inventions, office girls, symphony orchestras, and "rags-to-richers." Advances in industry and technology, migrations from the countryside to the cities, immigrant influxes, and increasing material consumption all characterize the last decade of the century. And yet it was also an age of lynching, restricted citizenship, segregation, and Jim Crow politics. These apparent contradictions in advancements and regressions undoubtedly account for the designation of the last decade of the nineteenth century as "the watershed of American history," representative of "the historic divide between past and present America." (1) Poised to enter the new century, replete with advances in agriculture and technology, America had many things to celebrate yet still left many things undone and unsaid. One of the most important of these was its relationship to and its representation of its African American population.
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 embodied these same paradoxes. In an introductory address at the fair's official dedication on 21 October 1892, Col. George R. Davis, the director general of the exposition, proclaimed that one of its goals was for all nations "to learn the universal value of the discovery we're commemorating[:]... the nearness of man to man, the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of the human race." (2) In accordance with this desire "nineteen foreign nations--Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Austria, Canada, Ceylon, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Japan, Nicaragua, Norway, Sweden, and Turkey--had their own buildings at the fair." (3) For Americans, the Columbian Exposition had two agendas. A celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of the New World and a celebration of America's own "coming of age" and "grand rite of passage" into an international sphere, the World's Fair had both national and international significance. (4) However, Davis's magnanimity and the initial stages of planning for the fair did not automatically include women and African Americans in the "brotherhood of the human race."
The World's Fair represented a chance for America to show itself off to its international brethren and take pride in its strides toward modernity. Several groups of American minorities also viewed the fair as a chance to gauge and showcase their group's progress. After Susan B. Anthony organized and submitted a petition signed by one hundred prominent women, Congress allowed the fair's national planning commission to name a Board of Lady Managers. (5) Women's involvement in the fair "demonstrated the independent power of women, broadened their appreciation for beauty, heightened their sense of nationalism." (6) Their inclusion "provided women with both a focal point and forum for gauging how far they had advanced and how much further they might go. It also afforded an exemplary view of the achievement of American women." (7)
Despite the inclusion of women in the planning and administration of the fair, however, President Harrison initially refused to appoint blacks to the national planning commission. In addition, the Board of Lady Managers' president, Bertha Palmer, refused black women's requests to serve on the board. (8) Colored People's Day was celebrated on 25 August and showcased African American contributions to American culture and society, including music by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University and poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. (9) Additionally, three predominantly black colleges and universities, Atlanta University, Hampton Institute, and Wilberforce University, displayed exhibits. Yet blacks were not allowed to have a separate display or building as women were; they were ordered to integrate their exhibits within their states' displays. The paucity of African American exhibits and the exclusion of blacks from the official governing bodies of the fair in the midst of the fair's seeming aura of fraternity and promotion of human welfare prompted Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells to self-publish and distribute the pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition and led Douglass to lament the lack of black representation, which he regarded as an "intentional slight." (10)
The displays in the Woman's Building, however, offered a point of inclusion for African American women and their contributions. Joan Imogene Howard, the only African American manager on the New York Board of Women Managers, created an exhibit of African American women's contributions for display in the Woman's Building. This exhibit "comprised 65 different categories of women's creative productions ranging from the fine arts to the liberal arts to manufactures to horticulture" and "as a statement of women's accomplishments ... shone for the entire race." (11)
The Woman's Building Library included books by six known African American women writers. Among the more than 7,000 volumes were Elleanor Eldridge's Memoirs and Elleanor's Second Book; Julia A.J. Foote's A Brand Plucked from the Fire; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Moses: A Story of the Nile, Sketches of Southern Life, and Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted; Victoria Earle Matthews's "Aunt Lindy"; H. Cordelia Ray's Sonnets and Sketch of the Life of the Reverend Charles B. Ray (the latter coauthored with Florence T. Ray); and T. T. Purvis's Hagar the Singing Maiden: With Other Stories and Rhymes and Abi Meredith. (12) The one factor that unifies these six authors is their diversity. Their contributions include memoirs, a short story, a novel, a collection of stories and poems, volumes of poetry, and juvenile fiction. From evangelist to entrepreneur, lecturer to lady of leisure, and poet to preacher, these six women represent a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and concerns. Whether their work comments directly on racism, social reform, or "the woman question," taken together these six African American women writers all spoke to the intersections of race and gender that prescribed the black woman's experience in nineteenth-century America and the social and political concerns that motivated her.
Elleanor Eldridge is the only one of the six women not to write her own text. Eldridge's Memoirs (1838) represents the life of a free black woman living at the end of the eighteenth century into the mid-nineteenth century. Eldridge's memoir was transcribed by her biographer, Frances Harriet Green. Like many antebellum narratives that feature the stories and histories of African Americans, Eldridge's memoir begins and ends with several appended testimonials. Unlike the testimonials featured in Frederick Douglass's or Harriet Jacobs's narratives, however, the purpose of these was not to prove the authenticity of the text and assuage the doubts that a black person and former slave actually wrote the text. There is no doubt that Elleanor Eldridge did not write her own memoirs and that they were written by a white woman; the frontispiece clearly explains that. The testimonials, then, all written by white women, are not there to authenticate Eldridge's identity and literary ability (Eldridge was nearly illiterate). Their purpose is to portray Eldridge as a woman whose "moral character stands without reproach, fair as the fairest cheek of beauty." (13) Eldridge is characterized as a woman so generous and kind that she subscribed "for papers which she cannot read, in order to promote the circulation of truth, whether moral, or religious" (91). Offered by Rhode Island women who had all hired her at one point or another in various capacities as a spinner, laundress, weaver, or dairy-maker, the testimonials also stress her industry, entrepreneurship, and thrift.
Further, hers is not the narrative of a slave. Eldridge was a second-generation black American. Her grandparents and father were native Africans from Congo and Zaire who engaged to trade with white merchants and were tricked onto a slave ship on the premise of trade and thus enslaved and carried over to the United States. Elleanor's father, Robin Eldridge, and her uncle earned their freedom by fighting in the Revolutionary War. Though promised money, land, and freedom, the Eldridge brothers received only freedom, as they were paid in devalued Continental money. Robin Eldridge married a woman who was African American and Narragansett Indian, and Elleanor and her four siblings were born free in Rhode Island.
Eldridge seemed to inherit the industry and entrepreneurial spirit her grandfather and father both showed upon coming to the New World. One of nine children (five of whom lived), she pursued a life of hard work. Her mother had been a laundress for the Baker family. After Eldridge's mother's death, Elleanor Baker, for whom Eldridge had been named, offered her a job. At the age of ten Eldridge made a contract to hire herself out to the Bakers for one year at the rate of twenty-five cents per week (22). Eldridge's life consisted of many such annual contracts. She offered a variety of services, gaining competence in all of them at an astonishing and accelerated rate. She was praised not only for her skill and the quality of her services but also for the speed with which she developed difficult skills such as spinning and weaving and making cheese, soap, cloth, carpets, and bed ticking. After thirty years of working and saving Eldridge invested her earnings in real estate, which she rented to black tenants. While she was away in Massachusetts for an extended period her real estate, valued at $4,000, was attached and sold by a Mr.--of Warwick to recoup the sum of $240 of an outstanding loan made to Eldridge (83). Green describes the fraud committed against Eldridge as "A WEB OF INIQUITY" and acknowledges that Eldridge's status as a black, uneducated female domestic worker, coupled with her absence, made her a prime candidate for such fraud (90).
The testimonials, then, portray Eldridge in the best light in order to defend her character, highlight the grievous wrongs to which she has been subjected, and generate interest in her memoir in order to drum up subscriptions for her. Green introduces Eldridge's memoir not as a literary product but merely as an expedient fundraiser. The memoir had been compiled for the express purpose of raising the money Eldridge needed to reclaim her lost property. Because the purpose was to speedily gain subscribers and because Eldridge had been ill, her biographer disavowed the memoir's literary intentions and argued that the hasty compilation left "no time for revision" (4).
Had Green had time to revise, she would have likely refashioned Eldridge's story into a more conventional romance. Green argues against a person's rank or fame being necessary to inspire biographies. Yet despite her avowals that Eldridge's story is worthy of publication because of its simplicity and humble subject and her intimations that Eldridge's story has "few, or none, of the thrilling charms of poetry and passion," Green makes many moves to portray the narrative as a romance and Eldridge as a thwarted heroine (11). She refers to Eldridge as "our heroine," a "heroine," a "buxom lassie," and a "belle" on numerous occasions, downplaying her thrift and business sense in order to represent her as a more conventional romantic figure.
Although the purpose of the narrative was to detail Eldridge's life of independence, industry, and thrift (and thus her character), Green diverts the focus of the memoir away from the racism that initiated Eldridge's legal battles and property entanglements to tell of her failed engagement to a distant cousin, Christopher, who died at sea before he could return and marry her. Green admits that though Eldridge hinted at a previous love, she was evasive in regard to the cause of her unmarried status. When asked if she had any letters from Christopher that Green could include in the memoir, Eldridge did not grant permission, arguing that the letters were in a box among a clutter of items and could not be easily located. Green defends her request for the love letters: "I have asked her for the letters; which, being her veritable biographer, I had a right to do." Moreover, she alludes to acquiring them via theft: "I shall, in no wise, feel myself bound to explain any thing in regard to the circumstances by which I became possessed of them" (32-35).
It is unclear why Green would deem it necessary to include Eldridge's personal love letters in a memoir about a self-made woman unless it were to refashion the text as a romance. Though real estate and entrepreneurship are supposedly at the heart of Eldridge's story, Green devotes the majority of the memoir's focus to the years before Eldridge began to purchase property. Green spends several opening chapters detailing not Elleanor's life but the circumstances that brought her grandparents to America and gained her father and uncles their freedom. She details Elleanor's maternal and paternal heritage in order to show that "the wrongs and persecutions of both races had fallen upon Elleanor," as she is, "on the one hand, the inheritress of African blood, with all its heirship of wo and shame; and the subject of wrong and banishment, by her Indian maternity on the other" (11-12). In order to represent Eldridge as deserving of sympathy Green marks her as doubly damned. Although she argues that virtue, not race, determines human character and that humanity is the sole guiding factor in relationships, she frequently differentiates between Eldridge and white Rhode Islanders. Eldridge is described as a belle, but only "among her people" (33). Her beauty and voice make her "an object of great interest among the colored swains" (31). Recalling Eldridge's job offer from Elleanor Baker, Green refers to Eldridge as Mrs. Baker's "little colored namesake" (21). Green's digressions reveal the separate racial social spheres she and Eldridge occupy even as they contradict the memoir's express purposes of depicting an exemplary woman whose life and behavior embody the employment of the Protestant work ethic in pursuit of the American dream.
Julia A.J. Foote
A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879) is Julia A.J. Foote's autobiographical account of her life as an evangelist. Foote, though previously of the belief that women should not preach in public, reverses her opinion when she experiences a calling to spread the Gospel. Although she submits to her calling, she faces criticism from those who believe women should not preach.
Foote was born in 1823 in Schenectady, New York, to former slave parents. Her father was born free but was stolen and enslaved as a young child. He eventually bought his own freedom along with that of his wife and first-born child (not Julia). Her parents, who joined the Methodist Episcopal Church after Foote's mother had a near-death experience, were the first obstacles Foote faced in her pursuit of religion. The black church has always been a place to gather for social as well as spiritual intercourse, and Foote's belief in purity and the possibility of sanctity before death placed her at odds with many members of the African American community, especially the AME church's male preachers. Foote's focus on God to the exclusion of all else alienated her from her parents, who were known to entertain, drink sociably, and serve alcohol at social gatherings; from her friends who attended dances and social gatherings; and even from her husband, who was Christian yet not as zealous as Foote. She details the ostracism she faced not only from friends and family but also from other women who believed they were called to preach and from preachers and the members of her church who did not approve of women preaching in church.
Foote was excommunicated because she sought to preach in her church's hall. In describing the event she speaks out against the double standard and exposes the unfair requirements for female preachers, arguing that women should not be expected to prove their spiritual authority by working miracles when men were not required to do so. Significantly, although Foote mentions traveling to and preaching in places such as Canada, Baltimore, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., she never describes the topics or subjects of her speeches and sermons or includes any portions of them in her text. Instead, she primarily focuses on the racism and sexism she struggles against to pursue her calling. Once Foote was prevented from traveling on four consecutive days because there were objections to her presence on the stagecoach; at that time blacks could not ride in stagecoaches among whites unless white passengers had no objections. She also refused to preach to segregated audiences and describes one occasion when she turned down an invitation. Invited to preach to a group of white Methodists, Foote refused when she discovered the group would not allow blacks to attend the meeting. (14) Although she espoused the Christian belief that God made all humans of one blood with no respect to race, she offered her autobiography to those of her race and used her experiences to expose the racial and sexual hypocrisy in many churches that reportedly subscribed to the same doctrine of human equality.
T. T. Purvis
The title piece of T. T. (Tacy Townsend) Purvis's Hagar the Singing Maiden: With Other Stories and Rhymes (1881) examines the effects of intemperance on a young girl's life. Although Hagar herself never drinks any alcohol, her young life is ruined by the intemperance of those she comes into contact with. (15)
Hagar's mother has been dead two years, and in this time her father has become an alcoholic. Her father and a companion go fishing and take "the black jug" (a bottle of gin) along with them. They get into a fishing accident, and her father is drowned. Orphaned, impoverished, and malnourished because of her father's drinking, Hagar has little to leave behind. After her father's death she sets off on her own to contact an old friend of her mother in Philadelphia. Purvis's story follows Hagar on her journey, during which she is kidnapped along the way by gypsies, who force her to earn money for them with her singing. She arrives in Philadelphia, where she discovers that her mother's friend has moved to Europe. Hagar then moves into a boardinghouse, where she comforts the wife of a drunkard, and finally settles in a Quaker home outside of the city, where she is accepted and adopted.
At the outset of the tale Purvis paints an idyllic rustic setting on a warm spring day. We find Hagar sitting on a grapevine swing in the forest, communing with the flora and fauna. In the middle of this peaceful scene the young maiden begins to sing to her dog. She sings of her love of nature and her general happiness in the sunshine because good weather keeps her outdoors and away from her drunkard father. She dreads the coming of rain because it means she has to go home. Rather than depicting home as safe and the outdoors as wild, Purvis portrays the outdoors as a refuge and protective haven for Hagar, whereas her home is to be avoided. Her cheerful song turns sorrowful:</p> <pre> A shadow sits by the hearth, And its name is 'Gin!' They say it walks the earth, And darkens every home That it enters in O would we right roam To a land where 'tis not known. (16) </pre> <p>Intemperance is simply referred to as "the shadow." Hagar holds her father blameless for his drinking problem and prefers to blame it on "bad men," although her father "spent the money he earned in gin" and often left her alone for days at a time (6-7), She sings: "The shadow o'er my father came, / And blighted all our honest name" (5). The shadow is a plaguelike presence that infects those with whom it comes into contact. While renting a room in the Philadelphia boarding house Hagar recognizes the signs that reveal her landlady to be the wife of a drunkard: "Hagar saw the dark circles around her eyes, and the wild startled look she had.... [P]oor woman! The shadow is in her house too" (41). She attempts to become a sympathetic presence and help make the woman's life easier by singing a song in which she extols the virtues of cold water over alcohol and encourages everyone to drink only water:</p> <pre> 'Tis water brings us gladness, And health is in its flow; But wine, like fire, is burning, And from it there's no turning, Till it has wrought us woe. (55) </pre> <p>The song encourages temperance and comforts the woman and her son. Further, it helps them to withstand the insensitivity of their other family members, who come to visit for a holiday and want to drink wine with their dinner. Hagar sings her cold-water song as the family sits down to dinner and converts them. Purvis's temperance tale focuses on the disastrous effects intemperance has on the home, not just the individual inebriate. Rather than focusing on the "bad men" like Hagar's father and the landlady's husband who imbibe, Purvis explicitly shows the victimization of women and children by association. Her concentration on Hagar's journeys, which continually bring her into contact with intemperance, presents intemperance as both a family's and a community's problem.
H. Cordelia Ray
Among the works of African American women writers included in the Woman's Building Library those of H. Cordelia Ray (1849-1916) stand out. Unlike Eldridge's, Ray's work is not urgent. Unlike Foote's, it contains no gender critiques. Unlike Matthews's and Harper's, it is not intended to promote social reform. Ray was a highly educated lady of leisure writing for the simple pleasure of writing itself. The second youngest daughter of the Reverend Charles B. Ray (once the editor of the Colored American), Ray could trace her origins back to the first settlers in New England (Native American, black, and white). Well born and well bred, educated in manners, culture, and refinement as well as French, Greek, Latin, literature, and mathematics, Ray was a genteel woman, a spinster, and a bluestocking. Never marrying, she lived with her younger sister Florence, primarily devoting her life to pursuing literary studies and writing poetry. In addition to Sonnets (1891) and other poetry collections Cordelia teamed up with Florence to write their father's biography.
Although Ray wrote poems to honor Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Toussaint L'Overture, Robert Gould Shaw, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the collection Sonnets does not take race as its theme. The poems are all metrically perfect Petrarchan sonnets and are primarily meditations on abstractions such as "Life," "Aspiration," "Incompleteness," "Self-Mastery," "Limitations," and "The Quest of the Ideal." Others, such as "Milton," "Shakespeare," "Beethoven," and "To Venus of Milo," reflect her education in the humanities and Western civilization. Some, like "Niobe," reflect classical themes. In "Niobe" the speaker commiserates and sympathizes with Niobe, who has lost all of her children after boasting of her pride to the gods. Ray was not a poet who played with form or experimented with meter and rhyme. Her sonnets evoke conventional methods and tropes, honoring esteemed canonical writers, contemplating conventional themes, referencing muses and nymphs, and personifying Dawn, effectively calling attention to her gentility of subject while seeming to revel in it. "Milton" perhaps best exemplifies her poetic techniques. In "Milton" Ray praises the poet for writing Paradise Lost but attributes his greatness to his blindness, which has given him "sight divine." His inability to see and thus be burdened by the daily occurrences of life has made him eligible "to catch the sacred mystery of Heaven." His blindness is thus treated as a gift. Coupled with his patience and zeal, characterized by his desire to "linger," his "longing" and resolve "to ponder truth supreme," it makes him worthy to receive and portray artistic truth. (17) In Sonnets, by analogy, Ray assumes a racial "blindness" in order likewise to contemplate universal and artistic truths.
Victoria Earle (Matthews)
Victoria Earle Matthews was born in Fort Valley, Georgia in 1861 to slave parents. (18) She moved to the North when an adolescent and married at the age of eighteen. Matthews became an accomplished and widely published journalist as well as a social reformer and activist. In addition to being a member of many women's organizations, she founded the White Rose Mission Industrial Association in order to aid black women migrating to the North. (19) Matthews's "Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life" (1893) takes place in her own hometown of Fort Valley, Georgia, and describes a series of events brought about by a fire that has destroyed most of the town. At the heart of the tale lies the reunion between Marse Jeems and Aunt Lindy, a former master and slave, in which the roles of power have been reversed. Marse Jeems appears in Fort Valley as a critically ill stranger. The fire has devastated and overburdened the town dwellers, leaving no one with the space to shelter or the time to tend the stranger. The town doctor takes the stranger to Aunt Lindy's cabin on the outskirts of town and asks her to care for him. While tending her patient, Aunt Lindy recognizes him as her former master and contemplates killing him in retribution for past wrongs he has committed.
Aunt Lindy is a woman renowned for her nursing skills. She is used to the doctor and others bringing her the sick to tend. She and her husband, Joel, are quiet, cleanly, Christian, and lonely. Matthews characterizes them as "Lindy and Joel, who years before had seen babes torn from their breast and sold--powerless to utter a complaint or appeal, whipped for the tears they shed." (20) They are not the cheerful, industrious couple moving on after slavery and looking only to the future. They are quietly enduring, left no other way. Made childless via slavery, they still suffer from the losses of their children, but "hid their grief from an unsympathizing generation, and the memory of their oppressors awoke but to the call of fitful retrospection" (4). They suffer in secret with no opportunities for redress and keep an extra bed made up in their cabin on the unlikely chance that "in de prov'dence ob Gawd, one ob de chil'en mou't chance dis away wid no place to lay his hed" (4). Although kept occupied during the day by "the busy life that freedom gave them," they pine away for their lost children at night, crying for "the scattered voices" of their children, whom they believe to be either dead or else dispersed, as they "mourn o'er their past oppression" (3).
The fire that burns the town is clearly intended also to describe the emotions Lindy and Joel have been forced to suppress in a postbellum South. The fire, caused by the thoughtlessness and careless actions of one person, burns slowly, steadily, and secretly until it is out of control and uncontainable. Undetected by the night watchman, who "saw nothing to indicate the treacherous flame," the fire smoldered and "burned its way silently, without smoke, through the heart of a great bale to the flooring beneath, before it was discovered" (1). Once discovered, it is too late. The fire burns out of control, and the surprised, "slow, easy-going dwellers" of the town are ill-equipped to contain or control it. Lacking the modern advances in fire-fighting techniques and equipment that other towns have, they attempt to fight the raging fire with buckets of water. The fire moves "like a curse ... from house to house, leaving nothing in its track but the blackened and charred remains of what had been ... home" (2).
"Aunt Lindy" is a cautionary tale that responds to the nation's increasing desire to put the past behind it, to assign the wrongs of slavery to previous decades, refusing to see the lingering presence of an open, unhealed wound. In "Aunt Lindy" the scars of the nation's wrongs are keenly felt by Aunt Lindy and Joel, as they are blithely expected to seamlessly piece together their pre-emancipation and postslavery lives. Through the imagery of fire and conflagration "Aunt Lindy" shows the very incongruity of the nation's attempt to turn its back on past wrongs from which it still suffered. The fire that destroys the town also burns within Lindy's heart, nearly consuming her and overwhelming her with the desire for retribution. When Lindy recognizes the delirious stranger's face as her old master's, she forgets the discussions she and her husband have had on the virtues and mandates of Christian charity. She forgets her promise to treat the stranger as if he were her own child. The image of her former master fills her with the desire for vengeance:</p> <pre> The quick vengeful flame leaped in her eyes, as her mind, made keen by years of secret suffering and toil, traveled through time and space; she saw wrongs which no tongue can enumerate; demoniac gleams of exultation and bitter hatred settled upon her now grim features; a pitiless smile wreathed her set lips, as she gazed with glaring eyeballs at this helpless, homeless "victim of the great fire," as though surrounded by demons; a dozen wicked impulses rushed through her mind--a life for a life--no mortal eye was near. (5) </pre> <p>Thus the fire of retribution sweeps through Lindy, burning away all thoughts of Christian forgiveness. Yet when Marse Jeems recognizes Lindy through his delirium, he confuses the past with the present and is reminded of "the palmiest period of his existence." Between these two, the present and the past are interchangeable. When Lindy looks at her former master, his face triggers painful memories of "wrongs which no tongue can enumerate." When he recognizes her face, it brings back pleasant memories of "opulence," "the magnolia, the oleander" from that same past (5). Lindy demands to know her children's whereabouts, but to no avail. Then, just as she has finally decided to kill Marse Jeems to avenge the sale of her children, she hears a prayer meeting taking place next door. She abandons her patient and approaches the door of the prayer meeting, where she overhears a portion of a sermon on vengeance and forgiveness and is convinced to relinquish her revenge.
Matthews shows that there is no room for the sorrow and bitterness these ex-slaves, Lindy and Joel, feel from the effects of slavery in the new society or for communities that ignore racial strife. The story challenges the notion that the nation has been healed and slavery is no longer a present concern. Lindy and Joel's memories and the loss of their children stay with them, something the newer generation cannot sympathize with and something her former master neither expects nor perceives. Unable to comprehend Lindy's individual response and magnanimity, Marse Jeems trivializes her mercy and reads it as a racial characteristic: "He marvelled at the patient faithfulness of these people. He saw but the gold--did not dream of the dross burned away by the great Refiner's fire" (6). Ironically, unable to understand the high cost of her mercy or the process that brought her to it, he retreats behind a facade of privilege and comes to expect it.
"Aunt Lindy" is framed as both a moral and an ironic lesson. Lindy is ultimately rewarded for forsaking vengeance. After Marse Jeems regains his health he purchases Lindy and Joel's cabin for them and reveals the man who conducted the prayer meeting to be their first-born son. Yet as the tale ends on this seemingly happy note the story's last sentence complicates the resolution. "Aunt Lindy" ends by presenting the confirmed death of Lindy's children as a positive occurrence. Lindy learns the whereabouts of only the one child. The others, she is told, "were 'sleeping until the morning,' and not to the 'fo' win's ob de ear'fh' as was so greatly feared by Lindy." The ending suggests, then, that the knowledge of her children's deaths is preferable to their being alive but scattered all over the country (6).
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) led a distinguished career as a poet, novelist, essayist, lecturer, political activist, and reformer. As Frances Smith Foster argues, "Harper could have chosen to avoid many of the distressing realities that controlled the lives of the less fortunate members of her race. She chose not to do so. Harper decided that her personal survival and well-being were inextricably linked with the survival and well-being of the larger society." (21) Harper's work in the Woman's Building Library addresses the many different concerns of the other five African American women writers. Like Ray's sonnets, Harper's poems bespeak her classical bent and training. Like Matthews's story, her poetry and novel express concern over the place of African Americans during Reconstruction, the healing of wounds, and the reconciliation of the races. Like Foote's autobiography, her work has a Christian foundation; Harper makes the church the unifying tool in her novel Iola Leroy (1892), in which long-lost family members eventually reconnect through the grapevine of the church. Like Eldridge, she stresses the importance of entrepreneurship; newly freed blacks in Iola Leroy debate the wisdom of renting and leasing versus owning property, and many also go into business for themselves. Like Purvis, Harper writes to encourage temperance and sobriety; Iola Leroy features a scene in which a former slave-woman is convinced not to drink or serve her homemade wines, and in her collection Sketches of Southern Life (1872) she devotes an entire cycle of poems to the subject.
At the time of the World's Fair Harper was sixty-eight years old and had already led a life that involved her in almost every type of social reform. Foster designates Harper not only as "the most popular African-American writer of the nineteenth century" but also as "one of the most important women in United States history" (4). Her tireless lifelong efforts to champion abolitionism, Christian duty, freedmen's rights, temperance, and women's rights helped make her a recognizable figure in American culture. Born free in slave-holding Maryland, orphaned at a young age, and raised by a famous uncle, Harper had an early life that seems to have prepared her perfectly for the life of advocacy she would go on to lead.
Raised by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins, who founded the Williams Watkins Academy for Negro Youth and was a "fervent abolitionist, a community leader, and a highly regarded teacher," Harper received an education that was nothing if not thorough (7). As a young girl she attended her uncle's school, which stressed the importance of "biblical studies, the classics, and elocution" as well as "Christian service" and "political leadership" (7). An educated and well-connected free black, Harper enjoyed a life of relative privilege, although that privilege was short-lived. Harper's family, uncle, and cousins were compelled to leave Maryland after Harper's uncle was forced by local officials to sell his house and school for racial reasons (9). The family decided to move to Canada, but Harper instead went to Ohio and became the first female teacher at Union Seminary (9). Harper held various teaching positions until the 1853 passage of a law in Maryland that forbade free blacks from the North from entering Maryland inspired her to become a dedicated antislavery advocate (10). Harper worked for several different antislavery societies and lectured widely. She lectured for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Maine Anti-Slavery Society, and Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society; she lectured in New England, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the Great Lakes area and was "an integral part of the national black abolitionist network" (14). After the Civil War her lecture circuit included tours in the South.
In addition to following a busy touring schedule booked with speaking engagements (sometimes several in one day) Harper published prolifically. Her first book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was "an immediate success" that sold 10,000 copies in three years and went through several reprintings (14). Harper published at least ten volumes of verse, three serialized short novels, and a longer novel. Her first two volumes of poetry sold over 50,000 copies, and her first book of poetry went through twenty printings in her lifetime (26). Iola Leroy, published on the eve of the Columbian Exposition, was reprinted four times in four years.
In addition to these accomplishments Harper's life and background undoubtedly added to her popularity. As a free black in Maryland Harper was a Southern woman who saw the realities of slavery, the restrictions slave codes put not only on slaves but on free blacks as well. Although she was orphaned at the age of three and thus deprived of her mother, Harper's work nevertheless stressed the importance of women's, especially mothers', influence on the moral conduct and character of children. Described as a "red mulatto," Harper nevertheless argued against the color prejudice that favored blacks with fair complexions (6). Though she made Iola Leroy fair enough to be mistaken for white, her novel condemns passing, praises racial pride, and forcefully insists that its mixed-race characters identify with the African American race. Having married Fenton Harper, a man who "died in debt" five years later, leaving Harper on her own with a child to support, Harper urged women to be self-reliant (18). Her fiction and poetry frequently include anecdotes of women who rely too heavily upon love or their husbands only to find their circumstances changed by either marrying drunkards who drag them into poverty, marrying men whose deaths remand them and their children into slavery, or marrying men who die and leave them penniless. She argues that if women are to be men's true partners, they must be allowed to make themselves useful by learning a trade or seeking an occupation to support themselves and their families. Although opposed to divorce, Harper advocates economic and occupational self-sufficiency for married and single women.
When Bertha Palmer, president of the Board of Lady Managers, refused black women's requests to serve on the board, she argued that only "representatives from a national organization were eligible to serve." (22) Foster explains that Harper, however, was "one of the very few African-American women to gain some measure of acceptance in the American Women's Suffrage Association, the National Council of Women, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union" and was frequently the only African American woman in predominantly white women's groups (21). Although she was not a member of the Board of Lady Managers, Harper did speak at the World's Fair during the World's Congress of Representative Women held 15-22 May 1893. Of the six known African American women writers represented in the Woman's Building Library, Harper was the only one to do so. (23)
Like many other women, Harper believed that the 1890s heralded the woman's era; the speech she delivered, "Woman's Political Future," embraces the modernity of the moment and argues for women's inclusion in political affairs through the use of restricted suffrage. Her speech takes a wide look at historical progress, seeing a natural progression of evolution in the New World that has finally come to include women. Harper argues that the inclusion of women in the political sphere will not detract from women's influence over domestic matters: "The result [of women's rights and suffrage] will not be to make home less happy, but society more holy." (24) Harper argues that women, although they cannot vote, are exemplary citizens because they represent "the aristocracy of character; and it is the women of a country who help to mold its character, and to influence if not determine its destiny" (44). Women's lives and influences are as redemptive as Christ's, and their work is "grandly constructive" (43). Harper expresses the need for better voters who are contributors to the development of a national conscience and the building of national character (44). She implies that women should be allowed to vote because men's characters are in question, and "the world has need of all the spiritual aid that woman can give for the social advancement and moral development of the human race." (25) She also argues that women's votes will have a salvaging effect on the political body because "political life in our country has plowed in muddy channels, and needs the infusion of clearer and cleaner water." (26) Women, by virtue of character, are the cleaner waters that will purge the muddy.
Harper enumerates women's diversity to show that they have succeeded in journalism, used positions in church to effect social reform, raised their own children at home, and taught society's children in school. Women are helpers; they teach. Women are literate and articulate; they advocate through journalism. Women are spiritual; they comprise the majority of churchgoers. She argues that women of character are better suited and deserving to vote than men who are drunkards or lynchers. In so doing she not only makes suffrage a woman's right, but she also alludes to the political machinations that have created voting schemes by which black men granted suffrage are prevented from having a fair vote through physical force, bribery, threats, and scams.
A reprinted version of Sketches of Southern Life was released in 1886 with the omission of its original opening poem, "Our English Friends," and the addition of seven new poems that address temperance. This revised version, included in the Woman's Building Library, was reissued in 1881, 1890, and 1891. Sketches contains two poetry cycles along with several poems that stand alone. (27) The first six comprise a cycle of "Aunt Chloe" poems in which Harper assumes the persona of a slave-woman who suffers the loss of her two sons, Jakey and Ben. The first poem of the cycle, simply titled "Aunt Chloe," captures the moment when she discovers her children have been sold.
Although Harper relies upon sentimental tropes and descriptions, she uses them to underscore the concrete and personal nature of Chloe's individuated suffering. Chloe's descriptions of pain are not abstract notions of hearts breaking from sorrow. She describes the impact of receiving the news in terms that equate a mother's pain with a soldier's: "It seemed as if a bullet / Had shot me through and through." This description brings a mother's sorrow from the abstract and sentimental pain of the previous line--"My heart-strings / Was breaking right in two"--to the tangible pain of a gunshot wound. Here, Harper shows that the sentimental is insufficient in this case. Likening Aunt Chloe's grief to a heart breaking would put her on a par with Mistus, the plantation mistress, who is "in the great house crying-- / Crying like her heart would break." Despite Mistus's demonstration of sorrow, the scene is underscored by the revelation that she sits in the great house with a lawyer who has "come to 'ministrate'" and see the sale through. Milly, another slave, commiserates as one who has "been through it all" and thought her "poor old heart would break," yet in the midst of these abstract generalities of breaking hearts and pulled heart-strings are tangible, concrete evocations of Chloe's pain. When Chloe's children came to bid her good-bye, she rose to meet them but "fell upon the floor." Significantly, Harper does not use the word "faint." Chloe's pain, rather than being just another woman's broken heart, is instead a "heavy burden / Rolling like a stone away." Unlike the other women's pain, Chloe's evokes the physicality of weight as well as the regenerative hope of resurrection.
The next poem in the cycle, "The Deliverance," seemingly begins as a poem that will right Aunt Chloe's wrongs. The poem begins by detailing Mister Thomas's coming of age and inheritance of the plantation. Mister Thomas is characterized as Mistus's "pride and joy," the only son: "Master only left old Mistus / One bright and handsome boy." This characterization and focus on Thomas's singularity creates the expectation that Mistus will lose her only son in the Civil War and thus be forced to walk a mile in her slave's shoes. Aunt Chloe begins to anticipate such a loss even as she commiserates:</p> <pre> And I said to Uncle Jacob,
How old Mistus feels the sting, For this parting with your children
Is a mighty dreadful thing. </pre> <p>Midway through the poem Harper shifts the focus from the owners' worries about the effects of the Civil War and Mister Thomas's position in the war to the slaves' view of the war. Though Aunt Chloe feels sorry for Mistus and admires Mister Thomas, she feels "His fighting must be wrong," and the slaves are somehow "mixed up in that fight." Harper juxtaposes the slaves' positions and that of their masters, thus highlighting conflicting desires within the same household:</p> <pre> Mistus prayed up in the parlor, That the Secesh all might win; We were praying in the cabins, Wanting freedom to begin. </pre> <p>Disparate as their desires are, Chloe hopes that for every Southern win Mistus celebrates "some day she'd laugh / On tother side her mouth."
Yet the vindication of Aunt Chloe's personal insults and injuries at the hands of those who sold her children is not realized. There is no mention of Mister Thomas's survival, death, or return at the end of the Civil War. When Aunt Chloe and the others hear that the Union has defeated the "Secesh," the poem turns away from the personal happenings on the plantation. The newly freed slaves are exultant, and then they focus on the current politics of Lincoln's assassination, their betrayal at Andrew Johnson's hands, and the new Ulysses Grant. The poem goes through three presidents and ends by discussing the newly franchised black man and Southern white attempts to disenfranchise blacks by bribing or coercing black men into selling their votes. Discussion of the franchise continues in the poem "Aunt Chloe's Politics." Aunt Chloe, who believes in "voting clean," disparages all attempts, whether made by black or white men, to direct black men's votes as selling out. She calls buying votes "this buying up each other" and interprets the sale of the franchise as just another form of enslavement, this time political rather than corporeal.
"Learning to Read" describes freedmen's attempts and desires to learn to read now that literacy is no longer prohibited and teachers are coming from the North. The anecdote of Uncle Caldwell, a man "who greased pages of a book and hid it in his hat," gets further developed in Iola Leroy. In "Learning to Read" Aunt Chloe, though sixty years old, determines to learn how to read. Despite the discouragement of others, her desire to read her Bible front to back before she dies spurs her on. Her age, rather than being an impediment, becomes an inspiration: "As I was rising sixty, / I had no time to wait." Harper also connects Aunt Chloe's acquired literacy with economic freedom. After learning to read Aunt Chloe purchases her own cabin. Although she was already free, her literacy and property combine to make her "independent."
"The Reunion" fulfills the expectations raised by "The Deliverance." One of Aunt Chloe's lost sons, Jakey, runs into her on the street. Upon finding her son and hearing his report on her other son, Ben, who has a family and is doing well, Chloe celebrates and invites both of her children home to live with her, rejoicing that "Old Mistus got no power now / To tear us both apart." The family is reunited, and it is decided that they will enlarge her cabin to fit everyone. Chloe and Jakey share no tears and no sorrowful or painful recollections or stories of what they've each suffered. Jakey's and Ben's stories and what they endured once sold away are not recounted. Instead, Aunt Chloe claims her long-overdue personal vindication. We learn that Mistus lost her son, Mister Thomas, in the Civil War and is now alone and childless:</p> <pre> I'm richer now than Mistus, Because I have got my son; And Mister Thomas, he is dead, And she's nary one. </pre> <p>The tables have turned for Aunt Chloe, who has been childless and alone for some time and now has her sons restored to her.
Sketches also includes five temperance poems. "Out in the Cold," "Save the Boys," "Nothing and Something," "Wanderer's Return," and "Signing the Pledge" make up a cycle of poems focusing on the vice of intemperance. In "Out in the Cold" an orphaned woman lacks the protection of family and thus finds herself alone in the world, out in the cold, as it were. The poem implies that the woman is a prostitute. Because she is "Missing to-night the charming bliss / That lies in the mother's good-night kiss" and hears "no loving father's prayer" she takes comfort and refuge instead in</p> <pre> some wretched den, To sleep mid the curses of drunken men And women, not as God has made, Wretched and ruined, wronged and betrayed. </pre> <p>The speaker of the poem is not the woman, however, but someone distanced enough to watch her downward spiral and exhort Christians to embrace rather than ignore the woman who is by turns referred to as "a child," "a lamb not sheltered in any fold," "the hapless one," "the drifting child," and "motherless girl."
Only two poems in Harper's Sketches of Southern Life use male voices as the speaker. Both poems are in the temperance cycle: "Save the Boys," the first and the last poem in the cycle and collection, and "Signing the Pledge." "Save the Boys," a protest against saloons and the sale of liquor, is leveled at the men who vote in favor of the liquor trade ("Oh! Freemen from these foul decoys / Arise, and vote to save the boys") and the men "who license men to trade / In draughts that charm and then degrade." The speaker is a victim of intemperance, a man who cannot quit his drinking habit but begs that intemperance be brought to an end so that the men who have come after him, "the boys," can be spared from repeating his fate. This poem is not personal; there is nothing distinct about the male speaker. One of the few poems in Sketches that does not consist of quatrains, "Save the Boys" is divided into four octaves of heroic couplets. The last line of each stanza, though varied in its wording, is a direct plea to save the boys from intemperance. The blame is not ascribed to man's weaker passion or addiction for alcohol but to the presence and availability of liquor. Thus, the full thrust of the plea suggests that the way to save the boys is by removing liquor establishments: "Take from your streets those traps of hell / Into whose gilded snares I fell." Yet the speaker, who asks men to vote to save the boys, seems to acknowledge that these same men share the intemperate habit. If the "foul decoys" are indeed the saloons and liquor establishments, and the speaker asks the men to arise from these "foul decoys" in order to vote to get rid of the saloons, then the problem is not so easily solved. Further, the poem narrowly focuses on eradicating only one aspect of intemperance, the saloon, failing to take into account the possibility of people making their own liquor or also selling bootleg liquor once the saloons have been closed.
In "Nothing and Something" Harper stresses her belief in the unity among people, that each person's life is capable of touching another's in ways unimaginable to both. Each stanza features a person who shrugs off the responsibility to address intemperance. The situations vary, however, from a woman ignoring her fiance's intemperance, to a mother's refusal to believe her son can be tempted, to a merchant's refusal to accept his share of the blame in selling liquor. Each stanza begins "It is nothing to me" and features a twist by which the apathetic person is affected and made to suffer. The fourth line of each octave begins "It was something to him" or "It was something to her" and details the fate of the apathetic person. Thus the first woman suffers as the wife of a drunkard, the second woman becomes the mother of a drunkard, and the merchant loses his wife and child in a train wreck caused by a drunken conductor. Harper exercises poetic justice within each of her stanzas as she details the many possible fates. The last stanza is a direct address to the reader in which Harper warns against apathy and asks us not to "idly sleep." She advocates personal responsibility and prevention and cautions that if we do not universally reform, we may individually suffer unforeseen consequences.
The last temperance poem in the cycle is "Signing the Pledge." Harper's work and message here rely upon the biblical advice for one to cast down one's bucket where one stands. Harper's work does not condemn the prodigal person for living a long life of sin and then trying to square up later in life. Just as Aunt Chloe decides against the advice of others that even at sixty it's not too late to learn to read, so Harper's temperance poems urge readers that it's never too late to begin a new life of sobriety. In "Signing the Pledge" the speaker is a man who recounts the ways in which his intemperance has ruined his relationships with his wife, mother, and son. The poem is centered around the husband's decision to sign the temperance pledge on this very day. The poem is one of hope. The man accepts guilt and blame for making his wife "sad and wan," filling his "aged mother's eyes / With many bitter tears," and making his son "tremble at my voice." Yet the speaker does not dwell on his past wrongs; he recalls them to anticipate the work his signing the temperance pledge will do to resurrect his family and restore not only his relationships but also his family's former vitality. He predicts:</p> <pre> The faded face of my young wife With roses yet shall bloom, And joy shall light my mother's eyes On the margin of the tomb. </pre> <p>The final poem in Sketches, "Fishers of Men," advocates collective social responsibility. The poem's speaker dreams and finds herself at the gates of Heaven. The realization of her death comes as a joyous rather than a sorrowful event:</p> <pre> My heart leaped up with untold joy; Life's toil and pain were o'er; My weary feet at last had found The bright and restful shore. </pre> <p>This bright shore is resplendent with "the music of a myriad harps," angels, "love and light." Yet as the speaker prepares to go through the heavenly gates she hears "a fearful cry of sorrow and sin" and turns to see "A wild and stormy sea; / And drowning men were reaching out / Imploring hands to me." The speaker is thus faced with a scene of pleasure and heavenly bliss, while behind her hands reach out and voices moan and wail for aid. The speaker asks to go help, and an angel explains that what she is hearing are the sounds of the wretched back on earth. Her request is one of Christian charity and personal duty: "The strugglers in that sea / Shall not reach out beseeching hands / In vain for help to me." Though tempted, the speaker relinquishes her heavenly reward to return to earth and help those in need. At the moment she makes that decision her sacrifice is rewarded. Her selfless act redeems "the rescued throng" of "sin-wrecked men." The wild and stormy sea grows bright, and ten thousand "cords of light" flow from her heart to pull the suffering on toward the heavenly gate. Finally, after rescuing those who asked her for aid, the speaker is now ready to enter heaven:</p> <pre> Again I stood beside the gate. My heart was glad and free; For with me stood a rescued throng
The Lord had given me. </pre> <p>Like the poem's title, "Fishers of Men," the poem echoes with evangelical references. The speaker literally becomes a fisherwoman, identifying her as one of the followers of Jesus who turned from fishermen into fishers of men. The suffering ones are at sea, described as members of a shipwreck, drowning, with "imploring hands" and "blanched lips." The speaker's heart sends out life-preserving light that the drowning people can latch onto in order to pull themselves up. The speaker's work, like Harper's, is evangelical: to be a fisher of men, to lead men and women to Christ and righteous or saintly living by using her own life as an example, and to make her life's work center around good works. The speaker's own death is influential and transformative. Her life's work makes her death a moment of salvation for others.
Harper's concerns for racial uplift and social justice are most fully developed in Iola Leroy. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, raised as a Southern belle and daughter of a slave-holder, unaware of her racial identity as a black woman and daughter of a former slave until remanded to slavery, Iola has all of the traits that would encourage one to label her a "tragic mulatto." Even though the turn of events in her life bespeaks tragedy, however, there is nothing tragic about Iola. Remanded into slavery after the death of her father and the disinheritance of her family, Iola gains a reputation as an intractable slave, a "spitfire." (28) Because she refuses to succumb to the sexual overtures of her various white masters, she is sold seven times in six weeks. When the Union soldiers are spotted nearby, a handful of slaves escape to join the Union encampment, rescuing Iola and taking her with them. Once at the encampment Iola is set up as a nurse to wounded soldiers. Her attitude of quiet acceptance and resilience is one Harper suggests ex-Confederates adopt in order to reconcile themselves with the Union and a free black presence.
During Iola's confession of her racial background to would-be lover Dr. Gresham, some of her words do carry tragic undertones: "'I was torn from my mother, sold as a slave, and subjected to cruel indignation'"; however, her assertions undercut the notion of tragedy: "'Thought and purposes have come to me in the shadows I should never have learned in the sunshine'" (87-88). Iola is given a chance to lead the life Harper had chosen for herself, that is, the life of an advocate and activist. Rather than bemoaning the loss of a social life and privilege she previously had, she sees the skills and talents she has developed as being directly related to the African American community she has devoted her life to serving: "'It was,' replied Iola, 'through their unrequited toil that I was educated, while they were compelled to live in ignorance. I am indebted to them for the power I have to serve them. I wish other Southern women felt as I do'" (176). Unwilling to pursue her own personal welfare selfishly while her race suffers, she refuses the white doctor's marriage proposal and informs him, "'I intend, when this conflict is over, to cast my lot with the freed people as a helper, teacher, and friend'" (88).
Iola always thinks of work first and love second. Rather than desiring a romantic hero to sweep her away from the cares of the world, she holds out for a partner to share the cares of the world with her. The following conversation between Iola and Dr. Latimer typifies Iola's attitude toward love. Walking home after an evening out, Iola expresses the wish to do "'something of lasting service for the race'" in addition to all of her other efforts (197). Dr. Latimer suggests that she write "'a good, strong book that will be helpful to them'" (197). Although Iola a acknowledges the value of his suggestion, she argues, "'There is material among us for the broadest comedy and the deepest tragedy, but, besides money and leisure, it needs patience, perseverance, courage and the hand of an artist to weave it into the literature of the century.'" Dr. Latimer encourages her: "'Write, out of the fullness of your heart, a book to inspire men and women with a deeper sense of justice and humanity'" (197). He believes that her past experiences, first as an educated genteel woman and then as a slave, qualify her to represent and portray black characters accurately: "'Out of the race must come its own thinkers and writers. Authors belonging to the white race have good racial books, for which I am deeply grateful, but it seems to be almost impossible for a white man to put himself completely in our place. No man can feed the iron which enters another man's soul'" (197). This discussion typifies much of the lovers' conversations in Harper's novel. Although it follows the personal growth of Iola and ends with the heroine's marriage, the novel is less of a romance and more of a social tract. Iola and Dr. Latimer do not discuss their romantic futures or their mutual attraction for each other. They do not flirt coyly. Dr. Latimer makes no references to Iola's beauty. Instead, the two discuss the tenuous future of the African American race and the collective duties of African Americans and their own individual responsibility to uplift the race. Dr. Latimer, impressed with Iola's virtue and her high-mindedness, encourages her to consider writing a novel. For the two, African American literary expression is but another form of the social work they believe is required of African Americans in order to improve the economic, political, and social conditions for members of their race. Thus, literary expression becomes a way to counter prevalent disparaging stereotypes of African Americans, to showcase African American progress, and to be a conduit of social protest and reform rather than a means of acquiring personal gain, fame, or wealth.
Iola Leroy's life seems to be based closely on Harper's in that both women insist on defining their lives in terms of social work and the production of good. Iola Leroy is not a romantic heroine. There are no intriguing love triangles, although Iola is loved and wooed by three men: Tom Anderson, an ex-slave turned Union volunteer who rescues Iola from the tyranny of her salacious master and finds her a place in the refugee encampment; Dr. Gresham, the white doctor who works by Iola's side and falls in love with her; and, finally, Dr. Latimer, the black doctor Iola weds. There aren't even any hard feelings between Dr. Gresham and Dr. Latimer, even though it is through the rejected Dr. Gresham that Iola meets Dr. Latimer. Instead, Harper seems to use Iola's three suitors as a platform from which to espouse theories of social protest and advocate behavior.
In Iola Leroy Harper positions her characters right at the national divide. Set during and immediately after the Civil War, Iola Leroy is more than the tale of one woman's struggles. The novel also details the reconstruction and reunification of the Johnson and Leroy families and the social work each member does to better the African American community. Although it chronicles the misfortunes and success of Iola Leroy, the novel gives equal focus to the last battles of the Civil War and the plight of African Americans in the midst of the Civil War and ensuing Reconstruction. The upheaval of the war, though an event that divides the nation, actually works to reunite African American families as the newly freed now have the mobility to go in search of lost or previously sold-off family members.
One of Harper's strongest attacks is leveled at color prejudice. Even as her nearly white characters align themselves with the African American race, they do so on terms of equality, with no desire to be part of the blue-vein society or to presume superiority. Further, they discourage both blacks and whites from differentiating among members of the African American community according to skin color. Harper treats passing not as the cultural privilege some authors have interpreted it as. While acknowledging the privilege of color, both Iola and her brother Harry refuse to pass for white when given the opportunity, regarding passing not only as self-denial but as cultural betrayal and treason. In fact, Iola downplays the successes of blacks fair enough to pass and instead highlights the deeds of the visibly black: "'Every person of unmixed blood who succeeds ... is a living argument for the capability which is in the race'" (150). Her attention to and care of the wounded Tom Anderson show her indifference to color castes.
Unlike Iola's own undetectable blackness, Tom Anderson's is unmistakable. When Iola tends his deathbed, her concern and demeanor attract the attention of Dr. Gresham. Gresham, ignorant of Iola's racial background, is puzzled over what he perceives as a Southern white woman's intimacy with black people. Although described as liberal, he says, "'I can eat with colored people, walk, talk, and fight with them, but kissing them is something I don't hanker after'" (44). Gresham's proposal and his solutions are quick fixes that, though intended for good and meant to be evidence of his own liberality, represent a selfishness and slighting of the African American race. Gresham wants to marry Iola, offering to take her North and suppress her identity, effectively gilding over her suffering and her past and building a future on a deceptive foundation that entails Iola separating herself from members of her own family, including her grandmother, who cannot pass. Gresham's plan does not take into account any children he and Iola might have and ignores the fact that their future complexions might reveal their race. Gresham's solutions, though liberally intended, mirror the national movement to gild over the past and the suffering and wrongdoings of slavery and usher the nation into a modernity that looks forward rather than back. Yet if the nation moves so quickly forward, unhealed wounds will not get lanced and heal but will merely be denied, ignored, or suppressed. In order to usher itself into the new Gilded Age, America must "pass" as a cohesive nation.
Indeed, this was the very face presented at the World's Fair, an America that had come of age, a modern America swiftly moving forward. The work of these six African American women writers in the Woman's Building Library, however, reveals the nation's many other faces. Just as literacy itself was appropriated by slaves as a means to establish both agency and humanity, so too the creation and publication of literary texts provided a way for the underrepresented not only to represent themselves but also to publicly address and counter prevalent stereotypes while offering their own representations. Although other women's works in the library championed abolition and addressed issues of race and prejudice, the work of the six African American women writers discussed here achieves what Dr. Latimer says good books should do: they feed the iron that enters men's and women's souls.
1. David F. Burg, Chicago's White City of 1893 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), xiii.
2. Ibid., 104. The official dedication of the World's Columbian Exposition was intended to coincide with Columbus Day festivities but was postponed until 21 October.
3. Ibid., 89.
4. Ibid., xii-xiii.
5. Robert Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World: Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993), 134.
6. Ibid., 141.
7. Ibid., 133.
8. Ibid., 143.
9. Burg, Chicago's White City, 210.
10. Ibid., 109.
11. Christopher Robert Reed, All the World's Here! The Black Presence at White City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 112.
12. The "Afro-American Exhibit" contributed by the women of New York State included one additional volume, a collection of typewritten poems, "Tones and Undertones," by M. R. Lyons.
13. Francis Harriet Green, ed., Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge (Providence: B. T. Albro, 1838), 92. Hereafter cited in text.
14. See Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch by Mrs. Julia A. J. Foote, in William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 220, 222.
15. The WBL also included a volume of Purvis's juvenile fiction: Abi Meredith (Philadelphia: Friends' Book Association, 1878).
16. T. T. Purvis, Hagar the Singing Maiden: With Other Stories and Rhymes (Philadelphia: Walton, 1881), 4. Hereafter cited in text.
17. See H. Cordelia Ray, "Milton," in the Digital Schomburg African-American Women Writers of the 19th Century, at http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs/wwm9719, 78.
18. Shirley Wilson Logan, ed., With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 120.
19. Ibid., 121.
20. Victoria Earle Matthews, "Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life," designed by Jennifer L. Ciotta, in Glynis Carr, ed., The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings, http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/VEM/AL.html, 4. Hereafter cited in text.
21. Francis Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (New York: Feminist Press, 1990), 3. Hereafter cited in text.
22. Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World, 143.
23. Fannier Barrier Williams and Anna Julia Cooper also spoke, but their work was not included in the Woman's Building Library.
24. Logan, With Pen and Voice, 44.
25. Ibid., 43.
26. Ibid., 45.
27. All text references to Harper's poems are taken from Maryemma Graham, ed., Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 115-47.
28. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Iola Leroy, in William L. Andrews, ed., The African-American Novel in the Age of Reaction (New York: Mentor, 1992), 30. Hereafter cited in text.