For today’s Thoughtful Thursday we celebrate a wonderful African American poet whom we at GCP have only recently discovered: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). In addition to being a poet, Harper was a journalist, fiction writer and activist. Born in Baltimore to free African American parents, she learned to read and write at the Academy for Negro Youth run by her uncle, who along with her aunt raised her from toddlerhood after her mother died. Harper continued her education while doing domestic work in a Quaker household, where she had access to a wide range of literature. After teaching for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she began a career as a traveling anti-slavery speaker on the abolitionist circuit, and used her earnings to support the Underground Railroad.
During Reconstruction she was an activist for civil rights, women’s rights, and educational opportunities for all. She was superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women, and a member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association. (We contemplated saving her for Women’s Month in March, but didn’t want to wait that long to write about her.)
Harper was a prolific poet and writer, and today we feature four of her poems. In the first, “Learning To Read”, she writes about the tough path to literacy that Black people trod during slavery, and the importance of perseverance. The next two poems, “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction” force us to contemplate the unbearable trauma of slavery that our ancestors somehow bore. And in the final poem, “Songs for The People” Harper reminds us of the power of music to soothe even the weariest of souls.
Share the story and the poems of Frances Ellen Harper Watkins with your sons and daughters, and enjoy.
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 did’nt 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.
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.
The Slave Auction
The sale began—young girls were there,
Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.
And woman, with her love and truth—
For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
With anguish none may paint or tell.
And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
Were gathered in that mournful band.
Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
Whose loved are rudely torn away.
Ye may not know how desolate
Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
Will press the life-drops from the heart.
Songs for the People
Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.
Francis Ellen Watkins Harper