National Poetry Month, Week 4!

It’s that time again, dear readers, where we gather to share some verse in honor of National Poetry Month!  This week, we honor Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black poet, teacher, activist, and social advocate.National Poetry Month Poster 2019

Frances Harper was born in Baltimore Maryland on September 24, 1825, the only daughter of two free Black parents whose names are not known.  Following the death of her parents by the age of three, she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William Watkins, whose name she also took.  Rev. Watkins ran a school for Black children, and Frances was educated there until she found work at a seamstress at age 14. During her early twenties, she published poems and articles in the local newspaper and wrote her first volume of poetry.  When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, which rendered all Black people in the United States at risk of being sent into slavery on the pretext that they were “fugitive slaves,” Frances and her family fled to the northern United States; they lived in Ohio, where Frances  where she worked as the first female teacher at Union Seminary, and eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where Frances joined the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Women of distinction - remarkable in works and invincible in character (1893) (14598047448).jpg
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1893, via Wikimedia

In addition to supporting abolition, Frances was also an active and vocal supporter of prohibition and woman’s suffrage.  She helped to found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which rejected the racist, classist ideology of the suffrage parties led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who refused to support the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave freed Black men the right to vote.  1858, a century before Rosa Park’s protest, she refused to give up her seat or ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia.  A lifelong advocate of women’s personal and political rights, as well as the rights of people of color made her a mentor (and a friend) to many other African American writers and journalists, including Mary Shadd CaryIda B. WellsVictoria Earle Matthews, and Kate D. Chapman.  Today, we are honored to bring her one of Frances’ most well-known poems as part of our National Poetry Month celebration!


The Slave Mother

By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
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.

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