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.
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.
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 Cary, Ida B. Wells, Victoria 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 roseSo wildly on the air,It seem’d as if a burden’d heartWas 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 agonyWere sweeping through the brain.She is a mother pale with fear,Her boy clings to her side,And in her kyrtle vainly triesHis trembling form to hide.He is not hers, although she boreFor him a mother’s pains;He is not hers, although her bloodIs coursing through his veins!He is not hers, for cruel handsMay rudely tear apartThe only wreath of household loveThat binds her breaking heart.His love has been a joyous lightThat o’er her pathway smiled,A fountain gushing ever new,Amid life’s desert wild.His lightest word has been a toneOf 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 eyesGaze on his mournful face.No marvel, then, these bitter shrieksDisturb the listening air:She is a mother, and her heartIs breaking in despair.