Poetry Sunday: Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Last week I made the acquaintance of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was quite a remarkable woman.

Frances Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore to a free African-American couple. She was their only child. Unfortunately, she lost her mother when she was quite young and she was raised by an aunt. She attended a school for African-American children run by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins. She was a bright and talented child who began writing poetry in her youth. She published her first collection of poems, entitled Autumn Leaves, in 1845. She wrote other forms of literature, including short stories, in addition to poetry. In 1859, she became the first African-American female to publish a short story. The following year she married Fenton Harper who had several children by a previous marriage and she chose to retire from public life to live in Ohio with her new family. In 1862, she gave birth to a daughter.

In 1864, after her husband had died, she returned to public life and the lecture circuit. She continued writing and advocating for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of women. On the lecture circuit, she appeared with such other famous people of the day as Frederick Douglass, William Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone.

In her later years, she scaled back her activities but continued to advocate for women's suffrage throughout her life. She died in 1911 and was buried in Philadelphia in which event she was granted the wish she expressed in one of her most famous poems.

Bury Me in a Free Land

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; 
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

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.

Comments

  1. How beautiful and powerful! I like the rhyme and cadence too. Not only she had a powerful intellect but she sure could write! I often wonder what has happened in our days to those lofty dreams of old of equality and freedom at any cost. It seems politicians are no longer statemen but tend to serve their own purposes no matter their political colors or inclinations, in whatever country.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was very happy to learn about Harper. She lived a very consequential life and was quite influential in her day, and yet only a bit more than a hundred years later how many people remember her or know who she was? I certainly didn't.

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  2. Wow! Pretty great. It is like a distillation of all the novels I have read about slavery. I am putting this lady on my list of poets I want to read.

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    Replies
    1. I don't think her name and her works are at all well-known today, but in her lifetime she was a very important and influential person and she did her part to move society forward. She certainly deserves to be more widely known.

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