Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
Contributing Editor: Elizabeth Ammons
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Two primary issues in teaching Harper are: (1) the high-culture aesthetic in which students have been trained makes it hard for them to appreciate Harper and find ways to talk about her; (2) most students' ignorance of nineteenth-century African-American history deprives them of a strong and meaningful historical context in which to locate Harper's work.
To address the first issue, I ask students to think about the questions and methods of analysis that they may bring to the study of literature in the classroom. What do we look for in "good" literature? Their answers are many but usually involve the following: It should be "interesting" and deal with "important" ideas, themes, topics. It should be intellectually challenging. The style should be sophisticated--by which they mean economical, restrained, and learned without being pretentious. It should need analysis-- i.e., have many hidden points and many "levels" of meaning that readers (students) do not see until they get to class. Then we talk about these criteria: "Interesting" and "important" by whose standards? Theirs? All of theirs? Whose, then? Why is intellectually hard literature judged better than "easy" literature? Why is lean, restrained, educated style "better" than fullsome, emotional, colloquial, or vernacular style (except for keeping professors employed)?
The point here is to talk about the aesthetic students have been taught in school to value and to ask these questions: Where does it come from? Whose interests does it serve (in terms of class, race, ethnic group, and gender--both now and in the past)? What values does it reflect, morally and spiritually (intellect is superior to feelings, transmitting tradition is a primary goal of high-culture literature, etc.)? Thinking about our own aesthetic assumptions and expectations in these ways proves a good way of getting us to see that what we probably accept unquestioningly as "good art" (whether we "like" such art or not) is just one definition of "good art." We can now ask: What aesthetic is Harper writing out of? Is hers the aesthetic we have just described, and is she simply not very good at it, or--at best--only half-way good at it? Or is she speaking and writing out of a different aesthetic--perhaps a mix of what we are familiar with plus other things that many or all of us are not familiar with?
To address the second problem, the historical ignorance that can hamper students' understanding of Harper, one useful strategy is to assign a few short reports for students to present in class. The topics will depend on what selections by Harper one is teaching, and what resources are available, but might include such things as racist stereotypes of black people in newspaper cartoons in the nineteenth century; women's resources against wife-abuse in the nineteenth century; the formation of the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union); the division between white feminists and black people created by the fight for the Fifteenth Amendment; the founding of the National Association of Colored Women. Such reports can give a sense of the intense climate of controversy out of which Harper wrote and can involve the students in the process of creating a historical context for Harper. Also, having students prepare these reports in pairs or small groups is a good way of spreading the work around, counteracting problems of nervousness about making presentations, and having them work corporately rather than individually--which is particularly appropriate for Harper.
Harper, like many other nineteenth-century writers, wrote to be heard, not just read. Therefore, a good strategy is to have students prepare some of her work outside of class to deliver in class.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Two major themes I emphasize in Harper are, first, her commitment not to individual psychology, ethics, development, and fulfillment but to the group. Harper, like Emerson, is ever the teacher and preacher, but the philosophy that she comes out of and lives is not, like his, individualistic--not focused on the self or Self. It is group-centered. I think that this is one of the most important points to make about Harper. Therefore I ask my students to think about this question: Is the classic dominant-culture American schoolroom theme of the Individual vs. Society relevant to Harper? If so, where and how? If not (and often it is not), what question(s) about America does Harper place at the center? If we use her, a black woman, as "the American"--that is, if we follow her lead and place her at the center rather than at the margin--what does "America" mean? What dominant theme(s) define Harper's America?
Second, I emphasize that Harper is a political writer and a propagandist. Art and politics are not alienated for her but inseparably dependent: art is not above politics; it is the tool of politics. I ask the class to think about our customary high-culture disdain for art in the "service" of politics, our disdain for art as propaganda. Why do we have that disdain? What art is not political?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Often Harper writes and speaks in popular forms. I ask the class to identify the forms and think about how they work. The sermon, the political stump-speech, melodrama, the ballad, African-American story-telling, and vernacular verse are among the forms Harper draws on. How do these forms work? What devices do they rely on (e.g., accessibility rather than abstruseness; repetition of the familiar; audience response/ recall/participation; deliberate emotion-stirring, etc.)? We talk about the appropriateness of these characteristics of form, style, and artistry to Harper's mission of reaching and affecting large numbers of people, including people not often written for or about with respect by white writers.
The question of Harper's current audience inevitably comes up in the discussion of aesthetics. Because we have been taught not to value the kind of literature she created or to know much about or take seriously the issues she addressed (group justice as opposed to individual development; wife abuse and alcoholism in the nineteenth century; voter fraud and corruption; lynching; divisions between black feminists and white feminists; employment barriers to middle-class blacks in the nineteenth century; black women as the definers of women's issues), most of us have not been exposed to Frances Ellen Harper. Clearly this will continue to change as the authority for identifying what is good, valuable, and important expands to include people traditionally excluded from the profession of professor (white women, people of color). Or will it? I ask how many students in the class plan to be teachers and scholars.
In her own time Harper was very popular and widely acclaimed, especially among black people. She was the best-known black poet between Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. "The Two Offers" is probably the first short story published in the U.S. by any black author. For many years Iola Leroy was considered the first novel written by a black American woman. Harper's public speaking was uniformly praised as brilliant. In light of the gap between Harper's reputation in her own day and the widespread ignorance about her today, audience as a social construct-- as something that doesn't just "happen" but is constructed by identifiable social forces (economics; the composition of the teaching profession in terms of race, gender, and class)--and the issue of why we teach the authors we teach are central to discussion of Harper.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Many other writers compare well with Harper, but especially other black women writers in the two Heath Anthologies: Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Pauline Hopkins. Comparing these writers can give a glimpse of the range of black women writers' work in the nineteenth century, which was broad. It is very important to teach more than one or two black women writers before 1900 and to make comparisons. Otherwise there is a tendency to generalize one author's work and point of view into "the black woman's" perspective, of which there was not one but were many. That point--the existence of great difference and variety as well as common ground-- should be stressed.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Preparing an oral delivery, as suggested above, is an excellent way to get "inside" a work. Also a good exercise is to ask the class to choose one piece and extrapolate from it the aesthetic principles governing it. Before class they should try to arrive at a statement of what a particular poem or speech or piece of fiction does--the effect it is designed to have on the reader/listener--and how it accomplishes that end. Then have them form small groups and work together to make up and write down "A Brief Writer's Guide for Young Writers by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper" to discuss in class.
2. A good assignment for Harper is to ask students to think about her as a black woman writer. What did each of these three terms mean to her? How do the three terms clash? How do they cooperate?
Useful discussion can be found in Elizabeth Ammons, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (1991); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987); Claudia Tate, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire (1992); Frances Smith Foster, Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892 (1993); amd Carla L. Peterson, "Doers of the Word": African-Amercican Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (1995).