- Leaving the Good Mother: Frances E. W. Harper, Lydia Maria Child, and the Literary Politics of Reconstruction
African American activist and poet Frances E. W. Harper gained attention in the 1850s with her passionate antislavery poetry; the end of the war saw Harper publishing anew. But for a poet who carefully shaped responses to her work by unambiguously referencing current events, some of Harper’s postwar publications seemed inscrutable. In 1869, Harper published Moses: A Story of the Nile, a book containing two items: “Moses,” a forty-one-page eponymous poem that elaborately revises Exodus, and a four-page prose allegory, “The Mission of the Flowers,” in which a rose tree magically transforms a garden’s other flowers into roses. By 1870, the book was in its third edition, and, according to William Still, Harper often read from “Moses” when she spoke in public, to warmly positive reviews (779).
Contemporary editions of Harper’s work offer no context for understanding this seemingly strange pair of texts. “Moses” has been reprinted in two anthologies, the Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper and A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, in both cases separated from “The Mission of the Flowers.” In the former, the two pieces are separated by genre, and in the Complete Poems, “Mission” is simply and silently excised. Critical readings have been equally puzzling. When “Moses” is granted any attention,1 most critics focus on identifying Moses—as Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, or even as Harper herself.2 What these divergent interpretations have in common is that they read the poem as backward-looking.
Harper’s other writings intervene vigorously in the here and now. Why, then, four years after legal emancipation, would Harper choose to adapt the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery? Consider that while the name “Moses” often serves as shorthand for “great leader,” not all allusions to Moses [End Page 83] make use of the fact that he was adopted and that he became a great leader only after leaving his adoptive home. In other words, the original biblical story inverts the standard rags-to-riches narrative. Brevard S. Childs writes of Moses from Exodus, “He is not an unknown child who becomes king. . . . Moses is first ‘exalted’ and later returns to a position of humility by identifying with his people” (The Book of Exodus 12). Moses chooses to leave Pharaoh’s household to lead the Hebrews because he is Hebrew. Harper’s poem foregrounds this leave-taking: It takes up nearly half the text. So while Harper is certainly making use of the longstanding analogy between ancient Hebrews and American blacks, this choice suggests that Harper’s subject is Reconstruction, the historical moment in which she is writing. For newly freed slaves, a crucial question was whether their quest for civil, political, and social equality would receive white assistance. Many whites were not simply unhelpful—they stood defiantly in the way. Eric Foner details the “wave of violence that raged almost unchecked in large parts of the postwar South. . . . [I]n the vast majority of cases freedmen were the victims and whites the aggressors” (119).
Thus, I read Harper’s “Moses” as a declaration of independence not only from paternalistic former owners, but also from former friends and allies. Closely reading “Moses” and clearly understanding its pairing with “Mission” suggests that Harper’s interests lie not simply with the figure of Moses, but with his two mothers. The mother whom Harper has Moses reject is a woman of a different race who sheltered him during infancy and childhood. If the figure of Moses can be said to stand for oppressed blacks in an American context, the analogue to Pharaoh’s daughter is the radical antislavery white woman, long a powerful voice for the voiceless and suffering slave. Beginning in the 1830s, many white feminists wholeheartedly adopted the abolitionist cause. Indeed, as Ellen Carol DuBois writes, “the development of American feminism was inseparable from the unfolding of the antislavery drama” (31). After the war’s end and legal emancipation, this alliance between white women and blacks would be strained to breaking. The battle over...