Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Undiscovered Novels by Frances E.W. Harper.
All three of the rediscovered stories recall the themes common in the early African American novel: revision of biblical tales and the role of the talented tenth. Minnie's Sacrifice, published in 1869, is a revision of the Moses story, a device and theme Harper used later, as her 1869 poem "Moses: A Story of the Nile" indicates. Although Harper continues with the biblical motif in Sowing and Reaping (1876-1877), she is more outspoken about the problem she sees as a second slavery: alcoholism. In Trial and Triumph (1888-1889), Harper explores the damaging effects of both racism and sexism. It is important to note that these three novels were originally published in The Christian Recorder, the journal of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clearly written for a Black audience, Harper's texts uncover more evidence that there was a literate, educated Black reading audience during the nineteenth century; and as a result African American writers were not necessarily writing for an exclusively white audience. Furthermore, these three novels allow one to re-examine the reason that Harper's 1892 text Iola Leroy is the only novel to have originally survived. We might consider several possibilities for this. First, the newly discovered novels may have been "lost" due to the fact that they were published in a Black religious journal. As such, these novels can be easily "written off" and/or forgotten as being too ecclesiastical or too sentimental (especially when one considers that the novels are serialized fiction). Second, Iola Leroy has survived because its surface tale of family reunions satisfies the literary tastes of her time. In other words, Iola Leroy can be read as a "safe" novel, whereas the other three speak more boldly about racial discrimination and temperance. In them, Harper uses fewer devices to conceal/mask her arguments.
Minnie's sacrifice and Sowing and Reaping not only revise biblical tales, but they also serve as "lesson-teaching" stories for the treatment and behavior of African Americans during Reconstruction. At the beginning of Minnie's Sacrifice, Camilla, the slave owner's daughter, "rescues" Louis, a mulatto boy, from slavery. Harper uses the story of the enslaved Jews and the emergence of their future deliverer to criticize the current condition/treatment of African Americans. As a result, Harper establishes the two mulatto characters, Louis and Minnie, as individuals who choose not to "pass" and are instead committed to helping the African American community. Minnie and Louis predate Iola and Dr. Latimer, who also establish a school for African Americans. In Sowing and Reaping, Harper turns to issues of public morality, most notably Christian temperance. Harper's characters, who are drawn in racially ambiguous terms, must contend with the notion that "one reaps what one sows." The characters who do not succumb to alcohol, either by consumption or profit, are rewarded. Despite his financial difficulties, Paul Clifford refuses to enter into the saloon business because he places his beliefs in Christian temperance over greed. Likewise, Belle Gordon refuses a marriage proposal from the eligible and wealthy Charles Romaine because she objects to his frequent drinking.
In Trial and Triumph, Harper changes her formula as she considers the implications of being both an African American and a woman. The main character, Annette, faces both racism and sexism: As a mulatto, her association with the African American community makes it difficult for her to receive and/or keep a teaching position; as a woman, her desire for an education and a career is constantly questioned because she is not content to live within the gender limits that are assigned to her. Annette's remedy is a re-affirmation of genuine Christianity. This solution is female-gendered. In male narratives, such as those of Frederick Douglass, the male figure overcomes his obstacles and acquires personhood by first achieving/asserting manhood; in other words, the African American male in such texts subverts the servile stereotype by physically attacking and/or breaking free from those who promote such myths, as Douglass defends himself against Mr. Covey. For Annette/Harper, the solution is different. The woman acquires personhood as she remains true to Christian values. It is through her righteous behavior that she subverts racist acts done in the name of Christianity. She, as a result, not only pinpoints the hypocrisy of racist-oriented "Christianity," but she also serves as an educator to her community by teaching moral beliefs and racial pride.
In addition to the other challenges which Foster's text presents, it problematizes the notion that Harper's novel project came at the end of her career. A question worth raising is, Of what importance is the fact that Harper wrote novels alternately with poetry? In an earlier critical text on Harper, Foster has argued that in Harper's poetry from 1853 to 1864 one sees an "emphasis upon acts of ordinary individuals whose integrity and conviction give them strength and courage they need to perform heroically in the face of evil." It is our assertion that Harper's poetry occasions and foregrounds her fiction. Harper's two 1869 works "Moses: A Story of the Nile" and Minnie's Sacrifice are more than just revisions of the Moses tale. They are also vehicles through which Harper "rends the veil" that not only separates African Americans from the white majority, but also African Americans from each other. Harper's use of the analogy between the Jewish and African diasporas is a mask that conceals her larger purpose: a political commentary on the state of race relations. She brings her original African American audience back to the mountaintop to make a covenant with God: "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18). This reveals several possibilities: First, Harper creates African Americans as the "chosen" people; second, she thwarts white racism and casts away the veil that yields African Americans, as Du Bois puts the matter, "no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world ... a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." One must also consider the relationship between Harper's 1859 short story "The Two Offers" and her newly discovered novels. In "The Two Offers," Harper argues for the independent Black woman, who does not feel obligated to achieve comfort through marriage. In fact, she sees marriage for a woman is a source of dependence. This appeal for independent African American women also manifests itself in such later women characters as Belle Gordon and Iola Leroy. This is important to note for two reasons: First, this ideology is coextensive with Harper's lecturing activities; second, it complicates what would later be known as the "New Negro Movement." The second point is particularly salient because the theories espoused by Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson focused only on the plight of the African American male, who then served as the universal - i.e., everyman - for all African Americans. Thus, Locke, Johnson, and other male leaders did not attend to gender issues; in fact, their theories obscured the work of Amy Jacques Garvey, whose manifesto for the "New Negro Woman" is actually a later articulation of precepts that were originally put forth by Harper. In other words, Harper's novels prefigure these later arguments, and this calls into question the commonly held belief that Harper never wrote political fiction; it also documents the fact that Harper actively considers the racial and gender implications of racial equality.
Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper causes one to re-assess nineteenth-century African American women's writing. Moreover, Harper boldly weaves the political debates of her time into the central fabric of her fiction. This suggests that Harper was conscious of and catered to a predominantly Black audience at the same time that she was intensely involved in the writing of poetry and, second, that she was actively engaged in fiction writing throughout her professional career and not simply at the end; it also raises questions about the reasons that Harper's work did not originally survive. Thus, Foster's text allows one to consider Harper not only as a writer of "protest" poetry, but also as an author of "political" fiction.
Reviewed by Maryemma Graham and Gina M. Rossetti Northeastern University
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|Author:||Rossetti, Gina M.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1996|
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