Printer Friendly

Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigms in Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy.

One of the most interesting and frequently overlooked features of Frances E.W. Harper's 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted is its dual climaxes. The first climax is the rural church meeting in Chapter XX that brings together Iola, Robert, and their mother/grandmother Harriet in a culmination of the family reunification plot that drives the novel. The second climax, Chapter XXX's conversazione, marks the apex of Iola's rise from abject slave to race leader and announces the establishment of a vital African-American bourgeois intellectualism. These climaxes offer significant contrasts. The church meeting takes place in a Southern rural setting; the conversazione is a Northern, urban event. The church meeting features primarily dark-skinned exslaves; the conversazione is dominated by light-skinned, educated blacks. The church meeting's tones are of profound sadness and joyful exuberance; the conversazione's atmosphere is marked by deep seriousness and the rhetoric of self-improvement. For all their diff erences, however, the two scenes share an essential and persistent orality. They consist almost wholly of verbal performances and exchanges, thus functioning as fitting climactic moments for a novel dominated by dialogue, discussion, and debate.

The various voices and rhetorical strategies that circulate through these climactic moments--and through Iola Leroy as a whole--reveal much about the often conflicting and conflicted purposes of an African-American author who attempted, like many of her contemporaries, to portray post-war black society and construct a fin-de-siecle blueprint for the future of the race. Specifically, it is Harper's portrayal of an internal speech difference, a divide between African-American dialect and standard English spoken by African Americans, that reveals most about the conflicts she faced. The dual climaxes highlight this difference: The first climax includes dialect speakers; the second doesn't. The particular importance of this division between dialect and "standard" speech stems, as I argue in this essay, from its reflection of class and cultural divisions within the black community. While Harper, like many other nineteenth-century authors, represented dialect- and "standard"-speaking black characters for a variety of rhetorical reasons, the majority of these representations reflect and in turn contribute to a cultural conception--held by both whites and blacks--that the broad dialectical differences within black speech signal broad social differences. Speech types mark clusters or networks of educational, behavioral, economic, and racial attributes; in other words, voice marks class affiliation. The dialect voice generally locates a speaker in folk culture and measures a distance from the essentially middle-class qualities that whites promoted as the badges of full humanity: "refined" deportment, economic independence, education, and white skin. The voices of standard-English-speaking black characters, on the other hand, implicitly claim a range of attributes approximating bourgeois ideals. [2]

In Iola, then, as in many black- and white-authored texts before and since, black speech differences are synecdochic means of representing an educated, standard-English-speaking bourgeois class and a dialect-speaking subaltern class. As dialect and standard speakers talk to one another, as the voices and the classes they represent are given and are denied space and authority in a text whose purpose is to reconfigure Reconstruction, competing visions of a race future come into focus. On the one hand, Harper envisions a future that offers an important role for the subaltern, whose culture and courage she admired; and on the other hand, she expresses some concern that the largely rural, uneducated, dialect-speaking subaltern blacks might "drag down" the race in the new century. [3]

Harper's own experiences underlay these contradictory visions. A Northern bourgeois woman herself, she was active in such middle-class, progressive organizations as the American Association of Education of Colored Youth, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the American Woman's Suffrage Association, and the National Council of Women (Foster, "Introduction," Harper xxvii). Yet Harper was also a widely traveled activist with firsthand experience of all realms of black American life. According to biographer Melba Joyce Boyd, "Frances Harper lectured and lived with ex-slaves during the Reconstruction period, listening to their stories, learning about their culture and assisting their struggles for the building of a promised land" (149). Indeed as a result of her class background and her experiences with "every spectrum of Southern society" (Foster, "Introduction," Brighter 19), Harper may have been more sensitive than many other educated blacks, particularly Northerners, to both the difficulties and the impor tance of coupling black progress with traditional black culture. Harper's attempt to mediate between these hopes and fears for the future, between the imperatives of inclusive black nation-building and the demands of race "improvement," can be best illuminated through a careful analysis of her represented African-American voices.

As I have begun to suggest, the tension between these future-visions--and the voices that embody them--erupts most powerfully in the novel's double climaxes. The verbal performances of the church meeting model an inclusive, heteroglossic world in which both dialect and black "standard" speech occupy discrete spaces and yet interact and intersect in community-building exchanges. The conversazione's exclusively "standard" speeches of self-improvement and progress offer, in contrast, a monoglossic conception of bourgeois ascendance. In these climactic moments and in the "voice careers" of individual characters, Harper creates competing voice-paradigms that become models for, or become integrated into, competing textual strategies and narrative arcs. The tension and interplay between these paradigms--which I label call-and-response and the voice-narrative of progress--are thus revealing not only of Harper's understanding of black class and black progress, but also of her conception of the nature of black art. In other words, the voice-paradigms she creates represent conflicting social models and suggest differing aesthetic models. A salient question is raised by these paradigms: Is there a place for the African-American folk ethos in twentieth-century black culture? [4]

Call-and-Response: A Vernacular Model for Black Nation-Building

The Africa-rooted practice of call-and-response, integral to the traditional black verbal arts of song, storytelling, and sermonizing, features ritualized and improvisatory contributions from both speakers and listeners. Or rather it makes clear-cut distinctions between speaker and listener less tenable, since call-and-response forms are community acts. Lawrence Levine's discussion of spirituals usefully glosses both the qualities and the effects of call-and-response:

The overriding antiphonal structure of the spirituals--the call and response pattern which Negroes brought with them from Africa and which was reinforced in America by the practice of lining out hymns--placed the individual in continual dialogue with his community, allowing him at one and the same time to preserve his voice and to blend it with those of his fellows. (33) [5]

What Harper recognized in constructing the verbal world of Iola Leroy is that this folk practice of call-and-response represents a dynamic that can allow both dialect and uninflected black voices to engage in communal and community-building acts while retaining their distinctiveness--in Levine's terms, "preserv[ing] his [or hen own voice." In Iola Leroy, call-and-response mediates between--or, in the Bakhtinian lexicon, dialogizes--African-American speech and class realms, suggesting that the folk ethos and the black subaltern, while distinct, can coexist as vital elements of the African-American community.

The church meeting climax of Chapter XX is Harper's most extensive portrait of call-and-response practice and the moment when her own call-and-response rhetorical/narrative strategy becomes clear. Iola and Robert, the educated mulatto heroes of the novel who have discovered that they are uncle and niece, have traveled to their pre-war "homes" in search of mothers and grandmothers. At the church meeting that they attend with fellow ex-slaves John and Aunt Linda, Iola and Robert sing a hymn. While this performance is not represented, the pair likely sing in their usual uninflected voices. [6] Immediately a "dear old mother" rises from her seat and tells--in dialect--of being sold away from her family during slavery." 'I had a little boy, an' when my mistus sole me she kep' him,'" she recounts. "'Many 's the time I hab stole out at night an' seen dat chile an' sleep'd wid him in my arms tell mos' day.' " This oral testimony following Iola's and Robert's singing certainly suggests the antiphonal structure of cal l-and-response. What follows is more than suggestive. Moans and calls of "'Amen,'" "'Glory,'" and "'Dat's so!'" continually interrupt, or rather respond to, the speech of the older woman (180). And as she concludes her tale, Robert, whose attention had been riveted by her "voice and manner," rises and eloquently tells of his separation from his "'own dear mother, who used to steal out at night to see me, fold me in her arms, and then steal back again to her work'" (181-82). "Again," Harper writes, "there was a chorus of moans" (181). Amid this communal cacophony, mother, son, and granddaughter quickly reunite, and Lola and Robert catch "the infection of the general happiness and rejoiced with them that rejoiced. There were songs of rejoicing and shouts of praise. The undertone of sadness which had so often mingled with their songs gave place to strains of exultation" (182). As Harriet, the dialect speaking grand/mother, joins with her "standard"-speaking offspring, their voices intersect in a general, joyful noise.

The call-and-response dynamic in this scene allows discrete space for dialect and uninflected speech, but clearly emphasizes the mingling of the two voices in a communal speech act. If we look for a moment at the discourse of Harriet and Robert in the church scene, we see how difference and similarity are simultaneously emphasized even on the sentence level. Robert's response to Harriet repeats not only the scenario of her surreptitious nighttime visits, but key words and phrases as well. Harriet describes how she" 'hab stole out at night[ldots]an' sleep'd wid him in my arms'"; Robert remembers that his mother "'used to steal out at night to see me, fold me in her arms, and steal back again'" (180-81; emphasis added). The differing grammatical features and "sound" of the call and its response emphasize the class and cultural differences of the two speakers, but the parallel wording and sentence structures--and, of course, the experiences they relate--suggest an essential affinity that reflects the familial a nd communal relationships that the church meeting scene celebrates. Indeed the reestablishment of family ties through call-and-response and the communal energy represented by the shouting and singing work to reinforce one another. The familial recognition that Iola, Robert, and Harriet experience--despite their speech differences--thus suggests a broader recognition of black solidarity and community across class and culture lines. Through call-and-response, speech and class divisions are maintained and blurred, offering the possibility of a heteroglossic future, a future that includes dialect and "standard" speech, subalterns and bourgeois. The nature of call-and-response allows each individual--and each class/culture--the opportunity to speak, to assert his/her perspective and subjectivity. But because every voice evokes a response, and because these responses often establish or reestablish personal relationships, black speech of all stripes ultimately reinforces black solidarity.

Other crucial moments in the text also partake of the call-and-response dynamic. The camp meeting scenes of the early chapters, for example, in which individual speakers take the floor and others respond, seem rooted in call-and-response. Here again we can see the pattern's ability to voice difference while maintaining community. As slaves debate whether they should desert to the Union Army or stay on the plantation, various opinions are voiced and countered, and all are, ultimately, respected and affirmed (see Chapter II, "Contraband of War"). While most of these early characters speak dialect, the presence in these moments of Robert's somewhat more "refined" voice adds a hint of cultural and class diversity to the communal speech acts. Similarly, in the Northern field hospital in which Iola works as a nurse, she sings a hymn that begins, "'Drooping souls no longer grieve,'" and Robert, her patient, responds, "'That[ldots] was my mother's hymn'" (140). [7] This moment prefigures the climactic reunion at the church meeting; it includes the same kind of call (song) and response (family recognition). Additionally, it mingles the voices of uninflected speakers (Iola and Robert) with that of a dialect speaker (their grand/mother). And when Robert and Marie Leroy reunite, they compare birthmarks and memories of their mother's handkerchief, but it is only after they "sat together, and recalled the long-forgotten scenes of their childhood, [that] they concluded that they were brother and sister" (201). Here again speech elicits the response that confirms family relations, that reunites a people. Indeed, if we recall Levine's association between call-and-response and dialogue, we begin to see that call-and-response informs much of this discussion- and debate-filled novel. Robert and Iola converse with folk characters at several points; and even the conversazione, which includes no dialect speakers, features something of a call-and-response pattern of contrapuntal speeches.

As I suggest above, Harper does not simply portray moments of call-and-response. She also incorporates call-and-response--involving both dialect and "standard" speech--into the narrative structure of her novel. The opening chapters, which are primarily set in a slave milieu, focus on folk voices; uninflected voices dominate the central chapters; and the final chapters feature a mingling of both, as Robert and Iola revisit the South. The two climaxes, one dialect-dominated and one exclusively "standard," also echo the call-and-response dynamic. Viewed structurally, the book contains distinct voices and voice-realms, but places them in antiphonal relations that suggest community. The early pages offer a dialect call, "standard" voices respond, and the concluding section brings them together in a series of dialogues, most of which concern prospects for the black future. [8]

Grounding the novel's narrative structure in a distinctively black folk practice is both an aesthetic and a political act. It is political insofar as Harper's incorporation of a folk pattern into a formal structure of "high" art attests to her own folk/subaltern roots and, by extension, the folk/subaltern roots of African-American literature. [9] Iola Leroy, the very literary work that attests to Harper's bourgeois standing--or, at least, attests to her participation in bourgeois literary culture--in turn connects her and the black literary tradition she is helping create more firmly to a black vernacular realm. Just as call-and-response performances in the novel highlight sameness and difference, Iola Leroy as a cultural artifact affirms both interracial similarity (whites and blacks alike produce literature of high quality and seriousness) and significant racial difference (black literature is shaped by its foundations in a distinct and distinctive cultural site). Adding to the political weight of Harper's use of call-and-response is, as I have argued, the way in which it confirms and proclaims her interest in a post-Reconstruction present and a twentieth-century future that is rooted in a common black past. She offers an inclusive folk performative model as an inclusive cultural model, simultaneously suggesting a multivocal, multicultural future and the bourgeois class's foundation in the folk ethos.

The very multiplicity of experience and perspective that made Harper sensitive to competing visions of African-American "progress" may have opened her to this inclusive, contrapuntal, call-and-response model. No doubt Harper also benefitted in this respect from her cultural position as a middle-class black woman. As Mae Gwendolyn Henderson has argued, black women write and construct themselves out of "simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous social and discursive domains" (121). For Harper that meant not only relationships with white ideology and black male ideology, but also Northern and Southern cultures, and bourgeois and subaltern ethoses. Thus she had the ability, in Henderson's term, to "speak in tongues" (122), to "authoritatively[ldots]speak to and engage both hegemonic and ambiguously (non)hegemonic discourse" (121). Her ability to find within black folk culture the models for both a literary narrative form and a multivocal unification of black culture attests to a kind of "discursive diversity" in which race, class, and gender position play important roles (Henderson 122).

The Voice-Narrative of Progress

While Harper represents a world in which dialect and uninflected black voices speak together and inform one another, her efforts in this vein are always compromised by her construction of a black present that privileges "standard" speakers--the upper class, the talented tenth, the New Negroes. Her framing of a call-and-response narrative, with its inclusive vision, is always countered by her plot's movement into a future dominated by uninflected speech. Iola's and Dr. Gresham's concern with the speech of a particular ex-slave is representative of the "standard" privilege and the progressivist condemnation of dialect that operate in the novel. Dr. Gresham laments that "'some of these poor fellows who came into [the Union] army camp did not know their right hands from their left.[ldots] It took me some time, in a number of cases, to understand their language. It saddened my heart to see such ignorance. One day I asked one a question, and he answered, "I no shum."'" Gresham's bewilderment emphasizes the distance between black dialect and the bourgeois respectability that he, as a white physician, embodies. The distance is redoubled when Iola, the titular heroine of the novel and, as we shall see, an avatar of black progress, relies on the white doctor to translate the dialect utterance. "'What did he mean?'" Iola asks. "'That he did not see it,'" Gresham replies. Iola's inability to understand this dialect, subaltern speech confirms her solid bourgeois standing and contributes to a devaluing of folk speech, especially as her broader conversation with Gresham centers around the need for black educators to help ameliorate the "'duncery of slavery,'" a process that Gresham expects "'will take generations'" (145). This conversation contributes a line of thought in Iola and in the culture at large that suggests that, to the extent that bourgeois standards are cultural ideals for the black community, "standard" black speech marks the potential, at least, for black "progress." The sounds and cadences of bourgeois speech (a nd the bourgeois values associated with that speech) might enable black people to move from the social, economic, and political subjugation that is the traditional lot of the subaltern class to some degree of freedom, education, power, and participation. And if this is so, then, logically, black dialect marks the subaltern spot from which progress was made. In Iola, it often appears that uplifting the shadows entails eliminating dialect otherness and the cultural and class differences it marks.

These parallel movements--toward "standard" speech and toward an idealized bourgeois future--conjoin to form what I call the voice-narrative of progress, which operated in a wide variety of black and white texts in the nineteenth century. So powerful was this voice-narrative that writers--even those most interested in and most sympathetic toward the black folk--found it difficult to resist constructing narratives that privilege a univocal, standard-speaking element of the black community. [10] It was particularly difficult for educated, late-century blacks living in a white-dominated society to conceive of African-American progress as anything other than a movement away from the folk "past" and toward white bourgeois ideals of education, deportment, and appearance.

These African-American authors wrote in an era when issues surrounding black class and progress were highly charged. They lived in a nation that asked African Americans either to submit to continued subjugation or to prove themselves worthy of white recognition and assistance. A white public fatigued with conflict and the "Southern question" was generally unwilling to accept excuses or explanations for African-American poverty, criminality, or political weakness, and eagerly sought reasons to turn its back on black America. Under these circumstances, many blacks and whites felt it was increasingly important that blacks confirm their adherence to middleclass notions of propriety, work, education, and progress in order to both retain the support of sympathetic or potentially sympathetic whites and ensure that they had the cultural capital to survive socially and economically. [11] Of course these middle-class standards were not simply imposed from without or pragmatically chosen as the path of least resistance . Large elements of both the black and white communities wholeheartedly believed that middle-class ideals were the authentic avenue to material, social, political, and spiritual success.

Through a burgeoning network of black educational institutions in the South, the values that underlay the narrative of bourgeois progress spread rapidly in the last decades of the century. Whether run by blacks or Northern whites, these institutions dedicated themselves to the promulgation of a middle-class ethos. As E. Franklin Frazier explains,

From its inception the education of the Negro was shaped by bourgeois ideals. The northern missionaries [ldots] established schools which taught the Yankee virtues of industry and thrift. Moreover, since practically all of these schools were supported by Protestant church organizations in the North, they sought to inculcate in their students the current ideals of Puritan morality. (56)

The first lesson taught by these primary and secondary schools and colleges was "to speak English correctly and thus avoid the ungrammatical speech and dialect of the Negro masses. [Educated African Americans] were expected to be courteous, speak softly and never exhibit the spontaneous boisterousness of ordinary Negroes" (Frazier 71). Uninflected speech was as important a marker of education, class, and progress in social interactions as it was in the literary realm.

Under these conditions, what is most remarkable about Harper's literary work is the degree to which it evinces sympathy for and solidarity with black folk culture, and the degree to which it was influenced by it. Less remarkable and surprising, though just as crucial, are the ways in which Harper's portrayals of dialect and black "standard" speech reveal how class identification, white expectations, and cultural mythologies of progress powerfully countered her heteroglossic airing of alternative, resistant voices.

Before turning to Iola's second climax, it is worth examining the "speech-changes" of the novel's two protagonists, which together trace a teleologic progression of uplift, a narrative pattern that intertwines with and threatens to obscure the call-and-response pattern previously outlined. From the opening of the novel, Iola Leroy's voice is uninflected and refined, but during the course of the text it becomes less depressed (or repressed) and more powerful. As a young ex-slave separated from her family, her voice registers as "strangely sympathetic, as if some great sorrow has bound her heart [ldots] to every sufferer" (39-40). Dr. Gresham similarly notes that Iola's speech sounds "'tones of such passionate tenderness [ldots] that you would think some great sorrow has darkened and overshadowed her life (57).'" [12] Yet years later at the conversazione, where Iola discusses the future of African Americans with other "thinkers and leaders of the race" (243), there emerges "a ring of triumph in her voice." Dr. Latimore, a conversazione attendee, allows that "'the tones of [Iola's] voice are like benedictions of peace; her words a call to higher service and nobler life'" (257). The growing confidence and power of Iola's voice reflect her natural ascension (natural, because she is mulatto and cultured) from the field hospital to the rarefied air of the conversazione, from a world of heteroglossic black voices to a place where only uninflected speech exists.

This narrative arc, with its suggestion that voice predicts black progress and uplift, is even more pronounced in Robert Johnson's case. When the novel begins, Robert is still a slave, and his speech shows signs of dialect when he addresses his fellows: "'I ain't got nothing 'gainst my ole Miss,'" he tells other slaves, "'except she sold my mother from me. And a boy ain't nothin' without his mother'" (17). [13] Robert's dialect inflection is less apparent than other slaves' (presumably because he, like Iola, is a literate mulatto), but it remains perceptible until he escapes slavery and becomes an officer in the Union army. By the time he takes his commission, a white captain wonders why Robert insists on leading black troops, especially since he does not "'look like them [or] talk like them'" (44).

It is conceivable that Harper means for Robert to represent one of the many African Americans who are bidialectical--speaking folk dialect with his peers and shifting to standard English with whites and bourgeois blacks. Robert is never, however, represented as speaking dialect once he leaves slavery, no matter with whom he speaks. And whether Harper intended Robert to be bidialectical does not alter the voice-narrative that she constructs through him and through Iola: As black characters put slavery further behind them and as they rise socially and economically into the middle class, their voices become more powerful, more "refined," and less identifiably "black." Broader features of the plot parallel these characterological transformations. While, as I noted above, dialect speech reappears at the novel's conclusion, the general movement of the text is from domination by dialect speakers to domination by "standard" speakers. By the novel's conclusion, several years after emancipation, only older characters like Aunt Linda speak dialect. Harper represents the younger characters, who presumably constitute the future of the race, as uniformly speaking standard English. Thus the voice-narrative of progress, like call-and-response, represents not simply a rhetorical and political tool, but also an aesthetic principle. It gives Iola shape as well as meaning.

The novel's second climax highlights the speech/class progression that Iola and Robert establish. The discussions and debates at the conversazi one bear some resemblance to the call-and-response verbal performances of the church meeting, except here the speech is essentially univocal. Its uninflected sounds and its content reflect the concerns and experiences of a particular socio-historic world view--that of the forward-looking black bourgeoisie. Rather than focusing, as the church-meeting speakers do, on lost families and black suffering under and after slavery, the conversazione attendees present and discuss in abstract terms pressing issues of the day and of the future: "Negro Emigration," "Patriotism," "Education of Mothers," and "Moral Progress of the Race" (246). Indeed we should, as Barbara Christian advises, "note that the tone [of the discussions] is one of uplifting the race, of rescuing it from its own culture, of molding black women and men superior to white people according to their own Christi an mores" (28; emphasis added). [14]

Harper's two climaxes could be read as parallel experiences and, in a sense, parallel prophecies. In other words, the church meeting and the conversazi one may model social and cultural interactions that Harper hopes will occur simultaneously in the new century. Certainly the call-and-response structure of the novel suggests this kind of stratified, multivocal strategy for black survival and progress; and, as we have seen, Harper clearly intends her fiction to serve "as an enabling form that would promote the emergence of a black subaltern subjectivity and allow this subaltern finally to speak" (Peterson 104). But while this essentially centrifugal tendency is always operative in Harper's portrayal of black speech and black speech practice, powerful unifying forces suggest that black development and progress mean the ascension of a specific bourgeois class and the recession into the past of the subaltern class and its vernacular culture. The receding of the dialect voice over the course of the novel and its disappearance from the first climax to the second moves the focus of the novel from the subaltern to the bourgeois and from the past to the future, following again the voice-narrative of progress.

Iola contains and dramatizes a pronounced and uneasy tension between two visions, two narrative patterns, and two cultural aesthetics. These divisions are most visible as broad dialectics among speech groups and narrative moments, but they are also evident in the "lifespans" and in the speech of particular characters--whether dialect, standard English, or hybrid. The career of Tom Anderson, one of only two prominent dialect-speaking characters in the novel, addresses these conflicts between univocal and multivocal tendencies in detail. His experience and utterances suggest both that the unrefined folk voice should be recognized and appreciated and that it is essentially a relic by century's end. Certainly noble and heroic, Tom is described by Robert as a trickster who used subterfuge to learn the rudiments of literacy (44-45). This desire for education aligns Tom with the novel's "standard"-speaking, lighter-skinned characters, even as his dialect-speaking, dark-skinned, subaltern status perpetually holds hi m beneath Robert and Iola. Robert, for example, is an officer in the Union army, while Tom joins as a servant. Tom loves Iola, but does not expect his feelings to be reciprocated because he recognizes that he is not of her class or world. As the narrator puts it, Tom loves Iola "as a Pagan might worship a distant star and wish to call it his own" (40).

Evidence that Tom accepts his second-class status abounds. His final statement to the besieged soldiers he proceeds to rescue is: "'If they kill me, it is nuthin'.'" This heroically self-sacrificial statement places him squarely in the redemptive tradition of Uncle Tom, but it also reflects his sad understanding of the ultimate importance of those who look and sound like he does. Tom is a speaking subaltern figure whose voice reveals a relatively positive and complex subjectivity, but his death and silencing, which leave the post-war, post-freedom stage to his bourgeois "betters," seems to signal the obsolescence of his type or class. The narrator's sentimental description of one of Tom's final moments is ironically apt: "He attempted to speak, but the words died upon his lips" (53). Dialect does not exit the novel with Tom, but the tones and content of his speech and the trajectory of his life appear to illuminate one powerful strand of Harper's conception of the subaltern black class.

Aunt Linda, the other prominent folk speaker in the novel, fares somewhat better than Tom. Alive at the conclusion, she continues to speak in the tones of the vernacular culture, suggesting a continuing role for that culture in black life. Her mind and language remain critical and sharp, pointing out the foibles and shortcomings of whites and blacks alike. She rejects Western education (refusing to learn to read [156, 276]), instead basing her judgments on standards and values indigenous to her culture and class. Her wisdom and perception, which she readily shares with Iola and Robert, offer a recasting of education as more than simply "the socialization of one culture according to the terms of another" (Ernest, "From Mysteries" 511). Yet for all that Linda's voice accomplishes in terms of representing a viable subaltern perspective, her voice appears less frequently in the latter half of the novel, and as the plot proceeds, Linda more often defers to the bourgeois voices of the younger generation. [15]

Linda's "visions" highlight the contradictions in Harper's portrayal of the subaltern class. John Ernest contends that Linda's (and Uncle Daniel's) visions speak of "a universal law that encompasses those 'fictions of law' [ldots] that rule individual cultures." They are privy to these visions, he argues, because they are "not corrupted by the dominant culture's mode of education" (Resistance 193-94). While this analysis contains a good deal of truth, Ernest's argument must be weighed against the content of Aunt Linda's final mystical experience, in which, as she reports to Iola, she "'seed it in a vision dat somebody fair war comin' to help (275). In Iola, dark-skinned people's reliance on more capable light-skinned people seems a "universal law" that has been effectively disseminated by the "dominant culture's mode of education."

Tom's voice and Linda's visions shift, paralleling the shifting portrayal of Robert Johnson's voice, which seems to embody all of the conflicts in Harper's portrayal of dialect speakers. Like Tom's and Linda's, Robert's dialect speech articulates cultural values that challenge the dominance of white, middle-class values. Robert's voice seems to offer hope for a multivocal, boundary-blurring subaltern/bourgeois voice that can bring all strata of black society into the future. Indeed at times he seems an embodiment of the call-and-response dynamic. At other moments, however, his speech dramatizes subaltern inadequacy, confirming the inevitability and necessity of its supercession by lighter-skinned, standard-English-speaking, bourgeois blacks. Robert's voice ultimately foregrounds--but never definitively resolves--the questions these speech and class conflicts raise about the future of black subaltern/folk culture.

As we have already seen, Robert begins the novel as a slave and a dialect speaker. Yet as the novel proceeds and Robert gains freedom and position, he adopts the uninflected voice that corresponds to his new middle-class status. Robert's apparent movement away from his subaltern roots, however, is tempered by his conscious choice to identify as African American. Robert (and Iola as well) decides not to pass as white, and this gesture of solidarity with a broader black community--solidarity with Linda and Tom as well as the conversazione participants--complicates his simple progression from subaltern to bourgeois. And just as Robert's changing voice signals his rise in status, his extensive quoting of dialect speakers reveals his loyalty and his continued connection to the sounds and the values of the black subaltern. In conversation with the white Captain Sybil, who has recommended that Robert pass as white, Robert describes Aunt Kizzy and her religious faith. He assumes her voice, crying, "'I has my trials, ups and downs, but it won't allers be so. I specs one day to wing and wing wid de angels, Hallelujah!'" Robert takes on this voice for the sake of realism and interest, but also as a tribute to the values and experiences that the voice reflects. To Robert, who "'never did take much stock in white folks' religion,'" Kizzy exemplifies "'the real, genuine religion'" (47). In a later exchange with Captain Sybil, Robert quotes Uncle Jack, who routinely stole from and lied to his master. Robert's long, dialect recounting of Jack's justification of his "misdeeds" is intended to explain the supposed antisocial behaviors of the slaves and to demonstrate their intelligence and ability to fashion moral and rational lives in an immoral and irrational world (136). In these scenes and others, Robert justifies the ways of the folk to the white listener (and white reader) by adopting folk speech, thus expressing and advocating a vernacular world view.

Robert, then, is a heteroglossic figure. He authentically speaks both the standard English of the bourgeois class and the dialect of the subaltern, and he speaks to whites, black folk, and the leaders of his race. His role is "to recognize, comprehend, and bridge difference[s]" between the various social groups that inhabit Iola Leroy (Peterson 107). In a sense, his voicing of the subaltern--both as a member of that class and as someone who has "progressed" beyond it--to some degree counteracts the privileging of standard/bourgeois speech that the general trajectory of his life seems to imply. He is thus apparently unlike any character in Iola and like few others in nineteenth-century American literature. He offers a new paradigm: a multivocal African American who can speak within and move easily between the class and cultural divisions of the black community. Yet his voice--and the social perspectives and class backgrounds that it reflects and expresses--is never heard at the conversazione because, we must presume, of his folk culture roots. Robert, the one character whom the reader knows might bring an echo, at least, of the subaltern voice into the high-culture discussions of the "thinkers and leaders of the race," is conspicuously silent at the conversazione, thus preserving the meeting's essential univocality and preserving the voice-narrative of progress. Robert loses his dialect as he changes class, but because he never completely abandons folk speech or its values, he goes silent at the second climax.

It could be argued that Harper silences Robert in order to open the floor for Lucille Delaney, who does speak at the conversazione. And because Delaney's features do not show "the least hint of blood admixture" (199), she suggests the kind of folk/bourgeois melding that Robert promises before his silencing. Yet while Lucille's powerful and prominent voice testifies to the falsity of the popular notion that biology is class and cultural destiny, her voice bears no hint of subaltern sensibility. Unlike Robert, she never speaks dialect or quotes those who do, and her central oral performance is a poem that extols bourgeois virtues. Its opening stanza reads:

Oh, children of the tropics,

Amid our pain and wrong

Have you no other mission

Than music, dance, and song? (251)

Lucille's skin and hair do not match the bourgeois ideal, but her voice reveals that her sentiments and behavior never vary from it. She has, in a sense, progressed "beyond" the heteroglossic Robert and thus has a place at the univocal conversazione. Yet perhaps because of her racial makeup, Lucille plays a bit part in Harper's novel. She may be exemplary, but she is not the protagonist. She is suggestive, as is Robert in certain ways, of an inclusive model of black progress, but she cannot occupy a central role in the novel.

Iola, rather than Lucille or Robert, is the novel's protagonist in part because, as an educated mulatto raised as a white girl by a wealthy planter, she more completely inhabits the bourgeois ideal. She also bears no traces of the subaltern class and vernacular sensibility that implicitly banishes Robert from the conversazione. Throughout the novel, Harper carefully differentiates Iola's refined voice from that of dialect speakers. Whereas Robert speaks dialect and genuinely converses with folk characters, Iola generally speaks to such characters, uttering what Deborah McDowell calls "carefully reasoned oration[s] in defense either of her virtue or of some moral or social ideal" (39). One such oration occurs when Robert asks Uncle Daniel why he didn't study theology. Iola may concur with Daniel's dialect response (her commentary is somewhat ambiguous), but their "exchange" reveals that they are literally speaking different languages:

"Look a yere, boy, I'se been a preachin' dese thirty years, an' you come yere a tellin' me 'bout studying your 'ologies. I larn'd my 'ology at de foot oh de cross. You bin dar?"

"Dear Uncle Daniel," said Iola, "the moral aspect of the nation would be changed if it would learn at the same cross to subordinate the spirit of caste to the spirit of Christ." (168)

Iola's voice sounds different, but sound is only the most obvious reflection of the class differences operational in this exchange. Iola's patronizing address and heightened vocabulary make her statement seem less an attempt to communicate with Uncle Daniel than a calculated effort to distance herself from him and his milieu. Once again the irony at work here is that the same utterances that offer solidarity with the subaltern perspective and promote the subordination of the "spirit of caste" ultimately reify caste differences.

Harper's privileging of bourgeois, uninflected speech makes for an ambiguous portrait of the African-American future. Conflicting centripetal and centrifugal forces in the novel--revealed most clearly in the representation of speech--suggest both a heteroglossic black twentieth century and a univocal vision of progress in which the only route to uplift is approaching white, middle-class standards of speech, deportment, and belief. The heteroglossic, call-and-response counternarrative remains one of Iola's most original and important features, and it would be heartening to consider call-and-response the essential core of Iola Leroy, to view the voice-narrative of progress as a conventional screen muffling the novel's "true" subversive voice. The voice-narrative, however, is not simply an act performed for a middle-class readership, and while call-and-response does reveal Harper's attraction to and striving for black multivocality, for an African-American art rooted in a vernacular world view, the voice-narrat ive of bourgeois progress was such a prominent and persistent master narrative that contemporary readers likely found it more accessible and recognizable. It certainly echoed progressivist narratives that have played such central parts in American mythology. The narrative of voice "progress" as metaphoric bourgeois progress was consciously adopted and perpetuated by black authors because it seemed to represent a way out of slave and folk stereotype and a way into mainstream culture without calling for a traumatic and unlikely reconfiguring of that culture. The foundational democratic ethos of America seems to offer class advancement as a means to transcend racial difference. Thus the title character's voice, Robert's silence at the conversazione, and the plot's narrative structure send powerful messages about the black future that virtually overrun the contesting call-and-response dynamic. Harper's representation of dialect and "standard" voices in debate and discussion suggests the inclusivity of her vision for black America, but ultimately her story, the narrative of what happens to those voices, underlines the conflicts and negotiations, hopes and clear-eyed assessments of a writer facing audiences, traditions, and personal experiences that lend strength to and limit her own voice.

James Christmann is Director of the Writing Program at Wheelock College, where he teaches courses in composition and American literature. This essay is adapted from his dissertation, "Representation of African-American Speech in American Narrative, 1845-1902."


(1.) For the sake of convenience, I hereafter refer to standard English spoken by African-American characters as black "standard" speech.

(2.) In Pierre Bourdieu's terms, standard English is the culture's "legitimate competence," and "speakers lacking the legitimate competence are de facto excluded from the social domains in which this competence is required, or are condemned to silence" (55). As I will argue, Harper suggests that a particular folk cultural pattern can defeat this linguistic exclusion, allowing speakers without the legitimate competence to avoid silence. The association of standard English and presumed personal and social attributes that Bourdieu describes can be seen in the language adopted by a Portland Daily Press review of Harper's speech "The Mission of the War and the Demands of the Colored Race in the Work of Reconstruction": "Mrs. Harper has a splendid articulation, uses chaste, pure language, has a pleasant voice, and allows no one to tire of hearing her" (qtd. in Boyd 42).

(3.) Some of Harper's vision for the subaltern emerges in a letter she sent from the South to William Still: "Men talk about missionary work among the heathen, but if any lover of Christ wants a field for civilizing work, here is a field" (qtd. in Peterson 104; emphasis added).

(4.) While this essay focuses on a particular question in a particular novel, my hope is that it will contribute to a new recognition of the role that representations of black speech played and continues to play in American narrative. African-American speech is a critical--as well as critically neglected--marker of black subjectivity in the literary text. Black speech, whether everyday talk, formal oratory, preaching, storytelling, or song, functions, particularly in the wake of the slave narratives, as the "presence" with the greatest potential to confer identity, humanity, community, and selfhood in a realm that has traditionally denied all four to non-whites. The fact that black speech can, through stereotype, ventriloquism, and silencing, also consign the speaker to categories of the "already known," the inhuman, or the absent, only underlines its complex signifying power. Because so many contradictory meanings coalesce in the black utterance, that utterance opens a window onto contentious cultural debat es about the meaning of blackness, the role of African Americans in national life, and, as we see particularly in lola Leroy, the future of the black race.

(5.) In describing antebellum black storytelling, Levine notes that "through the entire performance the audience would comment, correct, laugh, respond, making the folktale as much of a communal experience as the spiritual or the sermon" (89).

(6.) As I discuss below, Robert Johnson begins the novel as a dialect speaker, but by the church meeting, he has established himself as a "standard"-speaking bourgeois black.

(7.) Marilyn Elkins perceptively notes that "much of lola's power can be traced to a tradition she shares with [the prominent folk character Aunt] Linda: the oral tradition of song" (48).

(8.) See, for example, 164-74.

(9.) Lynda Koolish was perhaps the first critic to recognize the central role that folk characters and folk culture play in the novel.

(10.) Some version of this voice-narrative operated in texts as divergent as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots. In Jacobs's slave narrative, the ideally free, respectable, literate, independent-minded, proto-bourgeois representative of the black future is Linda Brent herself, whose "standard" speech is impeccable and whose journey to freedom (necessarily) moves her away from the milieu in which dialect is spoken. In Dixon's notoriously racist novel, the only prominent black dialect speakers die, and George Harris, Jr., the cultured, Northern-educated African American, is clearly represented as the "standard"-speaking standard bearer for the black race in the twentieth century.

(11.) Even as these black authors were asked to present their own middle-class credentials and attest to the "improvability" of their race, they were--based on the same credentials--assailed as dangerous transgressors of the "natural order." Such assaults were not exclusively discursive: In the 1880s and 1890s white-on-black violence in America reached unprecedented post-Emancipation levels.

(12.) lola's voice is similarly characterized on 59 and 114.

(13.) See also 34.

(14.) Houston Baker, Jr., makes a similar point about the speakers at the conversazione: "What emerges from their polemics--in addition to a call for racial uplift--is an essentially conservative appeal to white public opinion" (32).

(15.) For example, Linda accedes to Robert's and lola's request that she stop drinking: "'I reckon Robby's right.[ldots] You young folks know a heap more dan we ole folks'" (185). Linda is not alone in this behavior and attitude. Hazel Carby notes that "all the folk characters [demonstrate] their deference to lola's opinions and their respect for her access to knowledge beyond their experience" (78).

Works Cited

Baker, Houston, Jr. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Ed. John B. Thompson. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911. African American Life Series. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1994.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Dixon, Thomas. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden--1865-1900. 1902. Ridgewood: Gregg, 1967.

Elkins, Marilyn. "Reading Beyond the Conventions: A Look at Frances E. W. Harper's lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted." American Literary Realism 22.2 (1990): 44-53.

Ernest, John. "From Mysteries to Histories: Cultural Pedagogy in Frances E. W. Harper's lola Leroy." American Literature 64 (1992): 497-518.

-----. Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Centuiy African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Foster, Frances Smith. "Introduction." A Brighter Coming Day: A Francis Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist P, 1990.3-40.

-----. "Introduction." Harper xxvii-xxxviii.

Frazier, E. Franklin. Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States. 1957. New York: Macmillan-Collier, 1962.

Harper, Frances E. W. lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. 1892. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition." Reading Black Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 116-42.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Koolish, Lynda. "Spies in the Enemy's House: Folk Characters as Tricksters in Frances E.W. Harper's lola Leroy." Tricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multi-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons and Annette White-Parks. Hanover: UP of New England, 1994. 158-85.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

McDowell, Deborah E. "'The Changing Same': Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists--lola Leroy and The Color Purple." 'The Changing Same': Black Women's Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Ed. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 34-57.

Peterson, Carla L. "'Further Liftings of the Veil': Gender, Class, and Labor in Frances E.W. Harper's lola Leroy." Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 97-112.
COPYRIGHT 2000 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Christmann, James
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:In Every Seam.
Next Article:Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath.

Related Articles
Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Undiscovered Novels by Frances E.W. Harper.
"Kin' o'rough jestice fer a parson": Pauline Hopkins's 'Winona' and the politics of reconstructing history.
Racial hysteria: female pathology and race politics in France Harper's 'Iola Leroy' and W.D. Howells's 'An Imperative Duty.'.
Du Bois the Novelist: White Influence, Black Spirit, and The Quest of the Silver Fleece.
Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War.
Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand.
Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, Africa, and the "Darwinist trap".
"I will gladly share with them my richer heritage": schoolteachers in Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and Charles Chesnutt's Mandy Oxendine.
Face value: ambivalent citizenship in Iola Leroy.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |