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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Eliza Harris (1853) - Referat

1. Biography
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, poem writer, fiction writer, journalist and activist was born on the 24th September in 1825 in Baltimore to free African American parents. After the death of her mother, when she was only 3 years old, she was orphaned. Therefore she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Rev. William Watkins, who was a civil rights activist. She was educated at his Academy for Negro Youth. He was a major influence on her life and work. At fourteen, Frances found work as a seamstress in a Quaker household, where she had access to literature. In this time she started writing. Her first volume of poems, forest leaves, was published in 1845 and became very popular. From 1851 to 1852 she was teacher in Pennsylvania and Ohio (first female teacher at this school). After that she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and got a speaker for abolitionism. She traveled, lecturing throughout the east and Midwest from 1856 to 1860. In this time she also wrote her most famous antislavery poem "Bury Me in a Free Land“(1858). Furthermore she was part of the Underground Railroad helping slaves to escape and she wrote frequently articles against slavery. Through these anti-slavery newspapers she got famous as “the mother of African American journalism”. In 1860 she married Felton Harper, but he died already four years after the marriage, so Frances was left a widower with one daughter and three step-children. They went into dept, but that just made her even more ambitious. During the reconstruction area she was a dedicated activist for civil right, women’s rights and educational opportunities for all. Harper died of heart disease on the 20th February in 1911. She got buried next to her daughter Mary who died 2 years before.

2. Historical Background
In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe published her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as result of the Fugitive Slave Law, which was passed by Congress in 1850. This law allowed even free blacks, such as Harper, to be arrested and sold into slavery. Furthermore the northern citizens weren’t allowed to hide or help the blacks anymore. Inspired by Stowe’s book Frances published the poem “Eliza Harris” in 1853.

In 1850 the United States was a deeply divided country. The situation was tense. In the South blacks cultivated cotton and tobacco fields. They had to suffer from the cruelty of their owners.

The North, however, was the center of abolitionism. They wanted to end racial discrimination and slavery. The states of the South were considered as backward and the aversion to the South grew (about 6 years before the Civil War).

3. Background to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Eliza Harris - Mrs. Shelby’s maid, George’s wife, and Harry’s mother, Eliza is an intelligent, beautiful, and brave young slave. After she hears that Mr. Shelby wants to sell Eliza’s son to a ruthless slave trader to clear up his dept, she decides to escape that very night. Her crossing of the Ohio River on patches of ice is the novel’s most famous scene. Her husband, George, has also recently escaped his cruel master—the three reunite in Ohio. They start a new life in Montreal and move from there to Africa.

4. Content
The poem is about Eliza Harris’s escape as she crosses the Ohio River at night.
The first stanza is about the main characters (Eliza &Harry) and describes the tremendous fear of Eliza.
The second and third stanzas focus on the dangerous situation – the fact that they could die in the river and that they are persecuted with horses and hounds.
The fourth stanza describes Eliza’s desperation while crossing the river on ice patches accompanied by stormy weather.
In the fifth and sixth stanzas the “lyrical I” complains about the injustice of slavery, that white people are allowed to abuse blacks just because of their skin color. The last two verses of the sixth stanza reconcile to Eliza’s flight.
In the seventh stanza she finally reaches the other bank of the river and the people who helped her are mentioned.
In the eighth and ninth stanzas Eliza’ is despite of the successful escape still afraid. Only in the tenth stanza she is finally relieved and happy/over joyous and recognizes her freedom.
The 11th stanza describes the dissatisfaction of the persecutors because they weren’t able to catch the runaway-slaves.
The last stanza also shows the enormous delight of Eliza and her love for Harry.

5. Structure and Form
The poem has 12 stanzas each with 4 verses. There are 2 breaks in the poem. Between the fourth and the seventh stanza, which are about the flight of Eliza, is an insertion
(political statement of the lyrical I) and in this case the lyrical I is Frances Harper (author).

The rhyme scheme is aabb (2 couplets). The rhymed couplets create a rhythm that pushes the movement of the poem forward at the same time Eliza is moving forward in her travels.

The architecture of the poem shadows the action of the poem’s character. Its uneven rhythmic parallels Eliza’s physical movements across the Ohio River. The irregular meter in “Eliza Harris” underscores the action of the flight in the poem and characterizes the impulsive movement of the runaway slave. Even at the end of the poem when Eliza is on free ground the meter doesn’t get more regular, because of future problems on their way to Canada.

6. Language (rhetorical devices)
• Harper opens her poem with a comparison (and 2 adjectives)

“Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,” (V.1)

Makes it very stirring/exciting reader has a clear picture in his mind a fawn is a harmless, innocent creature  it is clear that this is exactly how the author wishes the reader to perceive the fleeing woman  can empathize with Eliza from the beginning  imagine everything better

• Antithesis + Exclamation Point!

“And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!” (V.8)

Underlines the contrast between a free life and death (are their only possibilities) Gives weight to the seriousness of the situation rather be dead than any longer a slave

• Many Repetitions

“Despair” (V.3/13/24/32)
“Danger” (V.6/16/26/36/47)
“Slave” (V. 7 /20/37/48)
“Death” (V.15/47)
“Grave” (V.8/38)

 Emphasizes the fear of the flight
 No rights
Very dangerous

• Anaphora + Exclamation + Exaggeration + Oxymoron

Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country's shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her "star spangled banner"—o'er millions of slaves?

How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?

Attention is drawn to the stanza
Emphasizes it addresses the questions directly to the reader  wants him to think about it ( Martin Luther King speech)
 Special type of antitheses  ashamed that events like chasing fleeing slaves took place under the banner of liberty
 Kind of ridiculous  visualized description  refers to the next stanza
 “O’er the land of the free” (anthem)  irony

• Exclamation + Climax

„Oh! Poverty, danger and death she can brave,” (V.47)

More emotional emphasis (Hervorhebung)
Intensifies  do everything for her son  rather be dead than a slave
Loves her son

7. Interpretation
The poem itself describes a key moment of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when Eliza crosses the Ohio River. This crossing represents the transition from slavery to freedom (from Kentucky to Ohio).

The purpose of the poem is to show the evil and immorality of slavery. The most compelling of all lines in the poem was: “For she is a mother–her child is a slave–/and she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!” These two lines are loaded with so much emotion. It shows the mindset of the enslaved. The fact that the young mother would rather find her newborn son his grave than see him alive but enslaved says a lot about the institution of slavery. Death is a preferably option than the life as a slave.
Another theme of the poem is motherhood: Eliza is the ideal of a mother. She’s a devoted, selfless mother who will take any risks to protect her son and to make it out of slavery. The poem displays the overruling power of a mother’s love and creates a bond of sympathetic between white readers and a black slave.

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