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This article deals with the radical views of Frances Harper on class and racial equality in her poetry book "Sketches of Southern Life." As a black woman, Harper would have been sensitive to charges that she was less genteel than her middle-class audiences, and, in a radical response, she sought to dismantle the class structure upon which discrimination against African Americans rests. In her impressive sequence of poems, "Sketches of Southern Life," she promotes political solidarity among freedmen and the grass-roots workings of democracy. Sketches retells the history of reconstruction from the perspective of a freedwoman, Aunt Chloe, but refrains from dialect, thus rejecting stereotyped black voices. In so doing, the poetry book enacts the social elevation for African Americans its author espoused, and it also answers contemporary critics who take an apologetic tone toward the recovery of poets like Harper, who, despite their political importance and artistic contributions, have been deemed artistically inadequate. In reading the book, readers must acknowledge that Harper was a poet who employed the vocabulary of her age. Nevertheless, the book strikes into new territory, moving beyond dialect, liberating her characters from class-based restraints, and overturning the hierarchies of gender and race. Poetry served a political agenda for racial equality that was shared by her contemporaries and prefigured the theories of black social elevation addressed by, among others, W. E. B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida Barnett-Wells. More radically than her contemporaries. Harper saw literature as a means to transcend differences of class and gender and to encourage all her people to rise.


Copyright 2005 Elizabeth Petrino

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ATQ: 19th century American literature and culture

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Petrino, Elizabeth A. ""We are rising as a people": Frances Harper's radical views on class and racial equality in Sketches of Southern Life." ATQ: 19th century American literature and culture 19, no. 2 (2005): 133-154.

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