Reconstructive Uplift: The Impact of Harper’s Iola Leroy

Reconstructive Uplift:  The Impact of Harper’s Iola Leroy

Following the dramatic events at Appomattox leading to the end of the Civil War, the United States found itself in an unprecedented state of fracture, racial instability, and uncertainty.  As the country struggled to stand again and reunify itself, many factors emerged as key components to this reconstruction.  Perhaps most importantly during this divisive era was the issue of racial equality and how the freshly bandaged Union could establish and adapt to a new, post-slavery existence.  New voices in literature emerged during this time, offering perspectives that up to this point had been mainly silenced by prejudicial societal views concerning race.  Frances E.W. Harper, in her novel Iola Leroy, introduced readers to the racial uplift – and through its major themes, characters, dialogues, and implications – brought light into a culture previously hidden in the shadows created by the polarizing effects of racism.  Her use of these literary elements, including irony, plot and storyline, and symbolism, converge to deliver a concrete statement of the black American’s post-war struggle for identity, the debate for equal standing, and the Phoenix-like concept of racial uplift against a culture firmly rooted in white, middle-class, and intellectual standards.

As a racial uplift novel, Iola Leroy has at its core several elements which point to how blacks during this period started the slow, emotionally-charged process of progression, both individually and as an entire race.  This theme of empowerment and rising out of the shadows is at the heart of the novel, and Harper uses both strong characters and meaningful dialogue to illustrate this concept.  At the novel’s outset, we are introduced to Robert Johnson, a light-skinned mulatto slave who has recently enlisted in the Union army.  His speech is that which would be expected of a slave during this period; colloquial and containing much of the dialect expected from someone with little education and opportunity.  In the vernacular common to this type, and with the reader’s understanding that “voice marks class affiliation”, (Christmann 5)Robert speaks of his mother being sold and taken from him, “…I ain’t got nothing ‘gainst my ole Miss, except she sold my mother from me.  And a boy ain’t nothin’ without his mother.” (Harper 17-18).  Harper also introduces us to the “folk” type character, also the uneducated slave of the period.  Characters such as Uncle Daniel and Aunt Linda emerge to represent this folk, and are characterized by their lack of standard-English speech.  Linda explains to Robert in one early passage, “…oh, sho, chile, I can’t read de newspapers, but old Missus’ face is newspaper nuff for me.  I looks at her ebery mornin’…” (9).  Uncle Daniel replies to Robert’s questions of enlistment with “…I’se been praying and hoping for (freedom) dese many years…an’ ef I warn’t boun’, I would go wid you ter-morrer..” (18).  This dialect is an important element in that it shapes the character and thinking of the slaves to which individual progress was unattainable.  The Aunt Lindas and Uncle Daniels of the novel represent the individual who does not rise to a higher social standing, a better educational level, or recognition in society.  Tom Anderson is another of these types; though honorable in his actions and instrumental in the uplift of his race, Tom is “black as black can be” (44), has little education, and is unable to enlist in the Union army as anything other than a servant.  Language is a barrier also for Tom, and he uses the same “folk” dialect when he speaks.  His options for individual uplift are limited because of these characteristics, and his sacrificial death symbolizes the division between what types of people are able to progress to a higher standard (Robert) and who are not.  It is representative of his nobility in life that he should die honorably while remaining in the “folk-class”, so that other members of his race may live to see the fruits of progress.  Additionally, as the story unfolds, Robert’s dialect changes significantly.  He moves from the common folk-speech to that of an educated white man; to such a degree that his white commanding officer contributes this well-placed observation:   “…you do not look like them, you do not talk like them…” (44).  This is a crucial example of Harper illustrating how Robert is advancing in society.  To have a white man make a statement like that, in the historical context of the time – Robert is now able to choose whether to live as a white man and “pass”, or as a black man and remain true to himself.  This choice and all the implications that come with it, define the entire uplift theme of the novel, and solidify Robert as a character who has progressed beyond the class of his birth.  This theme of moral character and choice show up again later in the story during a discussion between Iola Leroy and Robert, in which she speaks of Dr. Latimer’s decision to embrace his black heritage.  She states, “…it were better that he should walk the ruggedest paths of life a true man than tread the softest carpets a moral cripple…” (266).  In the truest tradition of a racial uplift novel, it is noteworthy to point out that of all of Harper’s light-skinned, mixed-heritage characters (Iola, Robert, Dr. Latimer) choose to live as black individuals.  In a society which will challenge blacks to prove themselves worthy of white recognition and opportunities, this is an amazingly honorable choice.

Backtracking just a little, to the point where we first meet this eloquent protagonist, Iola Leroy, we learn that she is also of mixed heritage, like Robert, but is raised white on her father’s southern plantation.  She is unaware of her “blackness” until later in the story when she discovers the secret and is sold into slavery.  It is this context which makes the light-skinned Iola such a remarkable character in terms of uplift.  Her language is educated and refined, and at times she is unable to decipher the meanings of “black speech”.  This is important since “uninflected” (Christmann 11) speech was one of the most important aspects of education, social standing, and progress.  Harper inserts this characteristic to indicate an initial benchmark for uplifting; in that “black speech marks the potential…for black progress” (10).  It shows us the significant difference between what the “folksy” blacks are and what the “progressive” blacks are to become.  Iola is also shown early in her life to defend slavery, saying “…slavery can’t be wrong, for my father is a slave-holder…”.  Again, this is representative of Iola living as a white woman in a white societal paradigm early on, and then embracing her blackness later as she herself is uplifted throughout the story.

Continuing in the vein of character and the development of these characters, it is important to contrast a couple of very important events, which Harper uses to characterize uplift.  The first sets of events are the secret, in-the-woods prayer meetings of the folk-characters early and then again later in the novel.  During these meetings, we see the characters speaking in their ungrammatical dialect, and with the exception of a few, not very interested in individual advancement.  These meetings are characterized by the fact that the older folks represent a group unable to progress, although insistent that some of the younger members of the group leave and do just that.  Aunt Linda represents this voice with her statement, “…well, I’m jis’ gwine to keep on prayin’ an’ b’lievin…” (Harper 12).  Later, when they meet again and Robert finds his mother, the older characters (now free) still refuse to advance in terms of education or opportunity.  Aunt Linda still has no desire to learn to read, and Uncle Daniel is content with living on his land and remaining as he is.  Strikingly different is the meeting later in the novel, attended by the black intellectual group – in which they have a high-minded debate on the future of their race and how to obtain recognition, equality, and stature in society.  It is noteworthy that Robert Johnson is present at both meetings, being established by Harper as someone who can cross over and move easily between both black classes and cultures.  This is yet another element of Harper’s to demonstrate uplift.  In this meeting, characters such as Rev Carmicle and Lucille Delany emerge as black individuals (not of mixed-blood), who represent the uplift issue in a different light.  These are blacks who have progressed, have educations, and are the leading intellectuals of their race.  They represent the educated black perspective, and are necessary for their views on being black and desiring progress both individually and as an entire race.  The uplift theme is also relevant here because this type of character has no choice whether to live as black or white.  The color of their skin is not ambiguous, yet their aims are to lift up every member of their race to a higher standard.  Rev Carmicle does this by his Christian faith and reliance on such doctrine, as “the black pastor’s role is to advance the empowerment and liberation of the Black oppressed…” (Lobodziec 37) Miss Delaney uplifts by her involvement with schools and education.  The presence of these characters at such a meeting, in stark contrast to the meetings in the woods, shows how differently members of the same race view their situation.  The language used is completely different, as evidenced by Carmicle’s Christian admonition “…to help build up a new South, not on the shifting sands of policy and expediency, but on the broad basis of equal justice and universal freedom…” (226), and Uncle Daniel’s equally faith-based, “…I’se been a preachin’ dese thirty years, an’ you come yere a tellin’ me ‘bout studying yore ologies.  I larn’d my ‘ology at de foot ob de cross.  You bin dar?” (168).  These ultra-contrasting settings show readers how difficult a challenge racial uplifting was during this period of reconstruction.  While characters such as Iola, Robert, and Miss Delany work for the betterment of all blacks, there is a large group of the same who are very much content with being rooted right where they are.

Overall, Frances Harper uses several literary elements to illustrate racial uplifting in Iola Leroy.  She gives us strong, rounded characters who are moral and upright, and contrasts them with characters representative of the prejudiced aspects of society, such as Dr. Latimer and Alfred Lorraine.  Her use of dialect, from the uneducated mouth of Uncle Daniel to the intellectual orations of Rev Carmicle, flows to create an unmistakable wave of empowerment, progression, and evolution of the black race.  Because of this, a reader can trace the character evolution and see that uplifting is really happening.  There is irony in her work, as evidenced by Iola’s father’s attempt to shield her from the indecencies of a caste system, which ultimately failed her and sent her into slavery.  Symbolism is represented in the novel by Iola’s sister’s death, which symbolizes the end of the first half of Iola’s life – the half in which she lived as a white woman and defender of slavery, something completely different from the character we see at the novel’s conclusion.  As a black woman in the midst of one of the most challenging times in American history, Harper has credibility in writing about the uplift movement, and includes bits of Christianity, temperance, and feminism into the novel – all of which are themes that relate to the concept of racial uplifting during the late 19th century.  Interestingly, as much as Harper directly states her views and methods for uplifting, she does so by implication as well.  She implies by the presence of Dr. Gresham’s character and Iola’s refusal to marry him that, despite the best intentioned uplift methods, some prejudices will always be present.  Iola realized, as a black woman, that marriage to a white man would be too highly charged to be acceptable to society.  Implied themes such as this, along with speech patterns, important events throughout the story, and strong dialogue all work together to allow Harper’s novel to uplift the black race in virtually every aspect.  This is an honorable calling; to uplift, as Agnieszka Lobodziec eloquently surmises, “…Black middle class can and should respond to need through their performance, in providing uplifting employment and financial support, thereby demonstrating identification with the vision of the beloved Black community…”  (Lobodziec 47).  Frances Harper realized this need to uplift, and built a tremendously edifying work to serve as proof.

Works Cited

Christmann, James. “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigms in Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy.” African American Review, Vol. 34 No. 1 Spring 2000: 5-18.

Harper, Frances E.W. Iola Leroy. Philadelphia: Garrigues Brothers , 1892.

Lobodziec, Agnieszka. “Theological Models of Black Middle-Class Performance in Toni Morrison’s Novels.” 2010: 32-52.


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