February 22, 2012

Death of Harper: I ask no monument

Born free in Maryland in 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a public speaker, a poet, and a novelist who spent her life fighting for the rights of black people and women. By the time of her death in Philadelphia at the age of 85 on February 22, 1911, she had earned the praise of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fredrick Douglass and many others. Despite all her work and all her writing, she remains most known for one poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land." She sent a copy of this poem, as well as her poems "The Slave Mother" and "The Slave Auction," to one of the condemned men involved with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Harper herself moved in with Brown's widow for a time.

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is — Bury me not in a land of slaves!

Harper is buried in Pennsylvania, slightly southwest of Philadelphia.

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