September 24, 2013

Birth of Watkins Harper: to stir like a battle-cry

Frances Ellen Watkins was born on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. Like her parents, she was born free but of African descent. Her parents died when she was still a child and she was raised with the help of her uncle, a minister and educator who ensured his niece attended an academy for "Colored Youth." Her formal schooling ended when she was 13 but she continued teaching herself. She was eventually hired as a teacher herself, first in Ohio and then in Pennsylvania.

Watkins started publishing poetry as a teenager. It was as a public figure that she would make her long career. In her nearly 86 years, she became a published poet, novelist, essayist, a public speaker, an abolitionist, a civil rights and women's rights advocate, particularly under her married name Frances Watkins Harper. Often, Watkins Harper used popular forms of poetry to spread her beliefs in equality, temperance, and piety. Her poetry in particular was meant to inspire an emotional response to ally others in her causes using a simple, almost conversational style. Among her most moving works is her 1895 poem "Songs for the People" (which sums up her life and work quite well):

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life's fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o'er life's highway.

I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

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