November 20, 2013

Harper: among earth's humblest graves

In the 1850s, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (born free in Maryland in 1825) became an active voice in the anti-slavery movement. She was successful as a public speaker, her book of poems was popular, including its several anti-slavery poems. She was also involved with the Underground Railroad. It was in this period that Harper published her most famous poem. Published in the Ohio-based Anti-Slavery Bugle on November 20, 1858, "Bury Me in a Free Land" was a powerful call for the end of enslavement:

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 sleep 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 rest, 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-pale 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!

"Bury Me in a Free Land" was republished two months later in a January issue of The Liberator. Harper also sent a copy of the poem to one of John Brown's men awaiting execution after the raid Harper's Ferry.

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