September 22, 2011

A dull and heavy weight

On September 22, 1854, Frederick Douglass' Papers published a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins (later Mrs. Harper). Though she was born free, as were her parents, as a black woman she recognized the plight of enslaved members of her race. Her poem, "The Slave Auction," dramatically shows the life-altering aspects of families broken up for sale, similar to scenes in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin from two years earlier. Unlike Stowe, however, who sought empathy in her readers, Watkins insists nothing else can relate to this experience. She starts the poem just as the sale is beginning, and pushes the poem forward with a series of stanzas starting with "and" — the result is a building feeling of discomfort right up to its conclusion:

The sale began — young girls were there,
   Defenceless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
   Revealed their anguish and distress.

And mothers stood with streaming eyes,
   And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
   While tyrants bartered them for gold.

And woman, with her love and mirth —
   For these in sable forms may dwell —
Gaz'd on the husband of her youth,
   With anguish none may paint or tell.

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
   The impress of their Maker's hand,
And frail and shrinking children, too,
   Were gathered in that mournful band.

Ye who have laid your love to rest,
   And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
   Whose lov'd are rudely torn away.

Ye may not know how desolate
   Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
   Will press the life-drops of the heart.

*Recommended reading: A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (1993), edited by Frances Smith Foster.


  1. Great article, i like this post, such has a good and useful ideas.
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  2. I get spam comments every once in a while on here - but I thought I'd let this one slide. It is, after all, the most insensitive 13 words I've ever seen in response to an antebellum slave auction. Yes, a SLAVE AUCTION. What ideas were taken from this, dear commenter? How to destroy families for personal gain? How to turn someone into livestock or property based solely on the color of their skin? Or are you just curious to experience your own bosom rudely forced to part whlie the heavy weaight against your heart presses your own life away? Please, do tell.


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