Is the unifying character for six poems in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Sketches of Southern Life (1872): “Aunt Chloe,” “The Deliverance,” “Aunt Chloe's Politics,” “Learning to Read,” “Church Building,” and “The Reunion.” This poetry emulates the slave narrative, a literary form that characterized much of the literature written by and about African Americans during the nineteenth century. It is distinctive because Harper invented a dialect technique that used aural association and syntax rather than phonetics to create an authentic black voice. This innovation is seen in literature by African American writers of subsequent generations, a technique that effectively captures the dialect without reducing folk characters to stereotypes or caricatures.
Aunt Chloe's voice represents the agony of all slave women when the slave mistress sells Aunt Chloe's children in order to defray a debt. The dramatic style of the narrative also includes other characters who warn and console Chloe, demonstrating the strength of the slave community as a social and political network. The work's broader setting is the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the poems reflect the perspective of the black woman as Aunt Chloe interprets those events and struggles for freedom, literacy, and self-determination.
The theme of the poetry is a spiritual message that conveys a deep belief in Jesus as the spirit of salvation, rebirth, and justice. Aunt Chloe's voice exhibits wit, tenacity, and strong political views. Recited before black and white audiences, and sometimes before exclusively black female audiences, the book was widely circulated as Harper traveled and promoted black liberation and women's rights throughout the country.
Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, 1990.Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper 1825–1911, 1994.
Melba Joyce Boyd