What are the themes in Frances E.W Harper's poems "Ethiopia" and "The Slave Mother?"
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A prolific and well-respected 19th Century African-American poet, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s (1825-1911) poems are, unsurprisingly, reflective of the African-American experience in the United States of that era. Fortunate to be born a free Black in the American South (Baltimore, Maryland), Harper nevertheless wrote eloquently of the African-American and Black experiences. The themes of the two poems specified, “Ethiopia” and “The Slave Mother,” are very different, yet very similar. Of the two, “The Slave Mother” is the far sadder poem, no doubt a result of Harper’s proximity to American slavery relative to far away Africa. The theme of “The Slave Mother,” in fact, is the horrifying reality in which slaves existed in the American South. Treated as physical property rather than as human beings, “The Slave Mother” includes the following passages depicting a mother’s child being forcibly taken from her to be sold into slavery himself:
“He is not hers, although she bore/For him a mother’s pains;/he is not hers, although her blood/Is coursing through her veins!/He is not hers, for cruel hands/May rudely tear apart/The only wreath of household love/That binds her breaking heart . . .”
In contrast to “The Slave Mother,” which is simple in its theme of the dehumanizing nature of slavery and the arbitrary terrors to which slaves were subjected, “Ethiopia” is considerably more complex, a plea for a far-away country from which many of her people were seized and transported to far-away lands to endure the indignities of slavery:
“Yes, Ethiopia yet shall stretch/Her bleeding hands abroad;/Her cry of agony shall reach/The burning throne of God.”
Whereas “The Slave Mother” is devoid of hope, “Ethiopia” reflects hope in the existence of a greater Being from whom salvation is possible:
“The tyrant’s yoke from off her neck,/His fetters from her soul,/The mighty hand of God shall break/And spurn the base control . . .”
While “Ethiopia” is a clearly more hopeful poem than “The Slave Mother,” it nevertheless is sad in Ethiopia’s representation as a long-lost homeland to which slaves might someday return:
“Redeemed from dust, and freed from chains,/Her sons shall lift their eyes;/From lofty hills and verdant plains/Shall shouts of triumph rise.”
And, later: “’Neath sheltering vines and stately palms/Shall laughing children play . . .”
Unlike “The Slave Mother,” “Ethiopia” holds out the hope of a better future for Africans and African-Americans.
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