Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Harper’s purpose in writing Iola Leroy, as expressed by the title character, was “to do something of lasting service for the race.” This purpose manifests itself in the novel’s prevailing theme: the imperative of placing racial uplift above all other goals, including passing for white or marrying solely for love or physical attraction. Four of the main characters in the novel are presented with the appealing option of bettering their fortunes by living as white persons, and all refuse to abandon their commitment to the race, voluntarily acknowledging their racial kinship.

Iola decides to identify with her mother’s race in her rejection of Dr. Gresham’s proposal. She also rejects later opportunities to pass as white when she seeks employment and boarding in the North. Robert Johnson, Iola’s uncle, also makes this choice. When Robert escapes to the Union Army, a young officer suggests that he join the regiment as a white man, thereby improving his chances for promotion. Robert, without hesitation, rejects this idea, declaring his intention to remain in the black unit where his leadership is needed. His decision is based on duty rather than personal advantage. Harry Leroy, Iola’s brother, having spent part of his life as a white man, exhibits some reluctance to join ranks with his race. He learns of his racial connections and the demise of his family while attending school in Maine. When he declares his intention to enlist in the...

(The entire section is 551 words.)