What are the themes of "Bury Me in a Free Land" by Frances E.W. Harper?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The predominate theme in "Bury me in a Free Land" is that of the horrors of slavery. Harper claims she could not rest in peace if she knew that she was buried in a land where people were subjected to these indignities:

I could not rest 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. 

Harper repeatedly evokes slavery's terrors and abuses, using images of blood, shreiking, moans, and death. She juxtaposes this with freedom, her other central theme, only possible in a land where "bloated might/Can rob no man of his dearest right." Harper's poem makes a simple request, only asking that she not be buried in a land where slavery exists. In doing so, she seems to argue that the issue of slavery itself is not complex. Slavery is inherently evil, and just as she could not be buried in a land of slavery, so Americans should not rest easy knowing that the institution exists in their midst.


jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of "Bury Me in a Free Land" is the unchristian nature of slavery. Harper, an African-American poet, writes in the first stanza:

"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."

Following Christian ideas about the importance of humility, she writes that she would rather be buried in a lowly grave than be buried where slavery still exists. The idea is that the existence of slavery causes the very ground in which she is buried to be unhallowed. 

The poet uses the idea that slavery is unchristian to provoke fellow Christians to become abolitionists and fight against the institution of slavery. For example, the poet continually uses images of innocent beings such as "babes torn from her breast" and "young girls from their mother’s arms/ Bartered and sold for their youthful charms." By using these images of innocent beings who are defiled by slavery, she stresses that slavery is diabolical in nature and that it makes its practitioners unchristian.