William Lloyd Garrison (essay date 1854)
SOURCE: Preface to Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Frances Ellen Watkins, Merrihew & Thompson, 1857, pp. 3-4.
[Garrison, an American abolitionist and civil libertarian, founded the antislavery journal Liberator and was cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In the following excerpt from his preface to the first edition of Harper's Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, originally published in 1854, he implies that Harper's verse should not be judged by overly strict standards but rather as the work of a deserving apprentice poet. While Garrison believes that Harper demonstrates talent, he also suggests that she needs encouragement and cultivation.]
There are half a million free colored persons in our country. These are not admitted to equal rights and privileges with the whites. As a body, their means of education are extremely limited; they are oppressed on every hand; they are confined to the performance of the most menial acts; consequently, it is not surprising that their intellectual, moral and social advancement is not more rapid. Nay, it is surprising, in view of the injustice meted out to them, that they have done so well. Many bright examples of intelligence, talent, genius and piety might be cited among their ranks, and these are constantly multiplying.
Every indication of ability, on the part of any of their number, is deserving of special encouragement. Whatever is attempted in poetry or prose, in art or science, in professional or mechanical life, should be viewed with a friendly eye, and criticised in a lenient spirit. To measure them by the same standard as we measure the productions of the favored white inhabitants of the land would be manifestly unjust. The varying circumstances and conditions of life are to be taken strictly into account.
Hence, in reviewing the following [Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects], the critic will remember that they are written by one young in years, and identified in complexion and destiny with a depressed and outcast race, and who has had to contend with a thousand disadvantages from earliest life. They certainly are very creditable to her, both in a literary and moral point of view, and indicate the possession of a talent which, if carefully cultivated and properly encouraged, cannot fail to secure for herself a poetic reputation, and to deepen the interest already so extensively felt in the liberation and enfranchisement of the entire colored race.