Iola Leroy Background

Iola Leroy Background

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published her first volume of poetry when she was just 16, carved out fame on the anti-slavery lecture circuit by publically speaking on the subject in excess of two hours without consulting a written text or notes and is generally thought to have published the first short story by a black writer in America with her 1859 story “The Two Offers.” Aside from her extensive follow-up collections of poetry, Harper is probably most famous for her novel Iola Leroy. Published in 1892, the novel manages both to be an unusually realistic articulation of what it meant to be both a slave and an emancipated former slave struggling to navigate the uncertainly of Reconstruction while at the same time holding out hope for a future utopian society down in Dixie.

Given how the few remaining years of the 1890s actually played out and transformed the 20th century into something closer to a dystopia for African-Americans, it may be hard for the modern reader to view that hope for the future that is outlined in Iola Leroy as anything but a harshly ironic joke, but the sincerity that Harper displays is undeniable. She set out with the express intention of undoing the damage wrought by the image of the offspring of miscegenation between slaveowners and their slaves as a hopeless and enduring thing of tragedy.

The novel’s refreshing injection of an optimism sorely missing from slave narrative literature has like so many other novels of sincerity been torn asunder by the postmodern ironic complex, but in its time and—most importantly—for its target audience, any such assaults on the basic earnestness of the message the author hoped to convey was unthinkable. The underlying radical message of hope for a happy future for blacks in America would quite quickly prove to be running directly upstream against the tide of history marked by Jim Crow Laws, the KKK becoming the "heroes" of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and the long-lasting effects of Reconstruction coming to a premature end. Iola Leory went out of print shortly after Harper’s death in 1911 and would not be rediscovered again until the 1970s.

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