Sitting in Darkness:  New South Fiction, Education,

And the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920

by Peter Schmidt

Complete Notes and Discussion for Chapter Three

(Frances E. W. Harper)

Supplementing the print edition of this book


1.  William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872) remains indispensable for insight on how Harper’s work and writing was understood by a contemporary (755-80).  Frances Smith Foster has gathered many of Harper’s poetry and essays in A Brighter Coming Day, and for her overview of Harper’s poetic ventures, see Written by Herself 131-53.  The fullest account to date of Harper’s postwar lecturing career in the context of other black women’s reform efforts is Carla Peterson’s: 119-45 and 196-238; though see also Paula Giddings’ important earlier overview of the period, 17-131, in which Harper plays a central role.  The best introductory reading of IolaLeroy remains Hazel Carby’s (Reconstructing Womanhood 62-94).  Ann duCille in The Coupling Convention offers a convincing counterargument to Carby’s, McDowell’s, Christian’s, and Campbell’s emphasis on how Harper idealized her heroine (including deliberately downplaying her sexuality) in order to stress her reform ideals and contrast her respectable present self with stereotypes about black women’s promiscuity.  For duCille, in Iola Leroy the free heroine’s “sexual desire is not displaced by social purpose but encoded in it—regulated, submerged, and insinuated into the much safer realm of political zeal and the valorized venue of holy wedlock” (45); duCille caps her case with a convincing reading of an intimate scene with the heroine’s future husband, Dr. Latimer (45-47).  DuCille’s reading of the coded role of desire in Iola Leroy was in some measure anticipated by Claudia Tate’s analysis of the novel stressing desire as an allegory for reconstructing community identity.  For astute comments on class tensions in Iola Leroy’s black community in the context of postwar black community history that were earlier than Castronovo’s, see Kenneth Warren 131-34 and Carla Peterson 196-238.  For readings that stress Iola Leroy as a heroic narrative of community- and citizen-building, see Bruce, Black American Writing 45-51; Fox-Genovese, “Slavery, Race….”; McDowell; Foreman; and Handley, Postslavery Literatures 101-11.  Harper criticism has of course expanded well beyond this brief survey of secondary sources.  The continuing richness of literary criticism on Harper testifies to her novel’s central importance to the nineteenth century U.S. literary tradition.

2.  See, for example, Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll; Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness; and Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love.  Barbara Christian was one of the first to point out how astutely Harper here refutes stereotypes of loyal black servants that had recently become popular in fiction by Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page (29). 

3.  Dr. Latrobe, a white Southerner, guardedly accepts the presence of some Northerners in the South but adamantly states that “we Southerners will never submit to negro supremacy ... [or] abandon our Caucasian civilization to an inferior race” (Iola Leroy 221).  It is also worth noting the role played by Harper’s sardonic narrative voice in “Open Questions.”  The narrator introduces Dr. Latrobe as follows:  “it was a new experience to receive colored men socially.  His wits, however, did not forsake him, and he received the introduction and survived it” (221).

4.  Many of the opinions expressed in the conversazione scene in Iola Leroy—especially the condescension toward Africa—were commonly held among the postwar black middle class and shared by essayists of uplift such as Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper, and the early W. E. B. Du Bois.  Even Thomas Dixon might have agreed with some of the points made.

5.  On postcolonial elites, see Cheah 208-52, who gives a reading of both Cabral and Fanon; and also Chatterjee.  See also Wilson Moses’ classic study of black nationalism in the U.S. in the 1880-1920 period.  Obviously there are many differences between emancipated blacks in the U.S. and the citizens of newly decolonized countries.  But slaves and their descendents arguably suffered the worst possible form of colonization and upheaval.  After emancipation, as U.S. blacks tried to imagine new forms of community, they were divided between a nationalism that sought some form of secession from the U.S. and a nationalism that fought to claim the rights of U.S. citizenship, thus exchanging one form of nationalism for another.  It is not wholly inaccurate to understand this dilemma within black political discourse as a postcolonial one.