Frances Harper's "Bury Me in a Free Land"
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was one of the most prolific and popular African American writers of the nineteenth century, authoring four novels, several widely praised volumes of poems, and a number of essays and short stories. Born in Baltimore to free black parents who died when she was young, Frances Watkins was raised by her uncle William Watkins, a prominent educator and abolitionist. She taught at schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and in the early 1850s left teaching to lecture for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and other antislavery organizations. She married Fenton Harper of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1860, and after his death four years later she resumed lecturing, supporting the cause of black suffrage and urging blacks to work for their uplift through temperance, education, and economic empowerment. In 1892 she published her best-known work of fiction, Iola Leroy. For most of her life, however, she was best known for her poetry. Prefaced by William Lloyd Garrison and published in 1854, her first volume of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Boston: J. B. Yerrinton & Son), which included several poetic "responses" to Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, sold approximately 12,000 copies in its first four years in print and was reprinted at least twenty times during Harper's lifetime. "Bury Me in a Free Land" was written in the late 1850s and published in the 1864 Liberator. Like Whitfield's America and some of Whitman's poetry, this particular poem raises pointed questions about the nation's failure to live up to its ideals. The poem is also hauntingly reminiscent of Dickinson's "tomb" poems, thereby suggesting that in antebellum America the confinements of the tomb provide a particularly appropriate locale for meditations on slavery and freedom.
"Bury Me in a Free Land"
return to Contexts page