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"

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.

I could not rest, if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom

I could not sleep, 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.

I could not rest, if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash;
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I'd shudder and start, if I heard the bay
Of a bloodhound seizing his human prey;
And I heard the captive plead in vain,
As they bound, afresh, his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold from their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-pale cheek grow read with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated Might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers by;
All that my yearning spirit craves
Is--Bury me not in a land of slaves!

return to Contexts page

Introduction Biography Poems Critical Voices Teaching Approaches Bibliography