Response: Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted


We return to this year’s challenge lists with a 19th-century novel that is one of the first works of fiction by an African American woman. Francis Ellen Watkins Harper wrote Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted when she was 67, after a long and productive life filled with activism and other writing. She was a little nervous about writing it, but felt she had to, to help establish African American writers as producers of serious literature. I learned this, and many other fascinating facts about 19th-century black literature, from the book’s forward and introduction; the edition I was able to borrow is part of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Woman Writers series, a selection of mostly forgotten books that I am now honor-bound to track down and appreciate.

Image taken from The Poetry Foundation - all rights reserved to same - click through to read Harper's biography.

Image taken from The Poetry Foundation – all rights reserved to same – click through to read Harper’s biography.

Iola Leroy is the story of a young woman of mixed racial heritage and the safety and community she finds after being freed from slavery. The daughter of a wealthy Louisiana planter and his manumitted slave wife, Iola is sent up North to be educated, and has no idea she has African American blood. In fact, at one point in the novel (wince-worthy to contemporary eyes) she makes arguments in favor of slavery while at school. Alas, her words come back to haunt her when her father dies, and a jealous distant cousin (not wanting all that money and property to fall into “the wrong hands”) has Iola, her mother, and her siblings seized and enslaved. This narrative is mixed with the story of a North Carolina community of slaves and, later, freed slaves, who are excited about the times ahead, when they will be free and can start uplifting the black race.

Twenty-first century readers will need to take a few steps back while reading the novel to consider its historical context. For one thing, the use of diction may seem false, embarrassing, or caricature-ish to the modern ear. However, Harper was writing in authentic speech patterns as a direct response to authors like Joel Chandler Harris, who tended to make fun of the ways black people talked, and exaggerated their diction. In a similar vein, today’s reader might get impatient with what seem like long stretches of speeches that don’t really advance the plot; however, in the nineteenth century, a really good work of literature was supposed to be educational as well as entertaining, and Harper (determined to show that black people could write for the times just as well as white people could) is appropriately following all the conventions of her era.

Iola, her family, and their extended circle of friends ultimately get their happy endings after working hard and suffering much. It’s a feel-good story, designed to give hope to the people who read it, as well as to demolish pro-slavery arguments and claims of black inferiority. If you’re interested in historical fiction and would like a first-hand look at a work of art that highlights the major issues slavery in the Civil War era, I strongly suggest picking up Iola Leroy, or other works in the Schomberg series. Reading books like this–for pleasure OR as part of a deliberate curriculum–could go a long way in establishing racial understanding in the present day.


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