Because of her complex racial background, Iola has a complicated relationship with race and biology. To protect their mulatto children from discrimination, Iola’s mother, a mulatta, and her father, a white slave owner, raise Iola as white and sequester themselves from southern society. Unaware that she is a mulatta, Iola ironically adopts a pro-slavery attitude, for she believes her father treats his slaves kindly. However, after Iola endures family tragedy and coercion into slavery, her perspective changes and she begins to gain more awareness about her identity and more confidence in her convictions. For example, she shuns Dr. Gresham’s marriage proposal because he is white, and his race has been responsible for slavery. However, she hesitates to admit to prospective employers that she is a mulatto and doesn’t disclose her true identity until she experiences prejudice at work. Ultimately, she not only accepts but embraces her black heritage. She marries Dr. Latimer, a mulatto man. She publicly asserts herself as black and devotes her life to empowering blacks through education and securing civil rights.
As she develops her racial identity, Iola fosters feminist qualities as well, and in a way, Harper uses her as a vehicle to present her social agenda, which upholds feminist tenets. For example, Iola refuses to marry Dr. Gresham, even though doing so would grant her financial security and upper-class social standing. Instead, Iola chooses to remain independent and prioritizes reuniting her family. Iola’s refusal of Dr. Gresham and her efforts to find her family are intertwined with her acknowledgment of her identity as a black woman. Even though Iola becomes financially well-off with Robert providing for her, she nonetheless determines that women should support themselves by learning a marketable skill. Iola labors in the public sphere at a time when few women of her social class worked outside the home, and she ultimately maintains a career as a teacher. Further, Iola openly expresses her opinions at the conversazione, and her confidence and self-assertion reflect her belief that she is equal to the male intellectuals at the event. Iola also transcends her victimization as a slave. Her strength and self-determination overturn the popular nineteenth-century literary motif of the tragic mulatta whose fate is doomed.
Dr. Gresham, a white physician, never succeeds in making his views on race consistent. As the son of a northern abolitionist, he publicly and avidly supports blacks and their quest for equal rights. However, he romanticizes blacks by pitying them and seeking to rescue them from their suffering, and though he loves Iola, he can’t allow himself to marry a woman who acknowledges her black heritage. He wholeheartedly supports Dr. Latimer’s right to assert his mulatto identity and to support black rights. However, while Dr. Gresham does encourage Iola to advocate on behalf of the black race, he explicitly expresses his desire for her to pass as white, especially in his family’s presence. Such hypocrisy represents the conflict that lies at the center of the novel and which Harper addresses on multiple levels of religious and moral issues—incongruence between beliefs and actions.
Dr. Gresham reveals the prevalence of discrimination not only against blacks but also against women. For example, he wants Iola to completely erase her black heritage and essentially repudiate her mother’s existence. He fully recognizes and backs Dr. Latimer’s career and his advocacy for blacks, but he discounts Iola’s career goals, telling her she is destined to fail in her objective to uplift the black race in the South through community action. Through Dr. Gresham, Harper also addresses class issues associated with race and gender. Dr. Gresham warns Iola that marrying outside of the white race will lower her social class, revealing his preoccupation with upward mobility, surface appearances, and how society judges him.
Throughout Iola Leroy, Dr. Latimer remains passionately committed to the social cause of empowering blacks, and unlike Dr. Gresham, he lives his beliefs. Though he is a mulatto who appears white, he decides to pass as black and to relinquish his white grandmother’s inheritance. He sacrifices his lucrative medical practice in the North to serve the needy in the South. Passing as white would have given Dr. Latimer a comfortable upper-class existence, but he freely chooses a life fraught with toil. The fact that Dr. Latimer is a learned scholar and a doctor who presents his research at conferences demonstrates blacks’ intelligence, and his nobility and purity overturn the nineteenth-century misconception that blacks were inferior to whites. Through Dr. Latimer, Harper attempts to reverse ingrained cultural and social assumptions about blacks’ status as unequal.
Dr. Latimer also helps emphasize and promote black authorship and scholarly contributions. He urges Iola to write a book for a black audience and encourages her to be a voice for her race and a model for what it can attain. Dr. Latimer attests to the idea that blacks must create their own literature and scholarship to shape a legacy of intellectual achievement. In addition, according to Dr. Latimer, white authors cannot satisfactorily write about blacks’ history and life experience. He attempts to inspire Iola to accomplish what Harper herself realized through her career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and orator. Indeed, Dr. Latimer’s deep respect for Iola, her pursuit of knowledge, and her socially conscious contributions to society eventually becomes love. Theirs is an intellectualized romance, and Harper deliberately fashions the relationship as such to reinforce to her audience blacks’ intelligence and purity.