Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born in 1825, enjoyed a prolific career in the public spotlight until her death in 1911. Harper’s Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, published in 1892, is arguably the first novel written by an African-American woman. There is some speculation among literary critics that perhaps Amelia Johnson’s In God’s Way or Emma Dunham Kelly’s Megda may have been published in 1891. However, it is fairly undisputed that Harper was the first African-American woman to publish a short story, “The Two Offers,” written in 1859. Also well known as a poet, Harper published nine volumes of poetry, mostly organized around the theme of equal rights for blacks.
Harper’s career was not limited to writing essays and literature. An influential orator, Harper was particularly active in reform movements that advocated for women’s rights, suffrage, temperance, and the abolition of slavery, and her lectures sometime seeped into her literature. For instance, among other commitments to social causes, Harper was active in establishing Sunday school for black children, helping to launch the National Association for Colored Women, and promoting voting rights for blacks and women with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglas. Harper’s vision for social reform likely began when she was a child, as she was raised by her uncle, the prominent abolitionist William J. Watkins, and his wife. Before becoming active in the Underground Railroad and other abolitionist movements, Harper taught at the Union Seminary for freed blacks in Ohio as its first female instructor. Accompanied by her daughter, Harper lectured in the South for several years following a short marriage that ended upon the death of her husband, Fenton Harper. In her speeches, she focused on the issue of reshaping the nation via social reform and civil rights for blacks and elaborated on the condition of black women laborers. Harper emphasized religious and family values that countered the ideological impulses of the Gilded Age during which she published—a period of intense political, economic, and industrial upheaval. Harper later resided in Philadelphia, where she published Iola Leroy.
Harper wrote Iola Leroy during “the women’s era,” a period from 1890–1910 in which women writers produced volumes of work. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the ideology of the Cult of True Womanhood pervaded American culture and enforced the idea that a virtuous woman’s civic duty was to nurture her husband and children and to remain within the confines of the home. Iola Leroy challenges this social and cultural norm, often the topic of previous literary works. The protagonist, Iola, works as a nurse, an accountant, and a teacher, and she is an outspoken intellectual. Iola Leroy also counters the idea that women should be meek and docile, as dictated by a male-dominated society. Several critics also note that Iola Leroy resists the literary convention of the tragic mulatta character that was popular in writings of the 1850s and 1860s. These texts often portrayed miscegenation, or racial mixing, as a catalyst to a female character’s demise.
Iola Leroy explores the nineteenth-century ideology that the degree of blackness of one’s skin determined one’s social class and civil rights. The emphasis on biology, or genetic composition, fixed one’s place in society and determined one’s worth. This ideology stemmed from scientific principles of the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, which valued the importance of keeping the white race pure and therefore condemned racial mixing. Western science promoted the idea that life forms were arranged according to a hierarchy. Plants and animals were at the bottom of this “great chain of being,” and angels, saints, and God ranked at the top. Whites fell between animals and deities. Blacks’ status fell between animals and whites, thus rendering them subhuman. This ideology fueled misperceptions of blacks and rendered miscegenation unacceptable. Iola Leroy responds to this ideology and emphasizes the need to elevate the black race by demonstrating its equality with the white race.
The novel is set during Civil War, 1861–1865, and Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Although slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, racist sentiment against blacks persisted. Harper wrote the novel just after the Supreme Court condoned the Jim Crow laws, which segregated blacks and whites. This continued racial strife influenced the text’s genre as a novel of protest, particularly notable in its characterization, plot, and theme. The author’s “Note” explains that the novel seeks to inspire blacks to empower or uplift themselves and to move whites to amend the oppression of blacks. For Harper, Christianity provides the means for attaining these goals. Other prominent authors of the period also echoed the importance of religion in ameliorating the racially divided nation, particularly Harriet Beecher Stowe in her widely read novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Iola Leroy was a form of popular literature that therefore had a mass readership, but critics disagree over Harper’s intended audience. Some critics contend that Harper wrote for a white Christian audience, while others recognize that her audience was the black Christian population. Iola Leroy was largely overlooked as part of the African-American literary canon until the 1970s and 1980s, probably due to dawning of the black feminist literary movement.