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Iola Leroy

Frances Harper

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. I ain’t got nothing ‘gainst my ole Miss, except she sold my mother from me. And a boy ain’t nothin’ without his mother. I forgive her, but I never forget her, and never expect to. But if she were the best woman on earth I would rather have my freedom than belong to her.

Robert makes this remark in Chapter II as the slaves discuss abandoning their masters’ plantations to join the Union army and seek their freedom. Robert responds to Uncle Daniel’s criticism of his plan to desert Mrs. Johnson, Robert’s slave mistress who taught him to read and who treats him rather kindly. Unlike Uncle Daniel, Robert rejects the institution of slavery, no matter how benevolently his owner treats him. The slave system bears responsibility for slave families’ dislocation, exile from their homeland, and breakdown of individuals’ self-possession. Harper constructs Iola Leroy around such issues of identity—self-perception and family unity. One of the novel’s main themes elaborates on how slavery fractures the family unit and slaves’ subsequent attempts to reconstruct surrogate families via the slave community on the plantations, as well as freed or fugitive slaves’ efforts to reunite with their biological families who had been sold or separated from them. The novel’s structure and plot lines trace the Leroy family’s fracture and reunification.

Through this quotation, Harper also explores gender roles and critiques political events. Robert’s comment reveals a provocative gender role reversal. A woman, Mrs. Johnson, holds a position of power over a subordinate man, Robert. Robert is forced to take Mrs. Johnson’s last name, which strips him of his identity and family ties and elucidates his lowly social status as a slave. Though he flouts Mrs. Johnson’s authority over him, Robert does esteem his mother, and here Harper likely draws from the tradition of sentimental novels, which tend to elevate mother figures. In ungluing Robert’s domestic center, his family, Harper not only depicts the reality of slave life but also evokes the reader’s sympathy. Robert’s comment also enables Harper to address the national political milieu. Harper responds to United States legislation, such as the reversal of the Fugitive Slave Act—a small step toward freedom for blacks. Nevertheless, Harper wrote the novel during a time of increasing racial strife, in the 1890s, when the Jim Crow laws that cemented separation between blacks and whites were condoned by the Supreme Court.

2. Uncle Robert, [. . .] I have a theory that every woman ought to know how to earn her own living. [A] great amount of sin and misery springs from the weakness and inefficiency of women. [E]very woman should have some skill or art which would insure her at least a comfortable support. I believe that there would be less unhappy marriages if labor were more honored among women.

Iola proclaims these feminist opinions in Chapter XXIV after enduring and escaping her fall into slavery and reuniting with her mother and while living in the North with her uncle, Robert. Iola firmly believes that women should pursue their own interests and develop unique, marketable skills. She calls for individualism, a fundamental principle in the United States, and she likewise endorses feminism to a degree. In the early days of the country’s development, marriage was considered more of an economic transaction than a romantic union. Women’s dowries were essential to a marriage, and a husband and wife’s relationship was deemed somewhat of a commodity in which men possessed, or owned, women. In this sense, women were subjugated. Women at the time were expected to remain in the home and to reign over only the designated domestic responsibilities. This social custom stemmed from the Cult of True Womanhood, earlier ideological beliefs that restricted women’s roles to the domestic circle.

In questioning women’s presence in the workplace, Harper seems to invert the idea of true womanhood. That is, she challenges the prescribed gender role allotted to women that essentially and narrowly defined their work as solely housework. Harper reconsiders women’s ability to contribute financially to married and family life. Iola contends that women should attain their own goals outside of the home and that such self-affirmation will enhance and strengthen the bonds of marriage. Iola goes so far as to ascertain that women’s inability to work beyond the domestic unit does not merely enervate or weaken marriage but is also equivalent to committing a “sin.” Therefore, Iola equates keeping women inside the home to complete specific domestic tasks with moral corruption.

3. [. . .] Lindy warn’t satisfied wid rentin’ so I buyed a piece ob lan’, an’ I’se glad now I’se got it. Lindy’s got a lot ob gumption; knows most as much as a man. She ain’t got dat long head fer nuffin. She’s got lots ob sense, but I don’t like to tell her so.

Aunt Linda’s husband, Salters, explains his perceptions of Aunt Linda’s authority to Iola, Robert, and Uncle Daniel in Chapter XIX. Salters makes this comment during Robert and Iola’s visit to the former Johnson plantation following the Civil War and the slaves’ emancipation. Through her monetary contributions to purchasing their home, Aunt Linda makes financial decisions and controls money—tasks clearly designated to men at that time. While Salters admits his affection and respect for his wife, his reveals in these words that he desires to keep her in her place—subordinate to him. He fears she will exert too much influence over him and usurp the decision-making power assigned to men. In short, Aunt Linda is a threat to Salters’s masculinity. According to Salters, Aunt Linda is almost as intelligent as a man. His carefully chosen words reveal a layer of sexism buried beneath his admiration for his wife’s practicality and intellectual curiosity.

Harper incites black feminism in the novel, and she explores the notion that black women are doubly oppressed—subjugated because they are black and because they are female. Aunt Linda suffers through the physical and emotional abuse of slavery and remains illiterate because her former owner forbade her to become educated. A former slave, Aunt Linda also exists under the reign of her husband, who secretly respects and admires her but remains silent and aloof about his appreciation for her persistence in urging him to purchase their own home. Resilient and faithful, Aunt Linda surmounts her trials and continues to blatantly declare her opinions and desires. She even becomes a businesswoman who successfully sells her pies to survive while her husband is at war. Harper presents other strong female characters as well, such as Miss Delany and Iola, who are educated and career-oriented. Aunt Linda is an entrepreneur, an assertive wife, and an active community member, and she and the other strong women celebrate black women’s determination and perseverance in the face of multiple obstacles in their private lives and in the broader realm of society.

4. “But, Mr. Bascom,” Harry said, “I do not understand this. It says my mother and father were legally married. How could her marriage be set aside and her children robbed of their inheritance? This is not a heathen country. I hardly think barbarians would have done any worse; yet this is called a Christian country.”
   “Christian in name,” answered the principal.

In Chapter XIV, a distraught and stupefied Harry attempts to comprehend the legality of his sudden change in race, social status, and family situation upon his father’s death and Lorraine’s subsequent manipulation. At his boarding school in Maine, Harry is perplexed by the letter from Iola explicating the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, his mother’s real background as a mulatta, and the family’s plunge into slavery. Harry and Mr. Bascom wrestle with the moral contradiction of the legal existence of the slave trade in a purportedly Christian nation. Harper’s purpose in penning the novel emerges in its overarching theme—advocacy for a renewal of Christian values as the method for mending the country’s disunity, the North’s and South’s impasse on political and social issues, namely slavery. Harper exposes the false nature of a Christian government that enabled the slave trade to flourish, dehumanized an entire race, and harbored slave owners.

Harper also uses characters to generate a theme and to transcribe her own views as a champion of both a pro-abolition platform and pro-equal rights policies for blacks and women. Iola Leroy is rich in dialogue, and this interaction among characters serves as a means of delivering Harper’s political and social agendas. The characters directly translate Harper’s beliefs to the audience. For example, Mr. Bascom is a northerner and an active abolitionist whom Eugene Leroy entrusts to care for Harry and who acts as a mentor to the young boy. The principal’s concise, pointed statement is a loaded accusation that exposes the hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness, or false piety, of slave owners who profess themselves to be Christian. Mr. Bascom’s simple reply to Harry also unleashes a broader charge against the nation as a whole, particularly its legal and government institutions. Harper makes a purposeful political statement via literary elements—characters and dialogue.

5. Doctor, were I your wife, are there not people who would caress me as a white woman who would shrink from me in scorn if they knew I had one drop of Negro blood in my veins? [. . .] No, Doctor, I am not willing to live under a shadow of concealment which I thoroughly hate as if the blood in my veins were an undetected crime of my soul.

This quotation appears in Chapter XXVII when Dr. Gresham proposes to Iola for the second time. Iola again rejects Dr. Gresham’s offer, adamantly citing his hypocritical desire for her to silence any acknowledgment of her black heritage and warning that society’s scathing view of blacks would inevitably affect her, marring her marriage to the white Dr. Gresham. Further, Iola speculates that Dr. Gresham’s circle of friends and family would belittle her and defame her character if they discovered her true biological make-up. While she appears to be of the white race, Iola consciously opts to identify herself as black. Dr. Gresham’s protests of Iola’s pride in her black roots indicate his discomfort with miscegenation. In Harper’s time, a person’s civil rights and social status were defined according to his or her position on the Great Chain of Being, a racist, flawed scientific scale that measured a person’s worth according to skin tone, ranking whites ahead of blacks on the spectrum.

Harper uses figurative language to reinforce Iola’s insistence in her affirmation of her racial identification as black. The “shadows of concealment” refer to the novel’s title and bear particular significance. Through this metaphor that compares passing as white to hiding her true identity, Iola rebuffs Dr. Gresham’s recommendation that she align herself with the white race. The “shadow” refers to darkness, a motif that runs throughout the novel. In this instance, the shadow represents a falseness, a veil of sorts, that posing as white would bring upon Iola. Also, Iola refers to “an undetected crime of [her] soul,” a simile that likens being black to unconsciously committing a criminal act. This comparison alludes to the political and legal fallout associated with a person’s biology. For Iola, being born black carries the burden of unwarranted prejudice.

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