Race and gender prove to be two daunting obstacles for the women in Iola Leroy, and success depends on the women’s ability to keep a strong black feminist stance. Prescribed female roles and racial prejudice hinder Aunt Linda and Iola in their ambitions and endeavors, but they resist the expectation that women’s work is nurturing children and husbands. Both characters transcend the confines of the home, and Iola believes that working in public is key to marital success. She repeatedly encounters racism while pursuing her career, and only through the white Mr. Cloten does she secure an accountancy position. To finance a home, Aunt Linda, an entrepreneur, sells pies while her husband is at war. She exerts power over her husband, who disagrees about the purchase; however, due to slavery, she remains illiterate and thus subjugated.
In Iola Leroy, Harper explores the biological and social bases of race and raises the question of which plays a larger role in forming identity. Iola, Harry, and Dr. Latimer, born of slave mothers, struggle with whether or not to pass as white and hide their genetic composition as black. During the nineteenth century, when Iola Leroy takes place, physical appearance signified intelligence, morality, and power, and these characters’ choices of whether to live as white or black have serious consequences. Dr. Latimer, a mulatto who appears white, chooses to live as black, and his intellectual successes contrast Dr. Latrobe’s racist belief that blacks are inferior to whites. Iola and Harry, who were raised as white and appear white, later choose to pass as black. Iola labels herself “the Iola of now,” a black activist who marries a mulatto and repudiates Dr. Gresham because his whiteness links him to slavery. Fearing social and familial disapproval of his love for a black woman, Dr. Gresham begs Iola to pass as white, but she refuses, bringing much hardship to her life. For these characters, “blackness” and “whiteness” mean much more than biology and dictate an entire world view.
Images of darkness and light pervade Harper’s novel and serve several purposes. Shadows suggest blacks’ exile from Africa and coercion into slavery. The “uplifted shadows” of the title of the novel itself, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, suggest freedom both from bondage and racial empowerment. The image also holds religious meaning. Harper’s note at the beginning of the novel mentions “light beyond the darkness” and “hope in God’s great justice,” linking light with salvation. Dr. Gresham believes that Iola should hide her status as a mulatta, especially from his upper-class, white family, which Iola considers a “veil of concealment.” Dr. Latimer likewise lifts this “veil” in asserting his black heritage. The blond-haired, blue-eyed doctor refused to stifle his identity and “stood in his own light,” when he could have passed for a white man and profited from his grandmother’s inheritance. Light emanates from Iola’s “luminous” and “lustrous” eyes as she sings to Tom and admits her love for Dr. Latimer. Harper associates blacks with light images, suggesting truth, goodness, and intelligence, which is a marked difference from the prevalent idea of the time that blacks were inferior in intellect, moral judgment, and appearance.
Harper believes that Christianity will unify the North and South, and she uses a sentimental style to arouse empathy in her Christian audience for blacks’ condition. Dialogue between characters speaks indirectly to readers, emphasizing that religion must be lived in actions. Harper criticizes characters who hypocritically attest to upholding Christian beliefs. For example, Master Gundover attempts to force a slave to publicly confess sins before a preacher, but the preacher condones the slave’s actions and admonishes Gundover’s contradictory testament to Christianity and ownership of slaves. Characters of both races exemplify Harper’s religious ideal. Dr. Latimer relinquishes his prosperous career to serve freed slaves in the South, and Harper compares him to Moses and Nehemiah, Biblical figures who led oppressed peoples to freedom. Further, Mr. Cloten supports Iola’s right to work as an accountant in his store. At the conversazione, Iola compares blacks to Jesus, a figure who had been oppressed but later exalted. Iola declares that the afflicted, like Jesus, will be uplifted and that the Christian religion will lead the country to glory.
Harper saturates Iola Leroy with the concept of literacy as a means of empowerment and incorporates various genres, including sentimentalism, historical fiction, social protest, and slave narrative, into the novel to exhibit her intellectual, artistic accomplishments, and to idealize her characters. Eclectic modes of writing also advance the plot and the theme. Prior to realizing her true identity, Iola writes to her parents about a black student’s enrollment in school, which she considers atypical. Iola’s letter to Harry, revealing his heritage and warning him to remain distant, propels the plot, guaranteeing Harry’s safety. The conversazione’s academic papers and poetry evoke the theme of racial uplift and demonstrate blacks’ intellectual achievements. The slaves’ code language is a form of verbal literacy. Harper depicts slaves as innately intelligent because they create their own system of language. African American literature frequently includes the motif of writing to elicit the power of literacy in delivering slaves to freedom and to prove blacks’ intellectual abilities.
Robert and Marie both have birthmarks, which represent the freed slaves’ hopes for family reunification. Since slavery has dislocated their family for nearly a generation, the only knowledge that Iola and Robert have of their more distant relatives is their physical descriptions. Their grandmother’s slave song is the sole memory that Iola and Robert share. Robert recalls the mole on Marie’s cheek, and Iola’s photo of her mother convinces Robert that Marie is his sister. Robert displays “a red spot on his temple” that identifies him as Iola’s uncle. Family is of the utmost importance—Iola even refuses to marry Dr. Gresham because she prioritizes finding her long-lost mother. Birthmarks identify individuality and family legacy and offer hope that families will one day be reunited.
Harper rarely describes setting, but the descriptions of natural imagery that she does include work symbolically to offer unique perspectives on the events taking place. Prior to the Civil War, slaves held their secret prayer meetings in the dismal woods. Harper’s transformation of the post-war North Carolina countryside to a fertile, blossoming setting symbolizes rebirth and optimism—a passage from slavery to freedom. When Dr. Latimer and Iola arrive in North Carolina, their home is shrouded in flowers, which suggests both the South’s renewal and the couple’s crossing of a threshold into married life. Harper also details the natural imagery surrounding two marriage proposal scenes. Dr. Latimer’s proposal to Iola occurs amidst the end of summer on a beautiful day, and the lovely scenery Harper describes suggests contentment and the rightness of the decision to get married, particularly for strong young women such as Iola. Harry proposes to Miss Delany on a carriage ride through a forest, and Miss Delany comments on the “stately pines that remind [her] of a procession of hooded monks.” This metaphor refers to the sanctity and purity of marriage.
The character of Aunt Linda serves as a symbol of optimism, and her visionary capability develops the novel’s theme of vanquishing slavery and foreshadows the novel’s plot. Aunt Linda has premonitions of liberation and transcendence for blacks, and she predicts the North’s victory in the war and the subsequent abolition of slaves. She seems certain of her visions of glory and freedom from captivity and thus exudes positive energy and enthusiasm. From one of her visions, Aunt Linda predicts Iola’s arrival in the South and her success in ameliorating conditions for black women. Aunt Linda sees blacks as uplifted, and, because of her visions, she herself is elevated to a role akin to a Biblical figure or an oracle who predicts the future.