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.