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’sacademic 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.