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.