Friday, 11 February 2011

Learning to Read

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper - via Alex Plank at Wikipedia - public domain Via commenter CnNaevius at Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic magazine blog, here's a poem by the African-American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, and novelist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), to whom I am just now introduced.

For lovers of books and liberty everywhere.

Learning to Read

Very soon the Yankee teachers
Came down and set up school;
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it, —
It was agin’ their rule.

Our masters always tried to hide
Book learning from our eyes;
Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery —
’Twould make us all too wise.

But some of us would try to steal
A little from the book.
And put the words together,
And learn by hook or crook.

I remember Uncle Caldwell,
Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
And hid it in his hat.

And had his master ever seen
The leaves upon his head,
He’d have thought them greasy papers,
But nothing to be read.

And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,
Who heard the children spell,
And picked the words right up by heart,
And learned to read ’em well.

Well, the Northern folks kept sending
The Yankee teachers down;
And they stood right up and helped us,
Though Rebs did sneer and frown.

And I longed to read my Bible,
For precious words it said;
But when I begun to learn it,
Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,
Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;
But as I was rising sixty,
I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,
And straight to work I went,
And never stopped till I could read
The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin
A place to call my own—
And I felt independent
As the queen upon her throne.

Harper was also an ardent prohibitionist, but nobody in this cockeyed world is perfect. And it is all too easy and horrible to conjecture why she might have judged prohibition a really, really good idea - walking those roads she was walking.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.