By Elizabeth Cali
Nearly every line of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1864 poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” is downright ghoulish, beginning with the first: “Make me a grave where’er you will.” Harper draws us in with her unusual request, directing her readers to conjure visions of her grave site in a place where slavery does not exist. Throughout, however, this is a poem that centers on the scenes of intense unrest wherever slavery persists.
“I could not rest, if I saw the lash/ Drinking her blood at each fearful gash.” This quote from “Bury Me in a Free Land,” certainly constructs a horrific, monstrous image; however, Harper’s blood drinking monster takes the shape of slave holding Southerners and permissive Northerners. I am struck by her deft ability to maneuver the lens which so often portrays Black women as monstrous to instead recast proponents of enslavement in that role.
“Bury Me in a Free Land” centers repeatedly on the restless dead, as three stanzas in a row begin anaphoristically, as if part of a chant: “I could not rest,” “I could not sleep,” “I could not rest.” Through these statements Harper constructs a land of the living dead, of restless souls, of zombies, of ghosts, all the effect of the monstrous practices she indicts. But the only monsters in the house are slave holders and their supporters.
In her second to last stanza, Harper constructs the image of herself, eerily coming back to life, “If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms/ Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,/ My eye would flash with a mournful flame,/ My death-pale cheek grow red with shame.” She ensures that we can see the vision of her death-pale cheek filling with color, eyes blinking open with a sad flame at the horror of a restless resting place. An image of death coming alive, to be sure, but a monster she is not.
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Elizabeth Cali writes about 19th-century African American literatures and print cultures, Black Feminist theory, and early American literary nationalisms. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.