Moses: A Story of the Nile


In the twentieth century, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper found herself admitted to the ranks of canonical African American women writers. Her 1892 novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, is considered one the most important African American novels of the nineteenth century, and is frequently taught as a prime example of the most prominent black literary themes of Reconstruction: reunion, education, literacy, and racial uplift. The rediscovery and republication of three additional novels in 1994 further added to Harper’s literary reputation, and along with Charles Chesnutt, Harper is considered one of the late nineteenth century’s most important black novelists.

But Harper was not mainly a novelist; she was, primarily, a poet. Aside from her four novels, the bulk of her published work is poetry, and poetry was what she published most consistently throughout her life. As was that of virtually all of her peers, Harper’s poetry was highly influenced by European styles, but, like other nineteenth-century black poets, Harper used ostensibly “white” styles as vehicles for a set of critiques and reformulations: by using the language of “high white culture” to feature black characters, black voices, black issues, and black themes, black poets appropriated white forms and critiqued a culture which could hold such high aesthetic ideals and yet could condone slavery; at the same time, by writing in forms thought to be the sole province or sole capacity of white poets, black poets showed that they, too, could perform and produce literature according to standards thought to be “above” their abilities.

The poem featured here is of obvious value for a study of American Egyptomania: its title is “Moses: A Story of the Nile,” and it takes as its subject one of the most metaphorically resonant of all Biblical stories for African Americans. As the child of slave parents raised in the house of slave masters in the land of ancient Egypt, not as a slave but as a master, the Old Testament story of Moses was rife with narrative possibilities for enslaved storytellers – especially since the master/slave Moses goes on to denounce his adoptive family, become a prophet for a vengeful God, and lead the chosen people out of the land of Egyptian bondage and into the promised land. It was, after all, Moses, who uttered what is perhaps the most famous phrase in all Biblically influenced abolitionist rhetoric: upon facing down Pharaoh, Moses threatens the whole system of slavery with divine plagues and righteous destruction, and demands that the slavemaster “let my people go!” The narrative arc represented by Moses – enslavement, education, prophesy, and deliverance – was and still is an arc with infinite possibilities for those who were enslaved or for those who consider themselves still bereft of freedom. Harper originally published this poem in 1869; she revised it twice – all three publications occurring after the end of the Civil War – once in 1870 and then again in 1889, twenty years after its first appearance. This edition is the first; note that the copy featured here was first owned by Arthur A. Schomburg, legendary black historian and archivist and founder of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.



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MOSES:

A STORY OF THE NILE.

BY

Mrs. F. E. W. HARPER.

SECOND EDITION.

PHILADELPHIA ;

MERRIHEW & SON, PRINTERS

No. 243 Arch Street,

1869.

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