(image in the public domain)

Black History Month, day 4

Tomorrow our service will include centering words from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American, Unitarian poet, essayist, lecturer and activist. She worked on the Underground Railroad and wrote and lectured about abolition, then, after the Civil War, lectured widely through the south to educate and inspire former slaves, as well as promoting Reconstruction. She was also very involved in women’s rights and temperance work. Just looking at her picture makes me wish I could sit in a meeting house and hear what she has to say.

Harper was also a popular novelist and poet. Her poetry is conventional for its day, which is to say it is not to my taste. Nineteenth-century popular poetry was very sentimental. But she used that sentimental format to portray the humanity of slaves: a mother’s heart breaking as she loses her child at auction, the thrilling story of an escape from slavery, etc., supplemented the rational arguments she made on the lecture circuit with the emotional appeal that might open some ears.

This, too, is a conventional lyric with a moral, but I like it:

“The Careless Word”

‘Twas but a word, a careless word,
As thistle-down it seemed as light,
It paused a moment on the air,
Then onward winged its flight.

Another lip caught up the word,
And breathed it with a haughty sneer;
It gathered weight as on it sped,
That careless word, in its career.

Then Rumor caught the flying word,
And busy Gossip gave it weight,
Until that little word became
A vehicle of angry hate.

And then that word was winged with fire,
Its mission was a thing of pain,
For soon it fell like lava-drops
Upon a wildly-tortured brain.

And then another page of life
With burning, scalding tears was blurr’d,
A load of care was heavier made,
It added weight that careless word.

That careless word, O how it scorched
A fainting, bleeding, quivering heart!
‘Twas like a hungry fire that searched
Through every tender, vital part.

How wildly throbbed that aching heart!
Deep agony its fountains stirred!
It calmed–but bitter ashes marked
The pathway of that careless word.

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