Poet's Pick April 20
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: "Learning to Read"
Selected by Sean Hill
National Poetry Month 2015

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Sean Hill's Poetry Month Pick, April 20, 2015

"Learning to Read"
by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 - 1911)

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 didn’t 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 as independent
            As the queen upon her throne.


* Sean Hill Comments:

Perhaps best known today for her novel Iola Leroy, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the most productive and popular African American authors of the nineteenth century, also published stories, essays, letters, three other novels, and several volumes of poetry.

Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state, on September 24, 1825 to free parents. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by her uncle, William Watkins. He was a minister, writer, and educator who ran a school where Harper received an excellent education. Harper grew up to become a renowned public figure, who toured the country lecturing first against slavery, then later for temperance, for women’s rights and other social issues. During Reconstruction Harper traveled to the South to teach freedmen and help them however she could.

The poem “Learning to Read” appears in her important 1872 collection Sketches of Southern Life, in which she captures Reconstruction in the South. At the core of this collection are six persona poems written in the voice of Aunt Chloe, a freedman. It is because of these poems that I think of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as one of my literary ancestors. For Harper, this was a contemporary Southern voice speaking to the recent history of slavery and the realities of Reconstruction. In “Learning to Read” Aunt Chloe talks about literacy and its power:

            Our masters always tried to hide
                        Book learning from our eyes;
            Knowledge didn’t agree with slavery—
                        ‘Twould make us all too wise.

The poem captures a historical moment; Aunt Chloe is remembering her past and speaking about her present and looking to the future. I’ve found the way Harper deftly manages the vernacular and the rhyme here instructive. Aunt Chloe’s voice is very much like the vernacular of the older generation of folks I grew up around in Georgia and return to in my own poetry when I attempt to explore and revivify these kinds of historical moments.

About Sean Hill:
Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions), and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, (University of Georgia Press). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Poetry, The Oxford American, Tin House, and other journals, and in anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Hill has received scholarships, fellowships, and grants from Cave Canem, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and Stanford University's Wallace Stegner program, among others. He makes his home in Bemidji, Minnesota, but is currently a visiting professor in the English Department at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His website is at www.seanhillpoetry.com.

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