Poet's Pick April 10
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:
"Bury Me in a Free Land"

Selected by Natalie Shapero
National Poetry Month 2018

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Natalie Shapero's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2018

"Bury Me in a Free Land"
by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

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-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.


* Natalie Shapero Comments:
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a nineteenth-century writer and activist who published this poem in the decade before abolition. Here, Harper writes about the horrors of slavery largely in the conditional, creating a striking irony in light of the fact that the practices she describes were very real and ongoing at the time. With the definitive tone that enters in the penultimate stanza ("My rest shall be calm in any grave"), this poem envisions, dramatizes, and demands a future of freedom.

About Natalie Shapero:
Natalie Shapero is the author of the poetry collections Hard Child and No Object.

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