Degradation

Frances Harper posing.

One aspect of Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper, that caught my attention was the assertion that violence, unfair treatment, and domination by the whites against the blacks degrades both.  She has Iola speak to this effect: “A people cannot habitually trample on law and justice without retrograding towards barbarism” (406).  Later, Harper’s minister, Reverend Carmicle says, “You cannot willfully deprive the negro of a single right as a citizen without sending demoralization through your own [white] ranks” (412).  This theme is persistent throughout the novel, and illustrated by the failure or rebuttal of all those characters who fail to treat every individual as worthy of respect. Even the kindDr. Gresham’s request that Iola forget her “drop” of colored blood results in the failure of his courtship.  To deny Iola the identity that she assumed, was an infringement of her rights and lowered his standing.  In contrast, Dr. Latimer embraces both his and Iola’s racial histories and succeeds admirably in his pursuit of Iola, with her regarding him as admirable above all other men.  Perhaps the most obvious of the results of mutual degradation, are the slave owners like Mr. Gundover.  Most of them are subject to death, and the remaining fall into poor health and shadow existences.

Reading this novel really does make me wish that Harper’s contemporaries had heeded her words of warning and realized that maltreatment of other is also maltreatment of self.

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like that you brought up the point of mutual degradation, as this is something we haven’t talked about in class yet. It’s true that when anyone treats another person poorly they are putting themselves on a very base level. It is interesting that Southerners saw themselves as so much higher than their slaves, yet they were the more barbaric of the two.

  2. I also think your point of mutual degradation is something that we should bring up in class. It is interesting that the aristocracy that as Americans we were so desperate to get away from was continued through the oppression of others. Even today, it might not matter your family connections, but your money and social status matters. High School is an excellent place to study this phenomenon with clicks an “popualr” groups. Great Point!

  3. Yes, please do bring this issue up in class, Ruth. The “mutual degradation” idea is one that routinely appears in slave narratives, especially with regard to slavery’s effect on white women. This was designed to appeal to white audiences by assuring them that abolishing slavery was as good for whites as for black people.


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