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"The Slave Mother"

This poem describes a scene where a woman, a slave, is being separated from her child by force. Francis Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist and a free black woman author, teacher, and orator, who used her literary talent to fight for the abolitionist cause. This poem relies on an emotional response from the reader to convey the horrors of slavery.

      Heard you that shriek? It rose
             So wildly on the air,
    It seemed as if a burden'd heart
         Was breaking in despair.

     Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
            The bowed and feeble heart—
       The shuddering of that fragile form—
            That look of grief and dread?

      Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
          Its every glance was pain,
            As if a storm of agony
      Were sweeping through the brain.

      She is a mother pale with fear,
         Her boy clings to her side,
        And in her kirtle vainly tries
        His trembling form to hide.

      He is not hers, although she bore
            For him a mother's pain;
      He is not hers, although her blood
         Is coursing through his veins!

      He is not hers, for cruel hands
            May rudely tear apart
      The only wreath of household love
        That binds her breaking heart.

      His love has been a joyous light
        That o'er her pathway smiled,
        A fountain gushing ever new,
             Amid life's desert wild.

      His lightest word has been a tone
           Of music round her heart,
     Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
          Oh, Father! must they part?

      They tear him from her circling arms,
             Her last and fond embrace.
        Oh! never more may her sad eyes
             Gaze on his mournful face.

      No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
               Disturb the listening air:
          She is a mother, and her heart
                Is breaking in despair.

Source | Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, "The Slave Mother," poem, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Volume B. ed. Paul Lauter. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) 1999-2000.
Creator | Francis Ellen Watkins Harper
Item Type | Fiction/Poetry
Cite This document | Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, “"The Slave Mother",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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