The Slave Mother
Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
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 kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide.
He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
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.
—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, from Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
Frances E.W. Harper’s poem, “The Slave Mother” illustrates one of the cruelest realities of slavery: the tearing apart of the black family. Slaves were considered the property of their white slave owners. Slaves could be sold, bought, traded; owners could do whatever they pleased to their slaves with little to no consequence.
The slave status of a child followed that of the child’s mother, so if the mother was a slave, so too was the child. This was done to ensure that black children born to white men remained in bondage. Slave mothers were even forbidden to reveal who the fathers of their children were because very often the father was the slave master—of course, the child’s fair skin would’ve easily given it away. In this system, there was no such thing as family. Marriage or blood relation meant nothing if the slave master saw a profit.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the slave mother and her child. How does she cope with the realization that the child she birthed is not hers? What are her final words to him before he’s torn from her arms? Will he remember her voice, her face, her lips on his cheek?