African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Frances E.W. Harper, "The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio" (1857)

Editor's Note: This poem appears to allude to the case of Margaret Garner, who committed infanticide rather than allow her child to be retaken into slavery. -AS

I have but four, the treasures of my soul, 
    They lay like doves around my heart; 
I tremble lest some cruel hand 
    Should tear my household wreaths apart. 
My baby girl, with childish glance, 
    Looks curious in my anxious eye, 
She little knows that for her sake 
    Deep shadows round my spirit lie. 
My playful boys could I forget. 
    My home might seem a joyous spot, 
But with their sunshine mirth I blend 
    The darkness of their future lot. 
And thou my babe, my darling one, 
    My last, my loved, my precious child, 
Oh! when I think upon thy doom 
    My heart grows faint and then throbs wild. 
The Ohio's bridged and spanned with ice. 
    The northern star is shining bright, 
I'll take the nestlings of my heart 
    And search for freedom by its light. 
Winter and night were on the earth, 
    And feebly moaned the shivering trees, 
A sigh of winter seemed to run 
    Through every murmur of the breeze. 
She fled, and with her children all, 
    She reached the stream and crossed it o'er, 
Bright visions of deliverance came 
    Like dreams of plenty to the poor. 
Dreams! vain dreams, heroic mother, 
    Give all thy hopes and struggles o'er, 
The pursuer is on thy track, 
    And the hunter at thy door. 
Judea's refuge cities had power 
    To shelter, shield and save, 
E'en Rome had altars; 'neath whose shade 
    Might crouch the wan and weary slave. 
But Ohio had no sacred fane, 
    To human rights so consecrate, 
Where thou may'st shield thy hapless ones 
    From their darkly gathering fate. 
Then, said the mournful mother, 
    If Ohio cannot save, 
I will do a deed for freedom. 
    She shall find each child a grave. 

I will save my precious children 
    From their darkly threatened doom, 
I will hew their path to freedom 
    Through the portals of the tomb. 
A moment in the sunlight, 
    She held a glimmering knife, 
The next moment she had bathed it 
    In the crimson fount of life. 
They snatched away the fatal knife, 
    Her boys shrieked wild with dread ; 
The baby girl was pale and cold. 
    They raised it up, the child was dead. 
Sends this deed of fearful daring 
    Through my country's heart no thrill, 
Do the icy hands of slavery 
    Every pure emotion chill? 
Oh! if there is any honor. 
    Truth or justice in the land. 
Will ye not, as men and Christians, 
    On the side of freedom stand? 

Published in Poems on Miscellanous Subjects, 1857

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