Poem #11: Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Estimated Reading Time: 4.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleBury Me in a Free Land

Author: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.


If you haven't heard of or read about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, then definitely check her out--she is a total badass! Harper's imagery here aims to provoke readers (And she was definitely provocative at the time) to think about the savagery of slavery in visceral ways.  

The first stanza is setting up the challenge by the poet: do what you will with her when she dies but let her not eternally suffer in a place where her body (and soul) will witness the endless misery of people enslaving others.  Such a situation would provde intolerable for her soul (second stanza).  

But then comes some very particular imagery. We have the coffle gang (or chain-gang--people chained together in a line). Amongst them is a mother in agony as she is suffering two-fold. She is being whipped and having her babies stolen from her. The physical and psychological pain are both present and are an ingenious choice for the poet. Were she just shrieking at the loss of her children, white folks would not see that shrieking as a pain of loss but rather evidence of the reason the children should be taken away (she would not be seen as right in the head).  Were she shrieking at the lashes, it would be written off as just reacting to the pain.  But together, they are interwoven in a way that makes the loss of child that much more tangible.   

In the next stanza, we're introduced to the ways Black people are hunted like animals by bloodhounds who will take them down, just before they are put in chains again.  It's a hard point, but one that almost provides some lighter tension.  It is horrible certainly, but it sits between humans lashing mothers and taking their children, and the next stanza where the hardest truth of slavery emerges (within this poem).  Those children and even possibly the mother too may have been products of rape and the process is about to begin again in the 6th stanza as the poet explains that the female children will be sold with an intention to be raped for power and reproduction purposes.  

It's a harsh and powerful poem that strikes at the heart of slavery's evil and the dehumanization of Black people that was deeply entrenched in American culture. Harper's willingness to look at it, capture its essence and speak to it so openly in her life is one of the reasons she's a person worth knowing more about. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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