Frances Harper and Moral Maturity

As I mentioned in class, I really liked Corinne Field’s essay “Frances E. W. Harper and the Politics of Intellectual Maturity” in An Intellectual History of Black Women. This article appeals to me because it challenges the idea that intellectual maturity is the most important trait a person can possess if they want to be a contributing member of society. Harper’s ideas specifically challenged the idea echoed in Alice Fletcher’s speech at the beginning of the essay that freed blacks’ “childishness” made them incapable of contributing to society and, subsequently, making the country a better place for themselves.

The article outlines how Harper argued that the white-held stereotype of blacks as “childish,” actually made them morally superior to whites because childishness reflected ideal Christian adulthood. Of course, the view of freed people as childish is in and of itself problematic and it is essential that all oppressed people be given support to make up for past injustices. With these two caveats in mind, however, I feel that Harper touches on a powerful way of conceptualizing aiding those who are, for systemic reasons, “less fortunate.”

I feel like so often it is easy for well-intentioned activists to dismiss the views and abilities of less educated, marginalized people and impose their own ideas of how to help them and their communities. Feminist theory, however, posits that the oppressed have a more complete view of reality than individuals in positions of power and therefore can be the most powerful agents in advocating for structural change.

Harper echoes these feminist ideals, even though she was speaking and advocating in the late 1800s. Her work is a reminder to all scholars and activists that, rather than impose standards of intellectual maturity (standards set by and for the capitalist upperclass) on marginalized people, they should look for the strengths in skill and perspective that marginalized groups have been forced to develop in order to survive. Then, they can built a pedestal on which these strengths may be expressed, celebrated, and mobilized. Similarly, we all need to advocate for broader definitions of what it means to be a valuable and contributing member of society (hint: all human beings are inherently valuable).

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One thought on “Frances Harper and Moral Maturity

  1. I agree Kate; I love the way Harper subverts the stereotype so that it becomes a space of empowerment rather than disenfranchisement. For its time, such an approach was quite radical while still being rooted in the conventional authority of the New Testament.

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