NEMLA 2020

“The badge of servitude and toil”: Maternal Bonds and Mosaic Subjectivity in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Moses: A Story of the Nile”

Moses holds a special place in African American culture. The biblical Exodus story served as a near-perfect allegory of the oppression faced by enslaved Africans. Perhaps more so than any other black writer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper re-imagined Exodus as a story about motherhood. In her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, Harper urged her readers to embrace what I have termed Mosaic subjectivity—imitating Moses’ selflessness in leaving the luxury of the Egyptian court to suffer with his fellow Hebrews. Engaging the tradition of sentimental fiction, Harper portrays Moses as a paragon of race loyalty while emphasizing the sacredness of maternal bonds. Harper treats racial solidarity as a matter of filial loyalty, as her protagonists identify most strongly with their mothers and, by extension, their mothers’ race.

Harper’s narrative poem “Moses: A Story of the Nile” (1869) re-frames Moses’ choice between his adoptive Egyptian mother and his Hebrew birth mother as the pivotal moment in the Exodus narrative. Whereas the Egyptian princess Charmian urges Moses not to abandon his exalted status, Jochebed praises her son for his self-sacrificing race loyalty. Paradoxically, Harper upholds Jochebed as a good mother precisely because she calls her son to suffer for the greater good, while Charmian fails as a mother because she privileges her son’s material, rather than moral, wellbeing. Harper draws on the sentimental trope of the devoted mother, suggesting that true motherhood entails holding your children to the highest standards of virtue, even if it involves suffering.

Harper herself became a widow and single mother when her husband Fenton Harper died in 1864. Yet, when faced with the task of raising their daughter, as well as Fenton’s children from a previous marriage, Harper did not abandon her advocacy work. During Reconstruction, she devoted herself to cultivating what she perceived to be the right attitudes and behaviors for newly emancipated people. She actively campaigned for temperance, literacy, and women’s suffrage throughout the South from 1866-1869. She expected her readers to share her commitment to the cause of liberation. Harper promoted Moses’ willingness to forgo his own gain in order to help his race as an example for her readers to emulate, even as she embodied Mosaic maternal subjectivity in her own life.