Books and Movies Reviews

Women in Frances Harper Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted

In the times of slavery, there were two popular stereotypes of a black female – the loyal mammy and the promiscuous temptress. The former represented an "adamantine, kind, unattractive, and sexless woman"and it justified "abusive treatment of black women on the grounds that they were impervious to pain."The latter, similarly, justified the exploitation of black women, as they were often victims of "interracial coercive sex, brutality, and rape."Writings of Frances Ellen Harper are a response to such unfair historical images as she presents female characters of outstanding features of character – courageous, trustworthy, devoted, virtuous, and moderate. Central to Harper's writings is her "outrage at woman's victimization and (…) notion that black women must resist such victimization whenever possible."In her novel Iola Leroy she introduces a variety of black and white female characters (with Iola as the protagonist) in order to present feminist issues that were an essential part of her political and social activities.
Literary critics have often derided the novel for "its seeming historical amnesia, myopia, and racial and sexual restraint."Iola Leroy has been neglected as a sentimental novel and, as such, was labeled – also by Afro-American writers and critics – as not sufficiently authentic and aimed at readers outside the black community. However, the development of Afro-American studies and growing interest in black women' writings and history allowed for the reformulation of such unflattering opinions.
Obviously, Frances Harper uses the conventions of nineteenth-century women's fiction with Iola as a sentimental heroine. As Hazel V. Carby writes in her introduction to the novel, referring to Nina Baym's study of women's novels: a romance is
a tale of a young woman, deprived of all support, who has to win …

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