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Iola Leroy and the paradox of advancement

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    Iola Leroy and the Paradox of Advancement

                Although Iola Leroy heads in one general direction down two roads it seems that it is most properly interpreted as having only one purpose.  That is to say that Frances Harper’s book speaks plainly about progress; its two roads to that direction are individual and social progress.  That is where this fork in the road is generally seen by critics of the work.  Instead there is no fork but a two lane road.  Each demonstration of progress depends upon the other.  The reasonable analysis of Iola Leroy is the message of the interconnection of individual and social progress.

                Iola Leroy appears to imply that there is progress to examine both in the individual and as a society and she uses the experience of various degrees of ‘black’ people to show this.  She then sums up these discussions to show how there can never be truly any progress in these areas separately – they must occur together.

                The individual advancements are demonstrated primarily through the main character Iola.  She is the most interesting of cases because of the fact that she is a black who passes for, and indeed was raised, as a black.  Ironically, she even lives for some time in the north and professes to be in support of slavery.  She could just as well continued to live there for the rest of her life (at least the rest of the novel) and done quite well for herself.  Consider the implications and proofs for that.  She is attending a free school far from the south with its slavery.  She is clearly intelligent.  This is shown in her achievements later on in life through her career choices and abilities.  Iola also has the ability to move in and out of society, ‘passing’ as whatever and whomever she chooses.  Throughout the story she is accepted as white, mulatta, and black, depending on the context and what position she decides to hold at the time.  And yet, Frances Harper does not allow her to progress as an individual, until the issues of race are dealt with.  Only after she is forced to accept the racial tensions that will fill her life after returning south does she become fully the person that she is meant to be.  That is quite a strong statement from the author and the book.

                The advancement of blacks as a race and separate culture is also demonstrated in the novel in similar fashion.  In particular, the topical issue of the mixing of races, miscegenation, is treated.  This is the tool with which Harper addresses race in the novel.  She is clearly expressing that for society to move on then this must be a moot issue.  It must be an accepted reality with no consequence.  This is shown by the fact that the mixed race individuals succeed just fine until someone knows of their heritage.  Therefore, Iola’s success in a northern school and a northern society that still segregates goes well until her racial status is revealed.  Then the trouble begins.  However, as with the issue of individual advancement was not allowed until there was social advancement, the novel simultaneously disallows racial/social advancement until the individuals advance.  It is a fantastic paradoxical exposition.  In other words, what is learned from these two analyses is that Frances Harper implies in Iola Leroy that neither individual advancement nor racial advancement is more important than the other.  They must advance together for true accomplishment.

                So what specifically does the novel say about what it takes for the individual to progress personally and socially as a black person among a culture of middle class (white) values and intellects?  It takes both a strong statement of individual purpose and an open awareness of being black.  It doesn’t take forced assimilation and it doesn’t take forced desegregation.  That is what the novel proclaims.  Again, Iola herself could have succeeded as an individual up north if she wouldn’t have admitted she was a mulatta.   She couldn’t have progressed socially as a black person there.  Likewise she couldn’t have succeeded as a black person in the south without a strong statement of individual purpose.   Again, it is a two lane road going one direction.  But how is this exactly discussed?

                Look at this thesis: for an individual to progress personally and socially as a black person among a culture of middle class (white) values and intellects, one must have a strong statement of individual purpose and an open awareness of being black.  This must be compared to the life of Iola Leroy to prove its applicability.

                It has been shown that the novel wouldn’t allow Iola to succeed up north.  So she must have an awareness of being black for this whole idea to move on.  At first this comes from her being ‘outed’ by the vindictive Alfred Lorraine.  That doesn’t exactly count for Iola admitting her heritage.  The point at which she begins this process comes during her work as an Army nurse tending to the black man Tom.  At this point she is coming to terms with her ethnicity and being able to show tenderness and mercy to blacks – a great step forward from her school days.  So this first hurdle of the thesis is cleared: Iola is gaining an open awareness of being black.  Yet she is still not gaining a whole lot of ground socially.

                The second step then would be for her to possess a strong statement of individual purpose.  This is where the individual begins to be more important.  And it is around the same point in the novel that Iola demonstrates this.  Although she is gaining the affection of Dr. Gresham which would be of great personal opportunity to her, she now is finding her own strength in her race.  She sees that Dr. Gresham has trepidation regarding mixed race people, and so she stands up against his proposal.  She eventually outright refuses to marry a man whose race has oppressed her family and race through slavery.   Now she has accomplished both purposes necessary for advancement as a black person – she accepts her heritage and then defines her purposes clearly.  She is ready now to progress as a black person personally and socially within the middle class values and intellects of her surrounding society.  This is shown by the rest of the novel.  Iola and her husband Dr. Latimer have successful careers and the rest of the family works for the advancement of blacks.  Everyone is on the road to personal and social advancement because the two requirements were met.

                James Christmann in his essay Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigms in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy – Critical Essay finds similar and common ground to this proposal.  Right away he raises the issue of dual climaxes found in Iola Leroy and how these climaxes also include a paradoxical nature.  It is just that ambivalence that was discussed above.  For Christmann this includes the fact that the northern meeting about blacks and advancement in chapter 30 occurs among the lightest skinned of blacks; the southern meeting in chapter 20 about family (and individual) advancement is populated by the darker blacks.  In other words, for there to be true advancement, both sides must be present and represented.  This remains true for the speech and dialects explored by Christmann’s essay, and also for the two qualifications that this paper has already proposed.  The theses are in agreement.

                This too seems to indicate Frances Harper’s thinking as well.  She cares most for the overall progress of the combination of personal and racial advancement.  Her novel Iola Leroy certainly indicates this.  It is a book full of the implications of what would occur without both sides being supported.  It possesses the potential ramifications of what can happen when both sides are adequately supported.  It is Iola Leroy, Harper’s masterpiece, and Iola Leroy, its most successful character, that demands the importance of both personal acceptance of heritage and statement of purpose as a prerequisite for racial advancement, and vice versa.


    Christmann, James. “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigms in

    Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy – Critical Essay.” African American Review. 34

    (2000): 5-18. Print.

    Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy. Oxford: UP, 1988.

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