The Slave Auction

by Frances Harper

Note the placement of the newspaper poem next to sections like “Letters from the People,” which mostly discuss events that occurred in the preceding month or week. Nested within this context, the past verb tense of “The Slave Auction” takes on a very different – potentially literal – meaning. It seems like potentially another factual account of a recent event (like those listed under “Special Notices”); the poem’s title could seem to refer to an actual slave auction that took place since the last edition of the newspaper, or to any fictional slave auction at any point in time. It immersively blurs the line between past and present, and between fact and fiction.

The poem

The sale began—young girls were there,
Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.And woman, with her love and truth—
For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
With anguish none may paint or tell.And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
Were gathered in that mournful band.Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
Whose loved are rudely torn away.Ye may not know how desolate
Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
Will press the life-drops from the heart.


The poem anthologized

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, 1825-1911. Poems On Miscellaneous Subjects. Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, printers, 1857.


The poem in newsprint

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