Koritha Mitchell & Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Shadows Uplifted

March 8, 2018
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Associate Professor Koritha Mitchell distinctly remembers seeing a Malcolm X poster on the walls of her high school that said “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” This poster and other posters featuring historical black leaders would line the halls of her high school each February for Black History Month. It was seeing those posters between classes—classes with almost exclusively-white curricula—that alerted Mitchell to the names of important figures, and even some of what they thought. “The fact that I still remember that demonstrates how starved I was to learn about non-white people’s roles in making a life for themselves in this country—even though you couldn’t have convinced me then that I had any such hunger,” continues the American literature specialist.

“I was always a good student. I learned early to be interested in what teachers presented and not to make waves,” she says. Maybe Mitchell wasn’t one to make waves back then, but today, she is changing the current of African-American literary scholarship. The award-winning author, cultural critic, and inspiration to students, colleagues and black women throughout Columbus has been involved with a multitude of projects recently, including publishing a new edition of a key American novel.

February 28, 2018, marked the release of Mitchell’s scholarly edition of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), the story of a light-skinned slave woman who could pass as white but refused to do so. One of the early novels published by an African American woman, Iola Leroy shares the experiences of slave families during and after the Civil War and expounds on the pivotal movements of the period—including abolition, public education and voting rights. Harper was one of the preeminent black female activist-authors of the nineteenth century. She was easily as prominent as Frederick Douglass, says Mitchell, so the only reason her name isn’t as well known today is that she was a woman. Moreover, while Harper was active in mainstream feminist organizations alongside figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the racism she faced has led her to be overlooked as a feminist leader.

“I’m convinced that the refusal to identify the violence of treating whiteness as neutral helped set the stage for white supremacy’s latest heyday. So, this edition works to make it really hard for teachers and scholars to pretend that whiteness has nothing to do with what they’ve been doing in the classroom and/or in their research.” —Koritha Mitchell

In her edition, Mitchell not only sets out to illuminate this major American author whose life and work sheds light on what it meant to be African American from the Civil War through the Progressive era, but she highlights “what most teachers, students and general readers need help prioritizing: the perspectives of people who are not white.”

By confronting the sexism and racism that Harper faced throughout her life of advocacy, Mitchell’s introduction to the text explicates how sexism and racism has shunned Harper from people’s education. Her Broadview Press edition complements the novel with appendices loaded with historical documents and slave narratives that further amplify the voices that are repressed in both public and private education. For instance, Mitchell shares, Iola Leroy tells the stories of black families during slavery, the Civil War and after Emancipation, and she wanted readers to understand that the narrative focus on black love is quite deliberate. Letters between slave couples, newspaper advertisements purchased by formerly enslaved people seeking information about loved ones who had been sold away and personal accounts by Harper about her role as a black woman activist are among the range of artifacts by which Mitchell molds the novel into a multifaceted heart of African American narrative experience.

What is more, Mitchell’s edition is the first to account for three novels that Harper had written before Iola Leroy—not to mention the only known extant copy of Harper’s first poetry collection, which was found in 2013, that was published when Harper was about twenty years old. And being that the last time Iola Leroy was updated or revised was in 1987, Mitchell’s masterful compilation and scholarship on these newly-discovered primary stories make for an unparalleled homage to Harper’s legacy and a less whitewashed understanding of the history on which the novel is rooted. “I’m convinced that the refusal to identify the violence of treating whiteness as neutral helped set the stage for white supremacy’s latest heyday,” says Mitchell. “So, this edition works to make it really hard for teachers and scholars to pretend that whiteness has nothing to do with what they’ve been doing in the classroom and/or in their research.”
Iola Leroy is Mitchell’s latest scholarship, following numerous works on African American literature, gender and sexuality studies, drama and performance, including her 2011 book Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance & Citizenship, 1890-1930. She shares her expertise this spring in classes such as English 4580: Special Topics in LGBTQ Literatures and Cultures: Baldwin, Lorde and LGBT Liberation and English 4582: Special Topics in African American Literature: Homemade Citizenship. Students interested in Mitchell’s research have the opportunity to take classes with her in autumn 2018 as well. She will be teaching English 2281: Introduction to African American Literature and English 3398: Methods for the Study of Literature.

Between her teaching, reading and writing, Mitchell can be found on the running trails. As the founder of the Columbus chapter of Black Girls RUN!, she champions for black women to live healthy lifestyles. This past month, Mitchell took her running shoes off the trails and onto the runway as she modeled in the annual Sneaker Soiree, in which she represented BGR!. Deemed “the most comfortable party in town,” this cocktail party turned fitness wear fashion show turned dance party raised proceeds for Girls on the Run of Central Ohio, a nonprofit dedicated to building self-esteem and leadership skills for young girls. 

Aside from Iola Leroy, Mitchell shares other texts that have been on her mind, especially in the wake of Black History Month and Women's History Month: 

  • I'm excited that Tayari Jones' An American Marriage, which I put on my current syllabus long before its release date, just became an Oprah book club pick! My 4582 class decided that Oprah is following our lead! 
  • James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room continues to strike me as absolute perfection!
  • Audre Lorde's famous poem "A Litany for Survival" continues to resonate powerfully for me and my students.
  • Janet Mock's Redefining Realness has been complicated beautifully by her second memoir Surpassing Creativity, but Redefining Realness continues to be the text I'd have readers begin with to understand trans* identity and activism.
  • One of the books I always think more people should read is Caucasia by Danzy Senna. A page turner that really makes you think. So well done!

In autumn 2018, Mitchell will be teaching following English courses:

  • English 2281—Introduction to African-American Literature
  • English 3398—Methods for the Study of Literature

By Madalynn Conkle