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Philadelphia’s own Frances Ellen Watkins Harper protested segregation on the 11th Street streetcar in 1858, long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Now, composer Ruth Naomi Floyd draws from jazz, folk, gospel, funk, and spoken word poetry to celebrate the life and work of Harper in a special presentation from Intercultural Journeys. Performed by an all-woman ensemble, The Frances Suite is a compelling tribute to a Philadelphian who deserves greater renown.
Born to free parents in Baltimore in 1825, Harper was a teacher, writer, speaker, and activist. As she fought for the abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, and other causes, Harper’s ideas presciently considered intersectionality and interdependence.
For instance, in 1866 she delivered a speech that observed, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul,” pointing out that “if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”
Despite such keen observations of injustice, Harper held onto hope. As Floyd puts it in her artist’s note, Harper “was clear-eyed about the world around her, unafraid to call out bigotry, inequity, racism, and sexism, and somehow, still resolute that we would all walk out from under the shadows.”
A life in music
The Frances Suite takes inspiration from Harper’s life and work, including her speeches, poems, and letters, as well as her most famous novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). Iola Leroy was published while Harper lived on Bainbridge Street, her home for more than 40 years. Beginning with its first movements, The Frances Suite evokes a conversation.
Violins and a trumpet speak to one another, and the past speaks to the present through Harper’s ideas and words, intoned with rich beauty by poet Yolanda Wisher. “A Brighter Coming Day” captures the hope for equality that motivated Harper and other activists to persevere through the many challenges and setbacks of the 19th century. Kendrah E. Butler-Waters’s piano and Erica McElveen’s drums established jazzy rhythms over which Floyd’s flute sang with Diane Monroe’s violin. Before the strings united in harmony, high notes and pizzicato fingerpicking conveyed the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm that often arise in the space between what has been and what might be.
“Mother’s Blessings” began with an acapella reading before piano, violin, cello, and flute joined in. The strings faded as the drums came in to accompany Floyd’s voice. As she sang of a soul pining for a distant land, Floyd’s impressive range and expressive phrasing added depth. They also suggested connections between The Frances Suite and Black women’s rich, powerful contributions to jazz music.
For “Becoming Frances,” Wisher stepped to the front to read a piece imagining Harper’s transformation from domestic worker to touring speaker, celebrated poet, and tireless activist. A series of contrasting images reflected the tensions Harper navigated during times both strikingly different from and similar to today’s world. One of these, the image of a man with a blank page for a face, was particularly memorable. Wisher rendered it even more so by raising a question: did the man represent Harper’s husband or her craft? Married to Fenton Harper just four years before he died, she supported herself and their daughter afterward.
“Strength and Devotion,” a violin solo played by Monroe, began with sharp, seeking, aching notes that built to a frenzy before a calm resolution. This movement seemed to end with an echo of lingering queries about justice and equality. How much more strength and devotion will be necessary to realize a better society for all? How much longer must the battle for justice and equality endure? While Monroe played beautifully, The Frances Suite was strongest when incorporating the complexity and talent of the ensemble. For example, “Legacy” depicted lamentation through discordant sounds issuing from various instruments as well as human voices before resolving into the celebratory notes of the flute, cello, and violin. The piano led a change of pace that built to rolling drum beats punctuated by cymbals.
“Bury Me in a Free Land”
This segued into the rousing final movement, “Bury Me in a Free Land.” As Wisher read lines of Harper’s eponymous 1854 poem, the voices of the other performers joined in for the refrain. Their voices rose triumphantly over the drumbeat, and the audience was invited to sing along. The composition slowly faded out, leaving only the spoken vocals. That lone voice recalled Harper’s, as well as her enduring vision and her fierce persistence and courage. The Frances Suite is a thoughtful portrait and a fitting tribute to its namesake, and I hope it brings more attention to a notable, visionary Black woman too often omitted from historical records.
A recording of the performance is streaming online through May 15, 2022. Anyone who wants to continue learning about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper can listen to Finding Frances, a free, four-part podcast hosted by Kalela Williams, available on Spotify or through the Intercultural Journeys podcast webpage.
What, When, Where
The Frances Suite. Composed by Ruth Naomi Floyd. Kendrah E. Butler-Waters, piano; Erica McElveen, drums; Diane Monroe, violin; Floyd, flute and voice; with poet Yolanda Wisher. Presented by Intercultural Journeys. $15. May 5 and 6, 2022, at Fleischer Art Memorial, 719 Catherine Street, Philadelphia. Streaming online through May 15, 2022. interculturaljourneys.org.
Listen to the Finding Frances podcast on Spotify, or through the Intercultural Journeys podcast webpage.
Fleisher visitors are required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination (ages 5+) and booster (ages 18+).
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