The Bondwoman's Narrative, by Hannah Crafts
Who was Hannah Crafts?
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovered a handwritten manuscript purported to be the first novel by a fugitive African-American woman slave, it was time to call in the literary detectives
By Timothy Davis
April 24, 2002 | If Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is correct, his recent literary find, a manuscript called "The Bondwoman's Narrative," recently published by Warner Books, isn't just the only known novel written by a fugitive slave; it's also the first novel ever penned by an African-American woman. Much is unknown about the book, including where and when it was written. However, the biggest mystery is the author herself.
After having hip-replacement surgery in early 2001, Gates, the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities and chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, was suddenly faced with an abundance of time on his hands. On sabbatical, he spent most of his days reading. Gates had begun receiving catalogs from New York's Swann Galleries, one of the foremost auction houses for African-Americana. One day, while perusing their catalog, he noticed a handwritten manuscript for sale, one purported to be an authentic "fictionalized biography," thought to date from the 1850s, signed by an escaped slave calling herself Hannah Crafts. Its history could be traced back to the 1940s, when it was owned by Dorothy Porter, the African-American scholar.
Gates was immediately excited. He had become well-known for authenticating and republishing Harriet Wilson's 1859 book "Our Nig," then the earliest known novel by an African-American woman (Wilson was a free woman, having been born in the North), and he felt that this particular auction lot might offer an even bigger discovery.
First, however, he had to figure out how to afford it. Most publishers Gates talked to weren't interested in providing financial resources unless the manuscript could be authenticated. Could Gates prove, for example, that the manuscript was as old as Porter believed? Could he be sure that it was indeed the work of an African-American and a fugitive slave? Authors of the period frequently published novels under false names and identities -- women authors publishing as men, and vice versa, and white authors occasionally writing fiction told from the perspective of blacks. However, Gates wouldn't be able to convincingly authenticate the book without first purchasing it.
"It was enough for me, as I say in the introduction, that Dorothy Porter thought [Crafts] was black. Dorothy Porter, as we say, 'did not play,'" Gates says. "She was a great scholar, and a bibliophile. To me, if Dorothy Porter thought [Crafts] was black, then she probably was black. There is absolutely no reason to pretend you are black today if you're white. No financial reason, no professional reason. If that's true, why would someone do it in the mid-19th century? The number of fictional slave narratives [written by whites] is tiny, and each of them was quickly outed. If a woman said she was black in the 19th century, then nine out of ten times she was black."
Finding no help from publishing circles, Gates decided to go it alone, even though he feared the book might fetch $50,000 to $100,000. Well, almost alone.
"A friend of mine, Richard Newman, went and bid," Gates laughs. "I was still house-bound at the time. I waited and waited and waited and waited. Finally he calls late at night, after I had lost like five pounds. I said, 'Dick, did we get it?'
"'Did we get it?' He goes, 'Oh yeah, we got it. First bid! I just decided to wait until it was over.'
"I wanted to kill him!"
In the end, Gates purchased the tattered manuscript for the bargain-basement price of $8,500 plus commission. Reading it, Gates felt an overwhelming sense of certainty as to its authenticity. "The Bondwoman's Narrative" tells the first-person story of a female slave named Hannah Crafts, like the novel's author, who escapes plantation life in Virginia and North Carolina, travels to Washington and ultimately winds up married to a minister and working as a schoolteacher in a free black community in New Jersey. Like Porter, Gates was struck by how, unlike white writers of the period, Crafts introduces her characters as human beings first. "Only," Porter wrote, "as the story unfolds, in most instances, does it become apparent that they are Negroes."
"You 'have to go there to know there,' as Zora Neale Hurston says," Gates recalls. "The evidence was overwhelming that [Crafts] was who she says she was. Just the thing about introducing characters as human beings and then telling you later they were black. Nobody did that. No white writer did that."
After purchasing the book, Gates found an interested -- if wary -- potential publisher in Warner Books. "Time Warner said, 'We have to date this,'" Gates says. "They had been burned by the Jack the Ripper diary fraud and then the Hitler diary fraud."
After carefully copying the book onto microfilm, Gates first visited with rare-manuscript dealer Kenneth Rendell, who helped expose both the Hitler and Ripper frauds. Rendell too believed the book to be an authentic work and recommended that Gates contact Joe Nickell, Ph.D. Nickell is the author of numerous books on literary sleuthery and is a senior research fellow at CSICOP -- the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal -- where he has successfully debunked thousands of claims of paranormal activity, weeping icons of the Virgin Mary, and all manner of Mulder/Scully material. Nickell was also another key figure in exposing the Jack the Ripper diary fraud, and a recommendation from Rendell was more than enough to inspire Gates' full confidence.
Gates had the manuscript hand-delivered by a courier to Nickell, who began an exhaustive weeks-long examination of the book. Gates, meanwhile, set about examining census records from the Library of Congress and the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others. The story began to slowly piece itself together.
The first major break came when Nickell called Gates with a seemingly minor textual tendency he'd found that he believed might hold a store of information. In her manuscript, Crafts would refer to the slaveholder as "Wh----r." Later in the book, Nickell noticed Crafts would fill in the missing letters and use the full name (Wheeler) outright, which he felt indicated the author's increasing confidence about using her slaveholder's real name. Soon, Gates found out that that a slaveholder named John Hill Wheeler owned land in Murfreesboro and Lincoln County, N.C., where the beginning of Crafts' narrative is set.
Meanwhile, Nickell sequestered himself with the fragile book.
"My first impression of 'The Bondwoman's Narrative' was that it looked good as gold," says Joe Nickell. "But I've seen forgeries that looked equally as authentic. A forgery was unlikely here in some ways. The provenance traced back to the 1940s, where it was known to exist and sell for $85. When you consider that it had been around for quite some time and was sold in an era when it wouldn't go for much money, it wouldn't seem cost-effective. I wasn't over-suspicious of it, but I certainly pursued it [as if it might be a forgery]."
Nickell approached the authentication process using the multifaceted techniques he describes in his groundbreaking forensic book, "Pen, Ink and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective."
"You take the approach that you need to clear your head of any preconceived notions or biases and just go at it in as complete a way -- and in as many directions -- as possible. You look at provenance, the ink, the paper, the internal evidence -- were these words in use at this time? Sometimes a forger may be very skillful with penmanship. However, such a talent may not have a scholar's knowledge of the language of a period, or he may get careless and use the wrong paper.
"You want to see that the handwriting looked like natural handwriting. The Jack the Ripper Diaries were filled with all sorts of curlicues and things to try and make it look sort of 'Ye Olde-ish,' to coin a phrase," Nickell laughs. "This looked like a natural, period handwriting. The ink had oxidized and browned with age, which is typical of an iron gall ink. There was a stationer's crest in the corner of some of the pages. Of course, the good forgers would give you that. So, I went at this with a fine-toothed comb. Actually, I went finer than that. I used a microscope."
Turning out the lights in his lab, and using an oblique light and a magnifier, Nickell was able to find an embossment of the Southworth Paper Company, which he was able to date thanks to documents he had records of from 1856 and 1860.
"Obviously, someone could find a piece of it today and use it, but to see such a quantity of it gave me a sense of the date," Nickell says. "I back-lit the pages with a fluorescent light and looked for watermarks, which there were none of. In the process, I found what was called an accidental watermark. It was a row of what looked like suture marks across the page. That's caused by the seam of the belt of early paper machines. I now know this is machine-made paper. I could also see, under ultraviolet light, mirror images of pages of that script glowing on the adjacent page.
"This kind of 'ghost writing' happens because the ink is quite acidic and degraded the cellulose of the paper touching it," Nickell says. "I consider it a good sign of age in a document."
The paper checked out as authentic. Nickell then turned his skeptical eye toward solving the puzzle of just who this "Hannah Crafts" was.
"I could see it was written with a quill pen by the brushstrokes," Nickell continues. "You can see the effect of the bluntness of her quill pen wearing down, and then being sharpened with a quill knife. I found evidence of writing sand in tiny little ink smears where she brushed it off the page. All sorts of little human elements that would add up. Her clearing excess ink off the page with her little finger, which was common of the era. Thomas Jefferson did it, for instance. She sealed pasted corrections with what appears to be a thimble ... all these little mundane human touches over and over again, on the right materials for the time."
Gradually, the different elements Nickell studied began to form an outline of the author in his head.
"I noticed she had poked pinholes through and sewn the paper in an amateurish binding attempt. I noticed that she had used what appeared to be small sewing scissors to cut the paper for her [paste-over] corrections. I'm putting all this together and thinking sewing materials. I recalled then that women of that period often had combined writing/sewing kits and writing/sewing desks. It was considered women's work in those days. I found a rather suggestive indication that this was probably a woman."
One day, Nickell phoned Gates with one of his frequent updates -- and a revelation.
"At one place in the book, [the narrator] mentions being in Washington with her slave owners, and she mentions seeing the equestrian statue of Jackson. That sort of leapt off the page at me, because I realized that might have very significant information as to date. That statue was erected in 1853, so the manuscript could not have been written before that. I then dated it as no later than 1861, again confirmed by the writing materials, due to the absence of any mention of the Civil War or secession. Gates found in Wheeler's diary an identical mention of the statue."
Nickell soon sent his findings back to Gates and Time Warner Books, both of whom were satisfied with the expert's findings. Gates in particular was overjoyed.
"We really went together like a double helix -- like parallel universes," Gates says. "Without that report, I would have found facts, but it wouldn't have as complete by far as it is now. My debt to him is enormous. I'm a big fan of that guy. That's why I insisted on printing the whole [of Nickell's report in the book] rather than summarizing it. It's like a work of poetry."
After Gates sent the book to various scholars, many signed on to help in the quest to find a historical record of Hannah Crafts. One, William Andrews, the E. Maynard Adams professor of English at the University of North Carolina, pointed out John Hill Wheeler's involvement in the Passmore Williamson case, in which Wheeler's slave Jane Johnson was aided by Williamson, an abolitionist, in her escape from the slave owner. Imagine Gates' surprise, then, to learn that Crafts mentions Johnson in her manuscript.
The discoveries kept coming. Through Andrews, Gates was also introduced to Bryan Sinche, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina who went on to discover Wheeler's library list.
"What's fascinating is that Wheeler's library contained about 10 slave narratives," Gates says. "There was not only Dickens and 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' but also two different editions of Frederick Douglass, as well as slave narratives and 'A Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin.' This is the first time that we have an idea that a slave owner could give a hoot about the slave narratives published by the fugitive slaves. It was like a Cold Warrior reading 'Memoirs from the Bolshevik Revolution.' Maybe it was to keep up with what the opposition was doing, and maybe to discredit them.
"You notice when I talk about the gothic elements [in the novel], I say, this package echoes Horace Walpole's 'Castle of Otranto?' That book's in [Wheeler's] library. I say this passage or that one echoes Frederick Douglass? That book's in his library."
It's discoveries like these that kept excitement about "The Bondwoman's Narrative" steadily growing until Gates finally signed off on the finished galleys in time for the book to come out at the beginning of April 2002. Gates is confident that evidence of Hannah Crafts' existence lies somewhere in the shady folds of history, in census records, perhaps, or in someone's attic in New Jersey, the state Crafts' narrator lives in at the end of the book.
"'The Bondwoman's Narrative' is a unique, perhaps paradigm-changing text, unprecedented in 19th century American literature," says Andrews, one of the world's leading authorities on 19th century African-American literature. "Skip Gates' research provides compelling evidence that 'Hannah Crafts' was the first known African-American novelist. The discovery of the text in its unedited form is very important, because nothing like it exists in African-American literature from the mid 19th century. Manuscript versions of writing by major early African-American writers are extremely rare." Many works written by African-Americans of the time were heavily edited by white abolitionists before publication.
"My prime reason for publishing it now as opposed to later was that I had reached a dead end," Gates says. "I wanted to release it now so that scholars both independent and professional could have a go at it. If this book exists, if 'Our Nig' exists, then other things exist. It's just the way it has to be. They keep finding Mayan cities and tombs of pharaohs. They've got to find more manuscripts from black people in the 19th century. I'm confident of it. It's just the way it has to be."
About the writer
Timothy Davis is a staff writer at Creative Loafing in Charlotte, NC, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor, No Depression, Punk Planet, and many others publications.
By Hannah Crafts, Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
(Warner Books, 336 pages, $24.95)
Reviewed by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
First published: April 22, 2002
No one need shudder at the hyperbole being applied to this latest coup by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Quite deservedly, The Bondwoman's Narrative, written by Hannah Crafts, is poised to take a head seat at the high table of African American literature, being the only known novel written by a fugitive female slave, Hannah Crafts, and likely the first novel by an African American woman. Just now reaching public view after nearly 150 years in obscurity, the present volume is edited and introduced by Gates, who unearthed the text at a manuscript auction and is now deftly conducting it to its proper place in literary history.
The discovery of this text demands an immediate revision of the African American literary canon as championed in the last twenty years by Gates and many others. Toward this end, his introduction is indispensable to readers. It gives a compelling glimpse into the birth of the project, and contextualizes the work in contrast to parallel literary efforts (such as nineteenth-century sentimental novels by abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the slave narratives). The process of authenticating the manuscript, and Gates' attempt to excavate the true identity of its author, is a narrative with as many intrigues of plot as the novel itself, and gives the common reader a rare look at the academic sleuthing required for this type of resuscitation. As well, the published book, with lines struck out and words inserted, provides welcome insight into the author's creative process.
Written sometime in the 1850s, the Narrative is a fictionalized autobiography, a first-person account of the life, enslavement and escape of Hannah Crafts. Those readers familiar with traditional slave narratives will recognize the plot, whose contours generally conform to all known conventions of that genre. Our heroine has a blissful childhood, is initiated into literacy, develops an awareness of her wretched situation, and perseveres through various toils and cruel masters before escaping to freedom. Crafts writes in lyrical prose, sometimes awkward, at times melodramatic, often graced by biblical and classical allusions. These in particular strike one as incredible traces of the possible depth and breadth of the literary sensibility behind this work.
Most remarkable are the moments when Crafts departs from prevailing notions of what a black woman writing in the nineteenth century should produce. This is especially notable in her treatment and description of other slaves, who are always given a humanity and fullness of character mostly absent in other contemporary novels about slavery, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, and even lacking in the "authentic" slave narratives most of which were vetted by abolitionists, some of which were even exposed as forgeries. According to Gates, this very deviance from convention may have been a factor in why the Narrative never saw publication in its own time.
The case of a novel by a black woman, written pseudonymously to conceal the double crime of her fugitive literacy and her fugitive body, and perhaps suppressed because it exceeded the boundaries imposed by abolitionist principles, would seem to present a grand new conundrum for the old argument about art for art's sake. All previously discovered writing about slavery, and especially by former slaves, had inevitable links to the abolitionist cause. Yet the work of Hannah Crafts, seemingly written without the imprimatur of an abolitionist sponsor, suggests that the act of writing could also serve private intentions.
Perhaps the work of Hannah Crafts carves a space for African American writing done in the dark, away from the political marketplace in which the words of other former slaves were traded. After all, what is the worth of an abolitionist novel never given public platform? Is it abolitionist at all, if the writing doesn't immediately translate into activism? The question of action is here answered by the author's very act of creation, just as hints of her identity are cunningly revealed from clues in her actual handwriting. This personal pleasure, which was probably also linked to her engagement with religion and her eventual role as an educator, was above all a defiant gesture against her fugitive legal status. Language, for Africans in the New World is of course a locus of oppression, but also the source of personal resistance.
Where we generally think of progress as a forward-surging march and lay the extension of "tradition" at the door of the future, the appearance of The Bondwoman's Narrative causes us to reset the point where we mark the beginning of time. In the African American tradition specifically (a young subset of a young national culture), with so much history lost, discoveries like these force the story to be written backwards. We extend the timeline back a few years farther than before. And this invites the hopeful possibility that because it was done once, maybe it was done once before, even earlier.
Among the many questions left open for generations of readers and scholars, the most baffling ones are existential: the work itself should not have existed, and legally did not exist, because Hannah Crafts should not have been able to write it. For decades, it did not exist, hidden away first in an attic in New Jersey, then in the private collection of a scholar, its significance buried under so many layers of dust.
And finally the question of Hannah Crafts herself, more appropriately "Hannah Crafts," who exists only as a pseudonym, with biographical conjectures attached, her identity necessarily cloaked by the veil of fiction. That her Narrative is now public is itself a great historical moment, but the author's own history may never be known.
The Harvard professor, the spook-hunter and the runaway slave
Barry Didcock follows the 150 year trail that uncovered the first book by a fugitive slave and the first ever by an African-American woman
The Bondswoman's Narrative
Virago, £10.99, is out on June 20
Posted on Tue, Apr. 30, 2002
WHO was Hannah Crafts? That's the question which has been exercising the minds and mouths of America's chattering classes since the publication earlier this month of The Bondswoman's Narrative, which publishers Warner Books say is not just the only known novel written by a fugitive slave but the first one written by an African-American woman.
Even stranger is the story of how the 150-year-old manuscript surfaced as a footnote in a New York auction catalogue and was spotted by an Ivy League professor only because he was housebound after an operation. Other bit-players in the bizarre tale include a long-dead slave owner from North Carolina, a 1940s antiquarian, a handwriting expert, paranormal investigator ... and the New Yorker magazine.
It started early last year when Professor Henry Louis Gates, chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard, was at home recovering from a hip operation. An item for sale in a gallery catalogue caught his eye. Billed as a 'fictional biography', it purported to be written by a runaway slave called Hannah Crafts and had originally come to light in the 1940s, in the private collection of the Afri can-American scholar Dorothy Porter.
Gates was spellbound. It was his research which had unearthed Our Nig, written in 1859 by African-American author Harriet Wilson, who had been born free; if this new find could be shown to be earlier -- and written by a runaway slave into the bargain -- it was a significant historical and literary find. He sent a friend to bid at the auction (he still couldn't walk) and, $8500 lighter, found himself the proud owner of a tattered, fading, 300-page manu script bearing the title 'The Bonds woman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave recently Escaped from North Carolina'. He sat down to read it, and the more he did, the greater was his conviction that the book was everything it claimed to be and more.
Authenticating the manuscript turned out to be a great deal more difficult than buying it, however. To that end, Gates enlisted the help of Joe Nickell, a literary sleuth and para normal investigator whose exacting, weeks-long investigations involved analysing inks and locating watermarks. Nickell dated the manuscript to between 1853 and 1861. He even determined that it was written by a woman: the author's name was not conclusive proof of sex in an age when women wrote as men and vice versa.
In the novel the slave owner's name is given as Wheeler. Hoping that was the real name, Gates found a slave owner called John Hill Wheeler who had owned land in Lincoln County, North Carolina, where the novel begins. Wheeler had been involved in a famous case involving a runaway slave called Jane Johnson; Crafts's narrative mentions her.
Fourteen months after it was bought by Gates, The Bondswoman's Narrative was published by Warner Books, and Gates himself retold the whole story in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, outlining the process involved in authenticating it and defending his conclusions as to its importance.
But one question continues to elude Gates: who was Hannah Crafts? In the novel the narrator ends up living among freed slaves in New Jersey, but Gates has found no trace of her there ... so far. It could be another 150 years before somebody does.
Slave woman likely author of 1850s novel
The Boston Globe
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - It's a new twist on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, you might say. Only in this case, it's an invisible woman.
The book is The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, A Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped From North Carolina. A 300-page novel believed to date from the mid-1850s, it was for more than 50 years in the estate of the late Dorothy Porter Wesley, a renowned scholar, collector and librarian at Howard University in Washington. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, spotted the manuscript early last year on a list of African-American items to be auctioned by New York's Swann Galleries, which specializes in rare books.
''When I read the description,'' Gates says during an interview in his Cambridge office, ''a sense of exhilaration, anxiety, and trepidation overcame me. If this was what it purported to be, it would be a major discovery for African-American literature, American literature, and women's literature.'' The Bondwoman's Narrative would be the earliest novel by an African-American and the only one written by a former slave.
'Someone asked me, `How rare is this?' '' Gates recounts, 'and I said, `How rare is one of a kind?' We have no holograph [handwritten] manuscripts of any of the black writers of the 19th Century as far as I know. To have access to the unmediated mind of a slave before the abolitionist amanuenses and editors got their hands on it, a first draft, complete with strikeouts and marginalia -- that is amazing.''
He coveted it but assumed the bidding would be out of his range: ''I thought it would sell for $100,000.'' He threw in an improbably low bid of $8,500, which was his ceiling. To his thrilled amazement, his was the only bid.
Copyrighted by Gates, The Bondwoman's Narrative has just been published by Warner, with a first printing of 130,000 copies. The book has an introduction and footnotes by Gates. There's a splashy Website ( www.bondwomansnarrative.com), and a movie option has been sold to HBO. Through May 10, Gates is on a 12-city tour with readings, signings and high-profile broadcast appearances on shows such as Charlie Rose, Good Morning America, Fresh Air, and Nightline.
''It's an enormous book for us,'' says Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman and chief executive of AOL Time Warner Book Group. ``There's tremendous interest in this kind of literature, but even without that, it's a fascinating novel.''
The book's new owner is well known, but what about the author? Who was Hannah Crafts? Was she an escaped slave? And why didn't she publish her manuscript? Gates is convinced that she was a former slave but acknowledges that, despite his extensive searching, ``All we have is a mountain of circumstantial evidence. We don't have her.''
The Bondwoman's Narrative is a sentimental novel written in florid Victorian style, with a plot powered by amazing coincidences. It has passages closely paralleling other famous published works, notably Charles Dickens' Bleak House. The first-person narrator is Hannah, ''almost white,'' a literate and religious young house slave at a plantation in northern Virginia.
The master, Mr. De Vincent, takes a wife, but when Hannah discovers that her new mistress is a mulatto passing for white and is being blackmailed by a sinister lawyer, Hannah decides to help her flee. The pair are caught, the mistress dies, and Hannah enters a series of misadventures .
Aided by kindness and unbelievable luck, she eventually escapes to New Jersey. In the epilogue, she is happily married to a Methodist minister and teaching in a school for ``colored children.''
Gates wanted to publish the book, and Warner made a preemptive offer (neither Kirshbaum nor Gates will say how big) that made further shopping unnecessary. But there was a catch. In 1993, Kirshbaum had backed out as the U.S. publisher of the notorious Jack the Ripper diary when experts proved it to be a fraud. Burned once, he insisted the Crafts book be examined by experts Kenneth Rendell, and Joe Nickell who had exposed the Jack the Ripper fraud. Both concluded that The Bondwoman's Narrative was authentic, written by a woman, probably African-American, between 1853 and 1861.
Their evidence was mostly physical, but more fascinating to Gates than the implications of paper, ink, and handwriting style was the internal evidence. The author seemed familiar with Virginia and North Carolina plantations, buildings and vegetation and knew of the unusual Underground Railroad destination of New Jersey. Could she have been a slave? Gates sent the manuscript to a dozen experts on slave narrative and abolitionist writings, including Jean Fagan Yellin of Pace University in New Jersey and William L. Andrews of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
''I concluded,'' says Andrews, whose books include To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, ``that either this person is the most unusual white writer I have ever seen from the mid-19th Century or a black narrator who had not yet turned her writing into something that would be sufficiently conventional to be published. I think that there is a lot of evidence that the author was a black woman. But it's not an open-and-shut case.''
Andrews says the narrator understood paradoxical aspects of a slave's world that would be alien to a white Northerner. She presents an easy intimacy between mistress and personal servant. In defiance of abolitionist expectation, her protagonist hesitates to run away a second time, out of loyalty to a kind mistress. She only does so when a later mistress, Mrs. Wheeler, sends her to the ranks of the field slaves.
Most subtle of all, the author presents her slave characters as people first, and only later and in passing (or sometimes not at all) as black. Novels of slave life by white writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, almost always identified black characters predominantly by color.
In abolitionist eyes, Andrews says, the narrator, Hannah, ``isn't politically correct. The things she says about the people who work in the fields and live in slave quarters are shocking to us. They show that she feels that she is above these people. This is not the way the antislavery movement wanted to publish black writing. Nobody wanted to hear that; people would have been offended.''
Yellin, best known for her editions of the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, is fascinated by the Crafts book, but reserves judgment. ''It's very difficult to believe that a 19th-Century African-American woman wrote this book,'' she says, ''but even harder to believe that a white woman wrote it.'' Referring to the field slaves, she says, ''The grotesque descriptions of black characters does not fit with black authorship.'' And yet, ``There is absent in the text the strong undercurrent of white racism that is present in white-authored texts.''
Gates intends to donate the manuscript to a university library eventually; he hasn't decided which. In the meantime, he'll keep searching for the real Hannah Crafts. ``But the most important thing for me would be for it to generate searches for more lost manuscripts, because I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. ''
Slave woman's life story
unearthed after 140 years
by David Kirkpatrick
Sunday November 11, 2001
In the spring of 1857, one of John Wheeler's slaves slipped away from his North Carolina plantation and journeyed north to New Jersey. There she picked up a quill pen and began to write a novel that combined her own life story with elements of sentimental sagas she had evidently borrowed from Wheeler's shelf.
This is the origin of a 300-page manuscript, The Bonds-woman's Narrative , according to its new owner, Henry Gates Junior, chairman of African-American studies at Harvard University.
Gates says the manuscript, unnoticed for more than 140 years, is the earliest known novel by a female African-American slave and probably the earliest by a black woman anywhere. It is one of only a handful by African-American slaves.
Gates was the only bidder when he paid less than $10,000 for it at an auction in New York this year. Two experts at detecting literary forgeries have verified its authenticity.
The novel, signed by Hannah Crafts, is a melodramatic account of her life as a house slave to a number of owners and then as a teacher in the north. In one episode, she accidentally gives her former owner's wife a cosmetic powder that somehow turns her face black.
The humiliated wife later punishes her for gossiping about the incident, by attempting to force her to marry a farmhand whom she scorns as beneath her. Horrified, she flees to New Jersey by taking advantage of her light skin and disguising herself as a white boy. Replete with the heavy-handed moralising and preposterous coincidences characteristic of popular women's fiction of the time, the unedited novel is unlikely to attain the status of a literary masterpiece.
But its existence suggests that some slaves managed to attain a far greater degree of literacy than many historians have supposed. Its author clearly had an extensive vocabulary and a deep familiarity with contemporary literary genres even before gaining her freedom, although her spelling and punctuation were patchy.
It is impossible to know how many of the novel's details are autobiographical, but this portrait of a slave's life provides a window on the psychology of a slave woman. David Brion Davis, a professor at Yale University, said: 'We have relatively few authentic slave narratives, and certainly a novel written by a black woman and former slave is almost sensational.'
If Gates is correct, The Bondswoman's Tale may be unique as a surviving handwritten manuscript of a book by an escaped slave. Almost all slave narratives survive only in printed form, raising questions about the amount of help or alteration by white editors and amanuenses.
The details of this novel's depiction of slave life on a plantation are revealing. Its narrator discusses the sexual dynamics among owners, their wives and female slaves; the complicated intimacy between female slaves and owners' wives, and the revulsion of house slaves towards those that worked in the fields.
New York Times News Service
Hannah: Search for 19th century author doesn't stop with publication of slave's
by Dana Bisbee
Tuesday, April 9, 2002
About 145 years ago, a woman in
New Jersey took up a quill pen and iron gall ink and wrote a novel.
The fact that she was African-American makes her unusual; that she was an escaped slave makes her unique; that she might be 2002's hottest best-selling author makes her unprecedented.
``How rare is rare?'' asked Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of African-American Studies at Harvard University, who purchased her novel at an auction. ``How rare is one? This book is a set of one.''
``The Bondwoman's Narrative'' by Hannah Crafts (Warner Books $24.95), which hit bookstores last week, is the first-person ``memoir'' of a fictional young, fair-skinned woman slave who lived in North Carolina before the Civil War.
It is written in a highly romanticized, Gothic style that imitates such best-selling authors of the 1850s as Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens, with shades of Horace Walpole, the 18th century creator of the Gothic novel.
Researchers engaged by Gates concluded the book was written between 1853 and 1860, making it the first novel written by an African-American. It languished in private collections until Gates spotted it last year in an auction catalog.
``A fictionalized biography, written in an effusive style, purporting to be the story of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts, a mulatto, born in Virginia,'' read part of the entry in Swann Galleries' African-Americana sale catalog in February, 2001.
Gates, who has edited anthologies of African-American literature and written numerous books on the topic, was the sole bidder. For $9,775 he bought himself a 301-page mystery.
``I decided to look for Hannah Crafts,'' Gates said. ``It was certainly one of the greatest intellectual adventures of my life.''
Who was Hannah Crafts? How much of the fictionalized autobiography was true? And how could he authenticate the manuscript?
In the book, Gates details the research he did, which answered all but the first question.
He dated the work by subjecting the pages and ink to scientific review, and researching references in the text - such as the mention of a statue of Andrew Jackson that didn't exist before 1853. He learned a lot about the identity of Crafts' final ``master,'' John Hill Wheeler, right down to the titles in his library, which Crafts evidently had access to based on the writing style she emulated.
But the author's true identity is still a mystery.
The story is rife with childish moralizing, flowery dialogue and impossible coincidences. But it also has many modern elements, including the use of real people and serious meditations on the nature of the slave-master relationship.
``It's absolutely modern,'' Gates said. ``In some ways, it had to wait 150 years to be published.''
It is also, by the standards of 1850, very erotic.
``This is one of the first books to detail so graphically the sexual fluidity between masters and slave mistresses,'' Gates said. ``And she deals with it boldly when the convention of the time tended to euphemistic.''
Advance word of the book and published excerpts in the New York Times and New Yorker have created a literary sensation. Gates was surprised to see 500 people of all ages and races lined up for his first book signing last week in New York.
Actor Tom Cruise's production company has optioned ``The Bondwoman's Narrative'' for HBO, which has Gates musing about the perfect cast.
``Halle Berry is the perfect Hannah,'' he said. ``And for Trappe, the villain, Ben Kingsley.''
Anna Deavere Smith narrates the audio version.
Potential actresses aside, the question Gates would rather solve is, who is the real Hannah? He said he will continue searching through cemeteries and census records.
``She will be found,'' Gates said. ``I want to find her sitting at her kitchen table writing this book.'' Gates' close contact with this mysterious woman has left him with strong personal feelings for her.
``There's something going on with this woman that puts her in a class by herself,'' he said. ``I admire her tough-mindedness. I admire her sense of independence.''
He hears her speaking to him through the pages she penned distant years ago:
`` `We have suffered,' she is saying to me. `We have been oppressed. We have endured. We have transcended.' ''
So, too, has her narrative.
Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates turns 150-year-old manuscript by black woman into surprise best-seller
Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
One hundred and fifty years ago, a young African American woman who had escaped from slavery and squirreled away a strange and haunting novel based on her own life fretted about posterity in a preface to her hand-written manuscript.
"I ask myself for the hundreth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received?"
The answer, thanks to the resourcefulness, acuity and luck of prominent Afro-American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., exceeds anything author Hannah Crafts might have envisioned. In a major feat of literary sleuthing and editorial advocacy, Gates has uncovered this unpublished rare slave novel and turned it, as "The Bondwoman's Narrative" (Warner Books; 336 pages; $24.95), into a surprise national best-seller.
Gates believes this is the first known novel by a female slave and possibly the first novel written by any black woman. "This confirms my conviction," he says, "that there was a lot more free-floating literacy among the slaves than anyone ever imagined."
The achievement is more than one of turning a rare manuscript find into a commercial success. Drawing on everything from Dickens to Gothic writers to Scientific American as sources, while clearly shaping her own experience in fiction, Crafts offers an invaluable view of slavery from the inside out. Unlike the abolitionist-approved writings that represent a unified slave community allied against the white masters, this novel presents a more nuanced picture.
Crafts frankly discusses the distinctions slaves made among themselves based on class, house-versus-field jobs and skin color. She writes openly about sex but argues against slaves marrying and having children on the grounds that slavery is hereditary and can't be escaped. She portrays the relationship of a white mistress and black slave as full of mutual intimacy, where "a freedom exists probably not to be found elsewhere."
Gates was in the Bay Area recently, talking about Crafts in a engagingly familiar way. "The sister is a snob," he declared over a light dinner at a Menlo Park restaurant. "She's the spiritual grandmother of the black bourgeoisie. She really believes all slaves are not created equal. She may not be politically correct, but this is a remarkably clever woman."
Later that evening, after speaking to an overflow crowd at Kepler's Books, Gates fielded a question about the film options on "The Bondwoman's Narrative."
"I definitely want Halle Berry to play Hannah," he said without dropping a beat. "Only if she agrees to have intensive tutorials with Prof. Gates on the history of slavery."
Widely regarded as the country's leading black intellectual, Gates commutes freely between the ivory tower and the bustling streets of popular culture. As chairman of Harvard University's Afro-American Studies Department -- a post he may abandon for Princeton this summer -- and author of numerous scholarly books and anthologies on black literature and culture, the 51-year-old professor holds impeccable academic credentials. Meanwhile, his pieces in the New Yorker and other mass-circulation magazines on everything from Louis Farrakhan to the new black renaissance in art to the so-called "chittlin' circuit" of gospel-based musicals have earned him a large and admiring general readership.
In "Colored People," his easygoing and astute memoir of growing up in a small West Virginia mill town, Gates depicts a segregated coming of age "swaddled by the comforts of home, the warmth of those you love." White people were remote figures known by their trades -- Mr. Insurance Man, Mr. Landlord Man, the Sears Man. The civil rights movement registered "like a war that happened overseas," reaching Piedmont, W. Va., on the nightly news.
Relations between the races were fine, Gates observes with keenly tuned irony, "as long as colored people didn't try to sit down in the Cut-Rate or at the Rendezvous Bar, or eat pizza at Eddie's, or buy property, or move into the white neighborhoods, or dance with, date or dilate upon white people."
Gates, who is both droll and forthright in person, aspired to be either a librarian ("the only way I could imagine myself surrounded by books") or a painter. His mother wanted a doctor in the family, so "Skip" enrolled at Yale as pre-med. When a girlfriend pointed out that none of his bedside books were about medicine, he did an about-face.
"I was busted," Gates said, his eyes widening merrily inside wire-rim frames. He soon had a column at the Yale Daily News and after that a job at Time magazine. The path was chosen.
A decade ago, Gates was a leading voice in the academic "culture wars" fought over the literary canon. Now, he says happily, "we won the war. I don't think anybody our age or younger would seriously attempt to teach American literature without including sophisticated voices from people of color, women, gay people."
Gates is presently engaged in a more personal academic fracas. After an acrimonious encounter between his noted black studies colleague Cornel West and Harvard President Lawrence Summers, West announced his move from Harvard to Princeton last month. With Gates' best friend, philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, also making the switch, Gates himself is weighing a Princeton offer.
"I'll decide this summer," he said. "It's a tragedy that a one-hour conversation (between West and Summers) could severely affect the direction of an academic institution like Harvard."
In the winter of 2001, while he was homebound in Cambridge with a serious hip problem, Gates was browsing a New York auction catalog when Lot 30, the Crafts manuscript, caught his eye. The likelihood of it being a genuine slave- written work seemed high to him.
Not only was its previous owner, Dorothy Porter Wesley, a celebrated black librarian at Howard University, but elemental logic reinforced his belief. White authors didn't pretend to be black in the mid-19th century, he knew. "It just wasn't happening."
Gates' hip injury prevented him from traveling to New York, which turned out to be a blessing. Well known to rival bidders, Gates would have escalated the bidding by his presence -- "that little Negro knows something about that manuscript," he giggled. A white colleague attended the auction, bid on the manuscript on Gates' behalf and got it for a "steal" -- $8,500. It was recently valued at $350,000.
Gates and a small army of academics, grad students, genealogists and experts set to work authenticating his hunch that Hannah Craft's book was the real deal. A pen-and-ink authority dated the manuscript to the mid-1850s. Gates and his researchers scoured old court and census records and badgered the librarians at the Mormon Family History Library to identify the real-life models for Crafts' characters.
In one major find, they located the complete library catalog of John Wheeler, a slave owner in Crafts' novel. With one exception, every single work she alludes to or borrows from in her "Narrative" was in Wheeler's library.
The most compelling evidence, finally, may be Crafts' own truthful, unmediated text -- "the utterly natural way she treats black characters," Gates says. Slaves aren't identified first by their race, as was the custom with all white writers of the era. For Crafts, their basic humanity -- the virtues and flaws, odors and aspirations -- come first.
What Gates calls "the very normality and ordinariness of her reactions" to slave life or betrayal by another black person convinces him that Hannah Crafts was a real person. He believes she fled to the North and became a teacher, just as the narrator of her novel does.
So far, he's been stymied in locating her. "But she's there," he said. "The sister is sitting in New Jersey somewhere, and I know we're going to find her."
E-mail Steven Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'The Bondwoman's Narrative' by Hannah Crafts
Reviewed by Ira Berlin
Sunday, June 23, 2002; Page BW12
THE BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE
By Hannah Crafts
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Warner. 338 pp. $24.95
One of the more remarkable truisms about our relationship to the past is that the sources of historical inquiry expand with interest. The recent surge of interest in slavery has produced a profusion of new sources, from the logs of the slave ship Henrietta Marie to the artifacts exhumed at the African burial grounds in New York City. Few new sources have aroused as much excitement as Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative, apparently the first novel written by a black woman in the United States. Announced on the front page of the New York Times and extravagantly praised by a bevy of Pulitzer Prize winners, The Bondwoman's Narrative offers new insights into the nature of slave society and the multiple ways slavery shaped the lives of Americans, white and black.
At the outset, it should be acknowledged that The Bondwoman's Narrative is not great literature. Rather it is a dull, sometimes tedious read filled with the stock figures of 19th-century African-American fiction -- abused slaves, villainous masters, spiteful mistresses, mercenary slave traders, tragic mulattoes and compassionate strangers. Its plot -- and often its very language -- is borrowed from Dickens and other contemporary literary icons, so much so that its editor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., has subsequently had to concede that the author of The Bondwoman's Narrative rifled "through her master's books to quilt together formal elements from the Gothic and sentimental novels as well as slave narratives." Its narrative is sustained by unconvincing coincidences -- babies switched (black and white), good fortune betrayed and evil trumped by pure hearts -- that have been worn thin in the hands of numerous others. Its arguments that the virtues of evangelical Christianity, force of literacy and strength of character will triumph are transparent appeals to middle-class abolitionists. In fact, the most engaging writing in The Bondwoman's Narrative can be found in Gates's long introduction.
The contrast between Gates's exhilarating tale of the discovery of Crafts's manuscript in an obscure catalogue of African-American ephemera and Crafts's leaden prose could not be more striking. Anyone who doubts that scholarship is high adventure need only consult Gates's rousing account. But, for all its dogged thoroughness, his search for the real Hannah Crafts never yields the woman who claims to be "A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina." As a result, Crafts's origins, race and sex remain a matter of conjecture, and that doubt calls into question any appraisal of The Bondwoman's Narrative. After all, the significance of the book does not rest on its primacy but on its validity as a first-hand view of African-American slavery.
While Gates has failed to find proof positive of Hannah Crafts's identity, he has connected the author of The Bondwoman's Narrative to the manuscript's protagonist with a mountain of circumstantial evidence. His examination of the physical aspects of the manuscript (the age of the paper, the quality of the ink), analysis of its language (syntax, vocabulary, spelling), and exploration of the context of the story validate Craft's claim as author and Gates's claim for significance. The clincher for Gates -- and I think for most readers -- is his identification of John Hill Wheeler, a minor Democratic politico from North Carolina, as Crafts's owner and of the close correspondence between Wheeler's life and Crafts's narrative.
Like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and Harriet Jacobs, Crafts views slavery from the inside, in her case the Big House in antebellum Virginia and North Carolina. It is an extraordinary story that more than makes up for its turgid prose by revealing the nature of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Crafts points her readers to the sexual vulnerability of slave women, especially house servants, and the abuse that followed. But there is more to The Bondwoman's Narrative than the slaveowners' dreary presumption that sexual access was just another of the master's prerogatives. Indeed, once the conventions of 19th-century literature and the clichés of antislavery moralism are peeled away, Crafts's narrative is about as good a guide to antebellum slave life as one could find. Perhaps the most prominent theme of The Bondwoman's Narrative is how the threat of sale traumatized black people. During the 19th century, some 1 million slaves were forcibly deported from the Atlantic seaboard and shipped to the Southern interior. This enormous forced relocation sundered marriages, destroyed families and ravaged communities. Slaveowners understood that slaves feared sale far more than the lash and employed the threat of sale both as a means of discipline and as way of destabilizing black society. Crafts, like other slaves, shaped her life to avoid the separation that sale entailed.
Crafts's narrative also gives a sense of the complexity of slave society, and of how relations among slaves were as critical to understanding slavery as relations between master and slave. Hannah Crafts's decision to run away -- upon which her life, as well as the novel, turns -- originates not in the gross abuse of her owner, but in the fear that she will be forced to marry a field hand, whose ignorance and gross demeanor -- he is depicted here as unrelentingly vile, foul and filthy -- disgusts her far more than her owner's unwanted advances. Much of the tragedy of slavery was found not simply in the master's monopoly of force and willingness to use it, but in the ways in which the perversity of the institution twisted the lives of everyone it touched.
The importance of The Bondwoman's Narrative lies neither in its many "firsts" nor in the author's attempt to elevate her story into high adventure, but in her unconscious and sometimes unthinking revelations about the commonplaces of black life in bondage. Little wonder that the obscure reference to a manuscript by a former slave set Gates off in search of Hannah Crafts, or that others will join the search. •
Ira Berlin is professor of history at the University of Maryland and the author of "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America."
Erinnerungen einer Sklavin, die zur Urahnin der schwarzen Bourgeoisie wurde
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 31.05.2002, Nr. 123 / Seite 49
Amerika entdeckt den Roman einer Sklavin aus dem Jahr 1855
SAN FRANCISCO, 30. Mai.
Unscheinbarer hätte das Bündel kaum sein können, das im letzten Jahr vom New Yorker Auktionshaus Swann Galleries zur Versteigerung angeboten wurde. Ein Stapel Papier, eingeschlagen in Leinen, annonciert als unveröffentlichtes Manuskript aus der Mitte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Von der Verfasserin, einer ehemaligen Sklavin namens Hannah Crafts, hatte niemand je gehört, so wenig wie von dem Titel des Textes: "The Bondwoman's Narrative". Und doch haben sich die dreihundert Seiten auf beinahe märchenhafte Weise als die Entdeckung dieses amerikanischen Bücherfrühjahrs erwiesen. Ersteigert und ediert von Henry Louis Gates, dem Leiter des Instituts für afroamerikanische Studien in Harvard, im April bei Warner Books erschienen, hat das Buch gut hundertfünfzig Jahre nach der Niederschrift wider alle Wahrscheinlichkeit seinen Weg in die Bestsellerlisten gefunden. Aber das macht nicht den Wert des Fundes aus. Jenseits aller Verkaufserfolge dürfte "The Bondwoman's Narrative" ein Datum der Literaturgeschichte markieren: Es ist allem Anschein nach der früheste Roman einer entlaufenen Sklavin, vielleicht der erste Roman einer schwarzen Amerikanerin überhaupt.
Erzählt wird das Leben der jungen Mulattin Hannah, ihr Leiden unter wechselnden Herren, ihr Bildungshunger und ihre Demut, ihre Flucht, Ergreifung und neuerliche Flucht. Die autobiographisch angelegte Geschichte, die von keinem Lektor, keinem Verleger je bearbeitet worden ist, spielt in Virginia, North Carolina und der Hauptstadt Washington um 1855, kurz vor Ausbruch des Bürgerkriegs, und ist vermutlich nur wenig später niedergeschrieben worden. Überdeutlich spiegelt sich im Text der literarische Geschmack der Zeit, offenkundig sind auch die Vorbilder der Autorin, und mitunter borgt sie sich ganze Absätze bei Schriftstellern wie Dickens aus.
"The Bondwoman's Narrative" ist eine eigentümliche Mischung aus Bildungsroman und Schauergeschichte. Crafts schildert verschwenderische Feste und bestialische Folterungen, karikiert die Eitelkeit der Hauptstädter und die Raffgier der Sklavenhändler. Unwahrscheinlichste Zufälle treiben die Handlung voran. Geister wandeln durch knarrende Gemächer, vermeintlich Weiße entpuppen sich als Schwarze, Neugeborene werden gleich nach der Geburt vertauscht. Aber mag der Roman auch kein Meisterwerk sein, so erweist sich Hannah Crafts doch als Autorin mit Sinn für Effekte, mit einem Blick für Details und Gespür für das Tempo ihres Textes.
Weit spannender noch als die Geschichte, die es erzählt, ist die Geschichte des Buches selbst. Henry Louis Gates, ein Star der schwarzen Kulturwissenschaft, beschreibt die Wiederauffindung von "The Bondwoman's Narrative" im Vorwort, und seine Recherche liest sich wie ein Thriller. An der Authentizität des Manuskriptes besteht kaum mehr ein Zweifel. Gates hat das Alter des Papiers bestimmen lassen und die chemische Zusammensetzung der Tinte. Er hat stilistische Untersuchungen angestellt, und Kollegen haben den Text in den Horizont vergleichbarer Literatur derselben Zeit eingeordnet. Aber Gates hat es dabei nicht belassen. Er wollte der Verfasserin selbst auf die Spur kommen, wollte der mutmaßlich ersten schwarzen Schriftstellerin der Vereinigten Staaten nach hundertfünfzig Jahren wenigstens ein erstes, schemenhaftes Porträt widmen. Er hat Kirchenbücher und Gemeindeakten durchforstet, hat Bankauszüge ausgewertet, ist von Bibliothek zu Bibliothek gezogen - ohne Erfolg.
Wer Hannah Crafts war, ob der Name nur als Pseudonym einer Autorin diente, die ihre wahre Identität nicht preiszugeben wagte, wird wohl nie zu klären sein. Außer Frage steht freilich, daß die Autorin eine wahre Geschichte erzählt hat. Bei seinen Forschungen konnte Gates zahllose Details des Romans und manche der beschriebenen Personen als historisch ausmachen. Am prägnantesten tritt dabei Hannahs letzter Eigentümer, der Plantagenbesitzer und recht erfolglose Politiker John Hill Wheeler, hervor. Er war, wie Tagebücher belegen, entschiedener Befürworter der Sklaverei. Im Jahr 1855 erlangte Wheeler für einen Moment landesweite Berühmtheit, als ihm eine seiner Sklavinnen, Jane Johnson, die Dienstmagd seiner Frau, in aller Öffentlichkeit entfloh und trotz endloser Prozesse nicht zur Rückkehr zu zwingen war. Ebendiese Jane Johnson aber war die Vorgängerin von Crafts im Haushalt der Wheelers.
Die eigene Verstrickung der Hannah Crafts - oder der Person, die sich hinter diesem Namen verbirgt - in das System der Sklaverei macht ihre Beobachtungen zu einer Quelle ersten Ranges. Und sie ist eine Chronistin, die hinzuschauen weiß. Unverstellt von aller Ideologie, frei von falscher Solidarität mit ihren Leidensgenossen, frei auch von jeder Südstaatenromantik, erzählt Crafts vom Dasein der Schwarzen auf den großen Plantagen. Nicht allein, daß sie in aller zeituntypischen Offenheit über sexuelle Beziehungen zwischen den Herren und den Sklavinnen schreibt. Unbefangener als viele Autoren ihrer Zeit erwähnt sie auch die Rivalitäten zwischen den Geknechteten. Sie teilt die Verachtung der Hausdiener für die Feldsklaven, betont Unterschiede in Bildung, Geschmack und Privilegien, parodiert sogar die Dialekte des schwarzen Lumpenproletariats. Kein Zweifel, diese Sklavin ist ein Snob. Gates nennt sie lächelnd die "Großmutter der schwarzen Bourgeoisie". Der Antrieb für ihren zweiten Fluchtversuch ist denn auch nicht purer Freiheitsdrang oder die Brutalität ihrer Herrschaft. Hannah flieht vielmehr, weil sie mit einem Feldarbeiter zwangsverheiratet werden soll, einem rohen Gesellen, für den die Ehe nichts weiter als die Erlaubnis zu Hannah Entjungferung bedeutet.
"The Bondwoman's Narrative" ist eine intime Studie über die Wirkungsweise der Sklaverei. Eine Analyse des Gifts der Unfreiheit, das in alle Gedanken einsickert und die Leibeigenen von innen verstümmelt. Wer glaube, schreibt Hannah Crafts in einer zentralen Passage ihres Textes, das größte Übel der Sklaverei seien die physischen Qualen, der wisse nichts vom Leben unter der Knute. Weit ärger sei die ständige Furcht, die den Leibeigenen nie verlasse. Stets regiere die Willkür, keine noch so kleine Wohltat sei gewiß oder von Dauer. Was auch immer dem Sklaven ans Herz wachse, selbst der Geliebte oder das eigene Kind - es könnte ihm im nächsten Moment genommen werden. Die Szenen, in denen Müttern ihre Babys entrissen werden, aus einer Laune der Plantagenbesitzerin heraus, gehören zu den beklemmendsten des Buches, lassen sie doch etwas von der Verzweiflung und der Seelenqual der Unterdrückten ahnen. In solchen Passagen beweist sich die Bedeutung des Buches der unbekannten Hannah Crafts. Es bietet eine rare Innenansicht der Sklaverei.
LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS
From Volume 24 Number 15 | cover date 8 August 2002
The Bondwoman's Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts. ed. Henry Louis Gates | Virago, 338pp., £10.99, 23 May 2002
The Swann Galleries' auction of African-Americana, which takes place in New York in February each year, is a marketplace for the printed artefacts generated by over two hundred years of black history. There are film posters, books, album covers; further back, bills of sale for slaves. This year's auction included a brochure from a Charleston estate sale of 1859, offering '229 Rice Field Negroes, An Uncommonly Prime and Orderly Gang'. From the 1830s came a silk handkerchief, an Abolitionist keepsake from England, with a picturesque and sentimental vignette of a black mother rocking her baby under a palm-tree; the inscription is 'Negro woman who sitteth pining in captivity'. In a 19th-century oil on canvas, a young half-clad black man gazes pensively out of the frame, towards some distant shore of his imagination. The portrayal is described as 'respectful', is dated 1823 and is perhaps the work of a black artist: an unidentified person from the dusty past, still awaiting the attention of scholars who will offer him a grand entrance into history.
The 2001 auction offered jazz photographs and religious texts, and the memorabilia of black figures from Joe Louis to Malcolm X. There was an autograph letter from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who published his autobiography in 1845 and became a leading Abolitionist. There were documents that shed light on the intimate workings of the 'peculiar institution' which so many defended as natural, necessary and ordained by God. In 1854 a family is selling their slave Frances, aged 17, to a dealer in Richmond. Frances is trained as a chambermaid.
She does not know that she is to be sold. I could not tell her; I own all her family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not. Please say to her that that was my reason, and that I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have bought, and to build my stable . . . I am so nervous that I hardly know what I write.
The letter brought almost five thousand dollars; Henry Louis Gates paid about twice that for the unpublished manuscript of a three-hundred-page novel, undated, by an author whose name at the time meant nothing. It seems little enough for what Gates calls 'history in waiting'; his tone is almost gloating as he describes the auction's annual riches: 'Dozens of potential PhD theses in African American literature are buried in this catalogue.' Gates has helped black studies to progress from what he calls a 'self-esteem machine' to a serious and valued discipline and his latest achievement is to put the obscure manuscript he bought at auction into the US bestseller lists. What Gates discovered in the Swann Galleries' list was almost certainly the first novel written by an escaped female slave, and possibly the first novel ever written by a black woman.
This is what history feels like, under the hand, under the microscope: the manuscript's cloth binding is broken, but all its numbered pages are intact. The paper is machine made, of linen and cotton fibres, not wood pulp, and has blue guidelines to write on; the pen that touched this paper was a goose quill, and the pigment was acidic iron-gall ink, which leaves faint mirror-writing on the facing page, fluorescing traces like a ghost of the text. The handwriting is serviceable rather than elegant. The manuscript has been corrected in various ways: most simply, by wiping off the ink and writing over the error, a technique which works with smooth paper; or, if the mistake was discovered after the ink had dried, by scratching off a word with a small knife. If the correction was longer, a paragraph perhaps, the writer attached a slip of paper to cover the unwanted text. These correction slips were cut, experts suggest, with sewing scissors, and the paste wafers that made them adhere to the page have been pressed down with a thimble. Visitors to Jane Austen's cottage at Chawton notice that Jane's sewing box is bigger than her writing box. It may have been the same with Hannah Crafts.
Where had this manuscript been? Its early adventures are uncertain. Before 1948 it seems to have been in an attic in New Jersey. Then it was bought by the black historian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley; after her death, it came to auction and to Gates. The catalogue description said that it was 'uncertain' that the MS was the work of a black person, but the fact that Wesley had acquired it suggested to Gates that she had a strong belief that the author was black. Gates submitted it for examination to, among others, the expert who had exposed the 'Jack the Ripper Diaries' as a fraud. The issue of authentication was vital, and went beyond the nature of the artefact itself. Granted that the paper, ink and other external markers dated it to somewhere between 1855 and 1860, and given that the handwriting, the diction, the vocabulary were faithful to the period, how can we know that the writer was black and, as the title page claimed, 'A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina'?
You may wonder why anyone would bother to fake such an identity, but who would have imagined that anyone would dare fake the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor? Yet it seems to have happened. More to the point in this instance is the embarrassing memory of Alex Haley's Roots. In 1976 the book was marketed as ground-breaking black history. It proved to be not just fiction, but plagiarised fiction. Fakery and accusations of fakery are part of the history of black writing. The 19th century gave rise to a great many publications by African Americans - autobiographies, religious tracts and poems - but sometimes white authors pretended to be black. Mattie Griffith, the author of Autobiography of a Female Slave (1856), revealed herself to be white within weeks of publication. Even where the hand that held the pen was black, a certain blurring of the boundaries of authenticity is evident in many texts. The stories of escaped slaves were intended to serve as propaganda for Abolition, and they were often edited by white supporters of emancipation. They had to sound authentic rather than be authentic, which meant that they had to conform to a white readership's idea of how an educated black should sound. When Frederick Douglass toured as a speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society, he was advised not to sound 'too learned', in case his audiences didn't believe he had been a slave.
Henry Louis Gates is an expert on slave narratives. (It was he who rescued from obscurity the first novel published by a black woman. Our Nig, by Harriet E. Wilson, came out in 1859; Wilson was born in the North and had never been a slave.) Gates argues that the warm reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, made the white-for-black ruse unnecessary; one could be a commercial success without indulging in the peculiar impertinence of draping oneself in a borrowed skin. In time, Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestseller became a byword for its patronising treatment of its black characters, and Gates suggests that other novels by whites show similar stereotyping, a set of assumptions which would have found them out even if the reviewers had not. He was able to see correspondence relating to Hannah Crafts's manuscript from its previous owner, Dorothy Wesley Porter, who had written: 'There is no doubt she was a Negro because her approach to other Negroes is that they are people first of all. Only as the story unfolds, in most instances, does it become apparent that they are Negroes.'
Gates made stern and so far unsuccessful efforts to track down the author, by the usual methods of historical research. 'Hannah' is the name she has chosen for herself as protagonist, but was perhaps not her real forename; 'Crafts' may be a tribute to Ellen Crafts, who with her husband, William, made a daring escape from slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male. Whoever 'Hannah' was, she lives now in the pages of her book, and we need to look within the text to find out who and what she was: and since it has many autobiographical elements, we can locate, if not her presence, then the shape of her absence. To Gates the manuscript has particular value because it is unpublished, unedited, unmediated. Hannah offers us the chance for a 'pristine encounter'. That is an odd way to describe it, because the reader has his or her own expectations, produced by more or less knowledge of slavery and slave narratives; Hannah, for her part, has a sensibility that is anything but pristine. Her narration is highly self-conscious; her manner of relation, her vocabulary are drawn from the 19th-century Gothic novel and from the novel of sentiment. Her story is told through tropes and motifs that are well-worn because they are serviceable, and her expressed emotions are tutored ones. She has read the Bible closely, and begins each chapter with a well-chosen citation. She knows Dickens well enough to lift a chunk of Bleak House and change foggy London into foggy Washington. But her borrowing is intelligent, because she sees into Dickens's metaphor. Here are two nations, two cities, suffocating in the fog of irrationality and injustice, where the law and its servants and its victims swim in a miasma of oppression. And Hannah herself, as portrayed in the novel, would make a perfect Dickens heroine. The sternest trials leave her sweet character unsoured. In the worst exigencies, she injures no one, and ends her story in 'blest and holy quietude', in a little white cottage, with a fond husband, a revered and aged mother, and adoring children gathered at her knee. The children are not, curiously, her own. However she tries to smooth the surface of her tale and fit it for the ear of the novel-reading public, the brutalities of its subject-matter cannot be softened for long. The Bondwoman's Narrative is like a parcel badly wrapped in silk, and what's inside has spines and teeth.
Though Hannah ends up as a Dickens angel, she begins like Jane Eyre, open-eyed and cautious: 'When a child they used to scold and find fault with me . . . I was shy and reserved . . . I had none of that quickness and animation which are so much admired in children, but rather a silent unobtrusive way of observing things and events, and wishing to understand them better than I could.' Hannah knows no father or mother. The first nurturing figure in her life is a sort of fairy godmother, an elderly white woman who teaches her to read. There is much of the dispossessed princess about Hannah. She has already realised that the 'African blood in my veins' excludes her from any future but that of 'unremitted unpaid toil', and this is hard to understand and hard to bear, because 'my complexion was almost white.' How does her African blood show? It 'gave a rotundity to my person, a wave and curl to my hair, and perhaps led me to fancy pictorial illustration and flaming colours'. No white Abolitionist could have created a more effective stereotype - but then people caricature themselves very efficiently, when they have to show themselves to the outside world. People with the histrionic talent to display their sufferings will turn to stereotype to reach their audience - hence the Irish joke and the Jewish joke and the teeth-baring horror of the nigger minstrel show. But perhaps it is true that Hannah enjoyed pictorial illustration and flaming colours. Her storytelling is coarse and lurid: perfect for Hollywood. And the casting? She'd probably find Halle Berry a shade too dark.
Hannah is a house slave, and her home is Lindendale, a great house whose walls are lined with ancestral portraits, with 'stony eyes motionless and void of expression'. The glow of the evening sun kindles a kind of annihilation in their painted features, and Hannah feels a shudder of superstitious awe; but superstition is for field slaves, and Hannah knows that the people in the portraits are dead and cannot harm her. Nevertheless, Lindendale is the focus of many blood-soaked legends; and the reader feels Hannah take a deep breath as she sits down (quill-pen, sewing scissors, thimble) to recount at length (rag paper, watermarked, smooth) the story of an old slave woman and her small dog, gibbeted alive on the linden tree and left to die, in public view, over the course of several days. If Hannah were alive now, she would be well employed in writing appeals for animal shelters and Help the Aged. When she takes her time, she can wring the human heart with great confidence and efficiency, and no matter how many novels you read this year, it is likely that the old woman and her pooch will be among your top spooks on New Year's Eve. No wonder the linden tree creaks, and the portraits fall from the wall, when a bride comes to Lindendale!
She is a beautiful young woman, a brunette with rather full lips; she seems nervous from the outset, and soon runs mad on a regular basis. The sinister Mr Trappe, who 'claimed to have been the guardian of my mistress previous to her marriage' knows her secret - she has African blood - and is blackmailing her. Hannah and her new mistress run away, and undergo harrowing adventures. They live in the woods, on berries and wild fruits, but are tracked down by agents of the far-reaching Trappe, and are imprisoned in 'Egyptian' darkness, in a dungeon where they fear being eaten alive by rats. A pencilled correction (by whom?) has changed 'Egyptian' to 'Stygian'. But the first thought was right. When God plagued Egypt, it was with 'darkness that may be felt'; God's people are led out of Egypt and into freedom. Hannah may not win prizes for spelling - Gates leaves her mistakes in - but her range of reference is astonishing. On the same page as her 'Egyptian' darkness she tells us that 'persons have been known to sleep on the rack'; this is the 'witches sleep' that gives victims of torture a break from agony, a tiny physiological pause. It is a sad attested fact, though it may also be (someone will check it out and tell us) a staple of Gothic narratives. The Gothic is an apt form in which to express the feelings of the powerless. It is apt where the workings of cause and effect are veiled, as they are from the slaves; it is no use for them to reason about their situation, because they are the victims of caprice, and rationality cannot save them. Gothic convention can survive, and diversify, because of its emotional and situational truth. It is always vastly exaggerated, and at the same time, there is always some culture, some spot on the map, where it is all literally true. There are dungeons, for the body and soul. There are lime pits in which the right-thinking are plunged, till their identity is leached away. There are perjurers and liars, and no one, of any shade, who can be relied on; truth is more than skin-deep. It's all, as Hannah says, 'hedious'. Just stand still, and something will have the flesh off your bones.
From the dungeon (where Hannah's sanity is saved by a vision of her mother) she is delivered back to Trappe. Here is the slave owner's voice, raised in self-justification, counselling submission to the status quo:
We are all slaves to something or somebody. A man perfectly free would be an anomaly, and a free woman even more so. Freedom and slavery are only names attached surreptitiously and often improperly to certain conditions . . . they are mere shadows the very reverse of realities, and being so, if rightly considered, they have only a trifling effect on individual happiness.
Hannah has thought deeply about the meaning of justice and its workings, and about individual as well as collective injuries. Her literary methods may be crass, but as a politician she is intelligent, analytical and persuasive, and when she begins to strip away the layers of hypocrisy and self-deception in the society into which she was born, she is both unsparing and subtle. She knows despotism, and has seen its miserable face. Her preface tells us that she hopes to show how slavery 'blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race'. Her slaves have souls to save, so do their masters; each is impeding the other in this endeavour. The Christian religion is a subversive force, or so the masters fear; the slaves start to believe that everyone is equal in the sight of God. It persuades them that 'one thing is right and another thing wrong' - whereas properly speaking, they should surrender all moral sense to their owners. For Hannah, slavery is a brutal physical reality, but it is also a demeaning spiritual state. 'My conscience never troubles me,' says Trappe, and when a trader comes calling, his philosophy gives way to crude bargaining: 'Now I'll tell you what . . . You won't find a nicer bit of woman's flesh to be bought for that money in old Virginia. Don't you see what a foot she has, so dainty and delicate, and what an ankle.' But the trader is put off, because he suspects Hannah is 'skittish'. Women turn skittish, he remarks, when they are parted from their children, though that is not Hannah's reason; from being skittish they turn suicidal, and run away, and have to be pursued with dogs; once the hounds have ripped them apart, their market value is decreased.
Hannah's novel is frank about the sexual abuse of black women, which reinforces the South's 'domestic institution' by breeding more slaves, and in addition poisons the marriages of the whites. She describes how white mistresses and black maids grow close to each other - the mirror, the hairbrush - and recognises the similarities in their plight; these similarities do not, of course, guarantee fellow-feeling, because the weak are cruel to those weaker than themselves. The topic is freighted with ambiguity, in history as in Hannah's fiction. The many women involved in the Abolitionist movement were quick to make parallels between slaves and all women, but this was not necessarily a feminist argument; sometimes, grotesquely, it was its opposite. Some Abolitionists argued against slavery on the grounds that it prevented proper family life - a wife could not be properly obedient to her husband if she owed obedience to her white master. And the pro-slavers feared that if slavery were abolished, the institution of marriage would be threatened; to emancipate slaves meant giving freedom to a body of people unfit for it, and women were like blacks in their natural lack of capacity for self-determination. Both slavery and marriage were institutions of private life, with which government should not meddle; but owners were entitled to make marriages among slaves, controlling their intimate lives, making and breaking their families at will.
Hannah's worst moment - the event that precipitates her flight to freedom - comes when she crosses her white mistress who, as punishment, decrees that Hannah should be married to a field slave. 'With all your pretty airs and your white face, you are nothing but a slave after all and no better than the blackest wench.' Hannah has determined never to marry while she is a slave - she refuses to give birth to a child whose innocent body will perpetuate the system. But when she is exiled to the cabin of her prospective husband, her senses as well as her principles revolt. She is to be married to a man
whose person, speech and manner could not fail to be ever regarded by me with loathing and disgust. Then to be driven in to the fields beneath the eye and lash of the brutal overseer, and those miserable huts, with their promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene and degraded objects, for my home I could not, would not bear it.
A day picking cotton makes her fingers bleed. This is Hannah, who can not only read, but play the harp! Deeply colour-conscious, shaped by her superior education, she has no access to the minds of the field slaves, and she makes no effort to imagine herself into their skins. The degraded men and women she describes are voiceless and outside history. It is likely they will defy the most probing investigations of Gates's PhD squad. They have lives, but no biography; they are less chronicled than a white man's dog. Only a novelist could give them a voice, but Hannah doesn't try; real life is taking over now.
Hannah's vengeful mistress had a real existence. The novel's first mentions of the family designate them 'Wh--' but later the writer takes courage and fills in the name: 'Wheeler'. From this, Gates has identified John Hill Wheeler, a lawyer, functionary, plantation owner and sometime member of the state legislature of North Carolina, who became briefly famous through a 1855 court case in which he attempted to regain possession of a fugitive slave called Jane Johnson. Jane's story, in fictionalised form, is part of Hannah's narrative, and it seems likely that Hannah was also employed in the Wheeler household, and overheard the private conversation of the family. Gates thinks that she may have been Jane's replacement as lady's maid, serving the Wheeler household in 1856 and escaping the following year. John Hill Wheeler kept a diary, parts of which are intact; a theatre-goer, he records seeing John Wilkes Booth in the part of Shylock, and thinking him a very promising actor. His library, rather than his diary, is likely to have been important to Hannah: he owned the works of Walter Scott, Gulliver's Travels, two volumes of Byron, the Brontës' novels, The Beauties of Shakespeare Regularly Selected from Each Play, several of Dickens's works, the letters of Burns and Gray, and a volume called Whom to Marry and How to Get Married! or, The Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Husband.
Hannah runs away disguised as a boy, and after many adventures - not quite as lurid and preposterous as those that have gone before - she reaches a place of safety and a new life. How? Before the Civil War, the North did not provide a sure asylum. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was legal for the owners of runaways to reclaim them if they could, and so it was necessary for escapees to disguise their identity. They could never be sure to live unmolested, and therefore many former slaves kept going until they reached Canada - it was wise to get clear of the Land of the Free, in order to claim rights in your own person. What seems likely is that the real Hannah 'passed for white', both during her escape and in later life, and that this prevented her from trying to get her manuscript published. It is a cruel trade-off: self-suppression as the price of safety.
Hannah as a novelist may be a thing of shreds and patches, but so are we all. The idea of disguising her influences would probably have made no sense to her, because she was as proud of her learning as she was of her near-white complexion. Her descriptions of houses, plantations and landscape show how thoroughly she has internalised the aesthetic values of her masters; she has no eye of her own. When pathos changes to broad comedy, you feel her heart isn't in it; somebody has told her that readers appreciate light relief, and grimly she doles it out. But she knows how to excite horror, and how to move her reader, and how to people her narrative. Her black characters are more complex than her white ones; they are victims of slavery, but not all victims are good. Some slaves are deceitful and malicious, and few measure up to Hannah's own high Christian standards. Her white characters are products of their politics, but while all Abolitionists are saintly, among the pro-slavers she deals in degrees of hypocrisy, guilt and moral deformity. Living at the white person's feet, less noticed than the furniture, she acts as a mirror, a tape recorder, a microphone.
The Abolitionist preference was for facts, facts, facts: not for fantasy, which can be forged. Slave writers were urged to be specific, to skewer names and dates and places, as protection against the owners' frequent allegation that slave narratives were the product of white Northern do-gooders with too little information and too much imagination. In her preface, Hannah declares her book to be a 'record of plain unvarnished facts', but a glance at any page shows it to be something far more artful. So why did Hannah choose to write a novel, not an autobiography? She prefers to tell a story about herself, and perhaps that story had been necessary for her psychological survival. Long before she was free in fact, she had escaped in imagination. She had extracted herself from degrading circumstances and inserted herself into others, more flattering, as a persecuted heroine in a romance. The novel shows us that she has been able to protect her psyche, and keep its core intact; an autobiography would merely assert it. Autobiographies display the triumph of experience, but novels are acts of hope. There are, after all, degrees of freedom. Did liberation consist of the capacity to sell one's labour in a factory, and live in a slum in the cold North? Hannah has elected a better fate for her persona: self-determination, domestic happiness, even a reunion with her lost mother. It is a most touching example of art as solace. The novel has uses in both the outer and the inner world. Do people ever write just one? There's work for the legion of PhD students; scouring the attics and lumber-rooms of America for traces of that unique hand, 'neither an untutored hand nor an example of elegant penmanship', legible and without flourishes, and 'consistent with the writing of a woman'.
Hilary Mantel's novels include A Place of Greater Safety, An Experiment in Love and The Giant O'Brien.
Freedoms and Fictions
by Benjamin Soskis
Post date: 05.30.02
Issue date: 06.03.02
The Bondwoman's Narrative
by Hannah Crafts, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
(Warner Books, 338 pp., $24.95)
Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown
Introduction by Richard Newman, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
(Oxford University Press, 73 pp., $21.95)
In July, 1849, Ephraim Peabody, a Unitarian minister and moderate abolitionist in Boston, offered the first sustained consideration of the slave narrative as a literary genre. Reviewing four publications, including Frederick Douglass's celebrated Narrative, for the Christian Examiner, Peabody praised the works as being "among the most remarkable productions of the age," detailing "the native love of freedom in the individual mind." Slave narratives were politically instructive and morally edifying. They were, moreover, great literature: "We know not where one who wished to write a modern Odyssey could find a better subject than in the adventures of a fugitive slave," Peabody claimed.
But the Reverend's enthusiasm for this genre affirming freedom was tempered by his concern for the protagonists' lack of restraint. Specifically assailing Douglass's book--which by that time had sold more than fifteen thousand copies and had gone through nearly twenty editions--Peabody worried that the work's "loose, extravagant, and violent declarations" and its "personated passion of the theatre" would alienate Northern readers. Douglass's bold rhetoric might boost sales, but his eloquence also threatened the "practical ends" of moral suasion toward which the slave narrative should be directed.
It was, in sum, a mixed review. And it presaged an uncertainty and a critical precariousness that would preside over the the slave narrative genre, which eventually swelled to include more than one hundred book-length narratives composed before the end of the Civil War. Those "practical ends" that Peabody sought to preserve were themselves somewhat fugitive, evading strict accountings; the narratives' ambitions ranged uneasily between the literary and the propagandistic, the autobiographical and the documentary. In the battle for their countrymen's hearts, it was generally agreed that the smolderings of lived adversity were more effective than the sympathetic recitation of wrongs offered by white abolitionists. But two competing versions of testimony often vied for supremacy in the genre: there was an evangelical model of the slave narrative, in which the truth disclosed was private and the intensity of its presentation was an index of its authenticity; and there was a legalistic model of the slave narrative, in which the truth disclosed was objective, and was bolstered by a dispassionate presentation.
The contest between these two models--it was often a proxy battle in the struggle of black abolitionists for independence from their white supervisors--would largely determine how the narratives would be read and judged, both by their contemporaries and by their modern-day critics. And that contest will certainly continue with the recent publication of two editions of fugitive slave narratives, each with its own claims to exceptionality. Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative is, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., who rescued it from historical oblivion, "possibly the first novel written by a black woman and definitely the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave." A first-person account of a female house-slave's life in bondage and eventual escape from a North Carolina plantation, Crafts's story is deliberately fictionalized, and will likely take up a position on the periphery of the genre, where it will complicate notions of the slave narratives' duties toward verisimilitude. The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, the story of a Virginian slave's fantastic escape to freedom by mailing himself north in a shipping crate, raises vexing issues of authorial ownership. They are welcome additions to an inspiring and troubling community of narratives, not in the least for the new troubles that they bring with them.
The first question usually asked about a slave narrative is not the aesthetic one but the historical one: not whether it is good, but whether it is true. (This anxiety about authenticity would attend much of African American art and literature in the years to come.) From the movement's earliest days, abo-litionist editors and publishers were concerned about the accuracy of slave testimony, especially since most Northerners assumed that slave life required an expertise in prevarication (and also that those who had managed to escape north were practically selected for their guile). This concern turned obsessive in 1838 with the controversy surrounding the narrative of James Williams, the story of a slave's escape from a cotton plantation in Alabama "as told to" the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
The Narrative of James Williams was the first to be published under the direction of organized abolition, and so it presented an immediate target for pro-slavery apologists, who attacked it as a complete fabrication. The abolitionists quickly rallied to defend the work, but an American Anti-Slavery Society investigation ultimately concluded that, in fact, "many of the statements made in the ... Narrative were false" and stopped selling it. Williams had moved to Great Britain, and so was unable to defend himself personally. But if abolitionists admitted that some of the specific details were counterfeit, most agreed that the story's general outline, and Williams's charges of cruelty, were accurate. Even so, the anti-slavery community vowed never again to have its credibility compromised.
The Williams affair encouraged the development of an elaborate apparatus of falsification that would accompany slave testimony from then on. In the next few decades, William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, the premier organ of radical abolition, published frequent exposés of fugitive slave imposters. In fact, the majority of slave narratives were published only after the former slave had undertaken--and survived--numerous speaking engagements on the abolitionist lecture circuit, during which the audience would be encouraged to interrogate the former slave on various details of his or her story. Those that made it into printed form--less than twenty percent, according to the late John Blassingame, a pioneer in the study of slave testimony--were a select bunch. And when they were published, the narratives were chaperoned before the public by multiple introductory statements from prominent white anti-slavery men and women, vouching for the slave's integrity and the narrative's truthfulness.
And yet the commitment to a strict documentation of the evils of "the peculiar institution" was never absolute. Telling the truth did not necessarily mean telling the whole truth, or every truth; it meant telling a truth that made sense to a white audience, with particular racialist preconceptions and literary expectations. Abolitionist editors had to navigate between the prudishness of the reading public and their prurient fascination with plantation sex. And so narratives often offered a few lurid details of miscegenation, but they stopped short of drawing the curtain back completely. The documentation was also circumscribed by what slaves did not know--many narratives begin with confessions of ignorance from slaves regarding their birth dates and their parents' identities--and by what they chose not to tell. Indeed, slaves frequently censored their narratives, refusing to name their actual masters or to describe their routes of escape, for fear of being recaptured or of jeopardizing the chances of those still in bondage.
The commitment to verisimilitude was also complicated by the tensions between the generic, communal truth and the private, personal truth of the narrator. Those who escaped from slavery were often remarkable in some way: many ex-slaves were literate, others had special relationships with their masters or mistresses, and most had passed through extraordinary trials on their way to liberation. As Blassingame pointed out, fugitives wrote more than one-third of all slave narratives, whereas probably less than five percent of slaves managed to escape north. Yet slave narrators were also tasked with polemical and representational duties, often expected to speak in place of their "brethren in bonds." This at times required a peculiar version of Republicanism, in which exceptional representatives were asked to speak for a class of individuals by repressing precisely those characteristics that distinguished them for service. And so, despite the power of the association of literacy with freedom, articulateness, no matter how "authentic" or native, was sometimes discouraged. As one of his white abolitionist peers told the young Frederick Douglass: "Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; it is not best that you seem too learned."
But Douglass was learned, certainly by the standards of his fellow bondsmen; and the narrative that he produced two years later insisted upon that fact. Its publication was a critical moment in the development of the genre, paving the way for the later works of William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and James Pennington, among others. For the first time, it became the aim of a narrative to reveal the development of a slave's consciousness and to present to the public a strong black authorial personality, as much as it was to chronicle the details of slave life. The subjective truth, the autobiographical urge, superseded propagandistic or reportorial obligations.
In the last century, the historiography of slave narratives has in many ways tracked the literary developments within the genre. Initially, scholars of the period rejected the narratives as useful historical documents because (as the Southern historian Ulrich Phillips wrote in 1929) "ex-slave narratives in general ... were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful." In the 1960s and 1970s, however, scholars such as John Blassingame and Eugene Genovese insisted that to understand slavery, one had to listen to those who had suffered it. These scholars relied heavily on slave testimonies for their research. They did not ignore the subjectivity of the testimonies; they simply suggested that it was no more vexing from an epistemological standpoint than the subjectivity of slaveholder accounts.
This did not mean that the concern over facticity and authenticity had subsided. Many scholars still spent considerable energy weeding out the unreliable and the ghostwritten accounts from the credible narratives. But increasingly the ex-slaves' subjectivity became less a liability--a narrative impurity to be extracted and neutralized by the rigorous historian--and more the focus of scholarly attention itself. The narrator in the post-slavery present eclipsed his subject, which was the narrated past. The solicitude for the slaves' perspective extended even to untruths, which previously might have been imputed to a foggy memory or a sloppy editor. As William L. Andrews writes in To Tell a Free Story, an authoritative survey of the genre, scholars began to view the "fictive elements of black autobiography as aspects of rhetorical and aesthetic strategy, not evidence of moral failure."
Increasingly, the inaccuracies, the elisions, and the equivocations were viewed as deliberate acts of subversion, efforts to assert some control over the past instead of simply recording it. Every narrator became a "trickster," skilled (as the title of one book put it) in "Puttin' on Ole Massa." If Garrisonians once worried that slave trickery would imperil the effectiveness of slave testimony, now that trickery became one of its most ennobling features. And perhaps no scholar has done more to promote the narrator-trickster than Henry Louis Gates Jr., an indefatigable anthologizer and currently the nation's most prolific dispenser of slave narrative prefaces. Gates has, in a way, inherited the role of the white abolitionists whose introductory remarks assured the reading public as to the authenticity of slave testimony.
Gates has a sharp eye for the authentic. A decade ago, while strolling through a New York bookstore, he chanced upon an original copy of Our Nig (1859), the first published novel by an African American woman. The novel had been neglected by historians for more than a century, but Gates's attention, and a new edition, secured a place for it in the African American canon. Then last year he struck black gold again, purchasing at an auction a mysterious and enticing 301-page "Unpublished Original Manuscript" about the adventures and the eventual escape of a young Virginian slave named Hannah Crafts. On the title page, Crafts identifies herself as "A fugitive slave recently escaped from North Carolina," and in a preface she claims that she has simply "relat[ed] events as they occurred."
Along with some other scholars who had seen the manuscript, Gates developed a hunch that Crafts was sincere, and that, despite the confectioned additives of her romantic imagination, the most basic ingredients of her novel were her own experiences. The process of authenticating that hunch makes up much of Gates's lengthy introduction to The Bondwoman's Narrative. He sniffs out hints in the text suggesting that the author was African American--for instance, the fact that blackness is often downplayed as a distinguishing characterological feature, as if Crafts simply assumed all her peers were black--and also that the author of this novel was deeply familiar with the story's North Carolina and Virginia locales. Gates retained the services of a professional "historical-document examiner," who dated the manuscript to the period between 1853 and 1861 (the upper bound established by the fact that no mention is made in the manuscript to the Civil War). Gates looked into the history of free black communities in antebellum New Jersey, where Crafts claims to have settled after escaping north (and where an itinerant book dealer purchased the manuscript). But even after sifting through census reports and genealogical records, Gates still does not have a definitive answer about the identity of the novel's author.
The darkness is somewhat dispelled, though, when Gates inquires into "Mr. Wheeler," who is named as one of Crafts's masters in the book. The character, it turns out, was not the author's invention. John Wheeler was an actual slaveholder in North Carolina, and he held several government positions before the beginning of the war. In 1855, one of Wheeler's slaves, a woman named Jane Johnson, escaped during a trip to Philadelphia, thereby becoming a cause célèbre in abolitionist circles. Focusing on a passage in the book in which Hannah claims she was one of the slaves bought to replace "Jane," who had "run off," Gates finally seems to have established some historical traction. And through the use of Wheeler's diary, Gates whittles down the likely dates of Crafts's escape to the months of March, April, or May, 1857.
Unfortunately, there is no record of such an escape in Wheeler's journal; the pages for those months were destroyed by fire. And though Wheeler continued to complain about Johnson's escape years after it occurred, documenting his various attempts to recapture her, he makes no mention of a second escape in the diary's later pages. Without such a reference, the possibility must still be considered that the author's experience with Wheeler's plantation was only secondhand. She might have been a free Northern black who had examined Jane Johnson after her escape.
But Gates is undaunted by scholarly doubt. By the end of his introduction, the tentativeness that accompanied his earlier efforts to identify Crafts has vanished. Gates seems to demand a high level of certitude as the just reward for his detective work, and it would be nice if he could collect it. But the conditions of slave life rarely allowed for such certitude. Like many of the slave narrators themselves, Gates and his readers must resign themselves to a less satisfying level of factual insecurity.
Still, there are indeed many reasons to welcome this book, even if they are not purely historiographical ones. For this novel is distinguished within its genre not only by its priority. The book also helps to relieve one of the peculiar ironies of slave narratives: though the celebration of literacy and the act of writing are central tropes within them, the material evidence of their composition is practically nonexistent. But The Bondwoman's Narrative is now the only surviving holograph manuscript of any work of antebellum black literature. As such, it offers a unique opportunity for those studying the period. "[T]o be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand," Gates declares, "would help a new generation of scholars gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible....[P]erhaps for the first time, we could experience a pristine encounter" with a slave's authentic expressions.
When granted this "unmediated" access, however, we find a manuscript, and a consciousness, heavily mediated by the conventions of white nineteenth-century American fiction. When finally we chip away at the interference of whites, we find ... the emulation of whites. As Gates points out, there is a tremendous poignancy in the derivativeness of The Bondwoman's Narrative, which represents a slave's efforts to "write herself into and through a canonical tradition to which she aspired for some sort of membership." But in her aggressive stylization, it is hard not to conclude that something of Crafts's own voice has been dimmed, making the encounter a little less than pristine. Crafts has borrowed the fantastic coincidences, the tidy conclusions, and the dominating villains of the sentimental novel; the supernatural portents and ominous landscapes of the Gothic novel; and the class-based burlesques of Dickens. A sharp-eyed graduate student in English pointed out to Gates that in several passages Crafts transposed entire paragraphs from Bleak House into her novel, changing only a few key words (the passages are included in an appendix).
Interspersed among these literary borrowings, of course, is a story about slavery. But as was once said of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a work to which The Bondwoman's Narrative will no doubt be compared, Crafts's novel surrenders itself so completely to the demands of sentimental fiction that its reportorial power is sorely attenuated. The evils of slavery are often peripheral to the perils facing the heroine, or are actually subsumed by those perils, as is the case when Hannah and her mulatto mistress are confined for several weeks to a spacious, well-appointed apartment by an evil lawyer who knows of the mistress's "shameful" lineage.
Crafts does not ignore the hardships of slavery entirely. She includes, for example, an affecting description of the poverty of a field slave hut: "It was reeking with filth and impurity of every kind, and already occupied by near a dozen women and children, who were sitting on the ground, or coiled on piles of rags and straw in the corner." But even in this passage she speaks of the destitution of "these people," as if she is afraid to identify too closely with their squalor (and also as if she understands the tendency of her white audience to collapse all class distinctions when dealing with blacks). Indeed, her descriptive muscle is more often exerted on the interiors of great houses or on bucolic landscapes. As Gates remarks, "Crafts seems to luxuriate in making observations ... that are broad and general rather than specific to the politics of slavery and race."
This is not to say that Gates is ready to reject The Bondwoman's Narrative as a source of knowledge about the condition of slave life. He makes much of Crafts's "counterintuitive" claim that the greatest evils of slavery are spiritual and not physical, a standard theme in many other narratives, including Box Brown's. (Crafts writes that "the soul, the immortal soul must ever long and yearn for a thousand things inseperable to liberty.") He points to Crafts's treatment of the close relationships that develop between slaves and their mistresses. ("Those who suppose that Southern ladies keep their attendants at a distance, scarcely speaking to them, or only give commands have a very erroneous impression.") And he adduces her frank discussion of the class tensions between house slaves and field slaves. (Crafts decides to run away after her master seeks to force her to marry one of the "vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts.") So it turns out, as Gates says, that Hannah Crafts is a "snob," which is--for all the whitewashing of abolitionist editors and amanuenses--an important historical observation.
But is she a trickster? Scholars such as William L. Andrews have suggested that slave narrators chose to fictionalize their accounts because doing so allowed them to confront their masters through reconstructed dialogue. This might make some sense in Crafts's case: there are certainly subversive elements to the plot. The text is full of inversions in which the slave is placed in a position of power over her white overseer. Hannah is made to read to her barely literate mistress. Her mistress, after a freak cosmetic accident, has her face turn black, and complains that her husband prefers Hannah, who is lighter-skinned. And yet the trickster label does not sit well on Hannah, and it will be interesting to see if scholars handle her conformity with the same enthusiasm as her intractability. For she is deeply accepting of white authority in her headstrong emulation of the conventions of contemporary American domestic literature. Indeed, at times her descriptions of slave life seem as if they could have come from a Southern, slavery-as-a-positive-good Calhounite.
In one section of the novel, for example, Crafts describes a kind mistress walking among neat rows of slave huts, where the industrious bondsmen stop their gardening to show their affection: "They all rose with courteous reverence to salute us as we passed, and invited us to walk over their grounds, and gather such flowers as we liked." Crafts has clearly internalized the plantation's moral code, and when she considers running away, she seems deeply troubled by the prospect of betraying her master's trust. Of course, this could be an attempt (like Box Brown's descriptions of his adherence to business contracts) to prove her narrative credibility to the Northern reader by demonstrating her native reliability. But not completely so: both as a character and as a narrator, Crafts seems pulled in opposite directions, between south and north, between the identity that she has been assigned and the identity that she can create for herself. Andrews has described this predicament as one facing the genre as a whole: "By the mid-nineteenth century black autobiographers had learned that they could not serve two masters--the past and the self--equally." And it confronts readers of this narrative as well.
It remains unclear in The Bondwoman's Narrative where truth ends and untruth begins. Gates insists both on the work's fictitiousness and on the important insights derived from Crafts's personal experience with plantation life. But though it may confound critics for the moment, that tension between the reported and the imagined, between the generic and the personal, between the collective past and the self-determined present, far from diminishing the novel's worth, is itself perhaps the most valuable idea that this book can impart.
The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, published in Great Britain in 1851 and never before released in the United States, raises questions of a different sort, if only because it is considerably slimmer than The Bondwoman's Narrative, and considerably less ambitious. Brown's narrative has been edited by Richard Newman, a colleague of Gates's at Harvard University who served as Gates's proxy at the auction of The Bondwoman's Narrative. The work that Newman has chosen to restore to prominence is actually the second version of the narrative. Brown had first dictated his story to the white Boston abolitionist Charles Stearns two years earlier. According to Newman, however, Stearns's heavy-handed editorializing and turgid, "scolding prose" made it unreadable. (If you doubt that, try chewing on its title: Narrative of Henry Box Brown who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks upon the Remedy for Slavery.) As Newman writes of that first effort, with considerably more concision: "It is hardly Brown's book."
The second version was published in Manchester (Brown had fled to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850), and it is pruned of the orotund and the intemperate. It is, in fact, a rather elegant little work, now "Written," according to the subtitle, by Brown "Himself." Newman takes that statement at face value, equating austerity with authenticity--an understandable assumption, considering that Brown was likely illiterate. As he writes in the introduction, "Only in England did [Brown] experience the freedom to express himself in his own way." But Newman also admits that it is not clear how the second edition came into being. It is possible that a keen British editor stripped the original version of its ungainly flourishes, with Brown's approval.
Brown's narrative employs many of the conventions of the genre: the traditional slave apologia at the beginning of the text, attacks on the religious hypocrisy of slaveholders, accounts of cruel and dishonest overseers, and refutations of the claim that slaves are better off than free Northern blacks. There are deeply affecting descriptions of the breakup of the slave family--the event that precipitated Brown's escape. Brown tells of watching his wife and children march in chains down the streets of Richmond after having been sold to a slaveowner in North Carolina. He stands with the other friends and relatives of the unlucky chattel at the side of the street until he spots his wife, whereupon he rushes toward her, hoping to share a last goodbye. "I went with her for about four miles hand in hand, but both our hearts were so overpowered that we could say nothing," he writes. Much of the book is also taken up with demonstrating Brown's commercial integrity in the face of the unscrupulous business dealings of his white acquaintances. What distinguishes Brown's book, though, is its incredible, though brief and uninflected, conclusion, involving one of the most impressive and celebrated escapes in American letters.
On March 29, 1849, Brown had himself shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia--three hundred fifty miles and twenty-seven hours away--in a crate. The box was three feet wide, two and a half feet high, and two feet deep, with only a few small gimlet holes for air. Though it was clearly marked "This side up with care," Brown spent considerable amounts of time--on horse-cart, train, and steamer--traveling upside down. "I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from my sockets," he writes, "and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head." After a near-catastrophe in which the box is almost prematurely opened, Brown finally reaches Philadelphia, where, after emerging from the crate and announcing that he was "all right," he promptly faints, a free man.
Brown's ingenuity and daring briefly made him one of the most famous fugitives in America. The image of him rising, Lazarus-like, from his box became a staple of abolitionist iconography, appearing in almanacs, children's books, and broadsides. With his narrative, Brown transformed himself into an anti-slavery symbol, a hero of redemption and rebirth, and (as Gates points out in a foreword) of the ability of blacks to utilize the mechanisms of America's commercial "power structure"--a shipping firm and the railway--for their own uplift. Brown was thereby able to resolve the tension between his exceptional status and his representational duties: his remarkable escape could be applied symbolically to all slaves who yearned for freedom. And his story also suggests the means of achieving such freedom at every slave's disposal. After all, it was Brown's ability to tolerate pain and extreme physical constraints, the basic conditions of slave life, which won him his transit north. Or, as Newman nicely observes, "he made his confinement his liberation."
And so even though Brown displays very little interiority in his narrative, his persona is an impressive one. Soon after his escape, he took on "Box" as a middle name, and began giving anti-slavery lectures in which he would re-enact his escape on stage by emerging out of a crate to begin his presentations. In Great Britain he once had himself shipped in his famous box (which someone had the wit to save) from Bradford to Leeds, a distance of around nine miles, accompanied by a marching band. Perhaps more than any other black anti-slavery agent, Brown incorporated popular entertainment into his delivery, singing a song about his escape adapted from a Stephen Foster tune and traveling with massive panorama, including images of the "Nubian Family in Freedom," George Washington's slave quarters, and two scenes of his own escape.
There is an odd disjunction between the Box Brown of the narrative and the Box Brown of the stage. The former presented himself as a bourgeois family man, who strove for respectability and wanted nothing more than to enjoy the modest gains of his labors with his wife and children. The latter was flamboyant and flirted with the vulgar and the demotic. (And perhaps with more: one associate of Brown's complained that he had taken up with English women, even though he was earning enough money to free his wife, who was still in bondage.) Newman seems to respect both Browns, and to consider the second a canny entrepreneur who appreciated the emotional power of his story, and who employed a sort of middlebrow version of Douglass's "personated passion of the theater." Some of Brown's contemporaries were not as charitable. One British editor took a special dislike to him, and derided the famous fugitive as an "overdressed" and "bejewelled darkey."
Interestingly enough, though several other black abolitionists were in Great Britain at the time, including the prominent William Wells Brown, none of them came to Box Brown's defense. Brown's most famous critic was Frederick Douglass himself, who chided Brown for revealing his method of escape while there were others still in bondage who could employ it. "Had not Henry Box Brown and his friends attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum," he wrote in his second autobiography. (Douglass did not reveal the method of his own escape until his final autobiography, published in 1881, some forty-three years after it occurred.) In fact, in the year of the publication of Box Brown's first narrative, two other slaves who attempted to escape by shipping themselves north were discovered, and their white accomplice, the same man who had helped Box Brown, spent six years in jail.
Despite the mass appeal of his escape, Brown's place in abolitionism was an awkward one, raising difficult questions regarding the responsibilities of slave narrators, the boundaries between entertainment and advocacy, and the relationship between self-celebration and narcissism. Ultimately, once Brown's novelty wore off, he was unable to sustain himself as an anti-slavery lecturer, and he drifted off into obscurity. Newman makes only passing references to the various rumors surrounding Brown's fate: that he ended up a minstrel, married a white woman, and disappeared into Wales. In fact, Newman approaches the whole subject of Brown's less glamorous later years with a strange passivity. "No one has made a concerted effort to track Brown at this point, but there must be newspapers and civic records that could complete the story," he writes, as if the knowledge of their existence itself should settle the reader's curiosity.
But maybe Newman's reluctance to follow Brown any further does make sense. Slave narratives, after all, are premised on a resolutely linear and heroic plot--from bondage to freedom--that does not leave much room for the subsequent defeats or humiliations of their protagonists. The placement of slave narratives within anthologies as the parent of African American protest literature and autobiography reinforces this consecrated progression from insecurity to self-mastery. And that notion of progression, of pure and exemplary linearity in such lives, is often encouraged by the slave narrators themselves, most famously by Douglass's bold assertion in his first autobiography: "You have seen how a man was made a slave, you shall see how a slave was made a man."
And yet the circularity of that phrase is itself suggestive, betraying the constant challenges to the more simple and edifying linear plot. In truth, the process of self-liberation that the narratives chronicled was rarely completed at the time of their composition. Becoming free resembled not so much a religious conversion as it did a protracted commercial transaction. And so Box Brown's symbolic resurrection from his box was a less faithful representation of his liberation than was his frustrating business interactions with Southern whites. As the genre developed in the 1850s, slave narrators began to devote more space to their struggles in the North, as if expanding slavery's existential boundaries. And the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required every Northern citizen to assist in the return of an escaped slave, and meant that any free black could be seized with a jury trial, led many abolitionists to conclude that slavery had in fact expanded, and threatened to contaminate the entire nation.
That fear, coupled with an increasing frustration with white abolitionist paternalism and racism, and the recognition of the limited professional opportunities available to them, led many slave narrators to explore, in ways subtle and unsubtle, the incompleteness of their liberation. Of course, the fact that ex-slaves felt secure enough in the ownership of their narratives to express their disillusionment with freedom was itself a movement toward freedom. And scholars have frequently pointed out the "uses of marginality" for blacks in the distinctive perspectives that they gained on the peripheries of both Northern and Southern society. Yet marginality has its costs, and scholars have often failed to recognize them. The power of the trickster is profound precisely because it is limited. When William L. Andrews writes that "to make fun is to make free, at least temporarily," it is that final qualification that stays in the mind.
If some narratives brought their writers fame and relative prosperity, the majority of these works were barely read and quickly forgotten. After all, many ex-slaves took up professional abolitionism or the writing of a narrative simply because they had no other means of income. The tensions within slave narratives between the self and the past, between autobiography and testimony, were reflections of their authors' ambivalent liberation, articulations of a heroism tempered by unheroic realities. Those tensions deserve our attention as well as our respect. For what can be said of Box Brown can be said of slave narrators and slave narratives in general: only by appreciating their confinement can we understand their liberation.
Benjamin Soskis was until recently an assistant editor at The New Republic. He will be a Richard Hofstadter Fellow at Columbia University this fall
Look not upon me because I am
black; because the sun hath looked upon me.
—Song of Solomon
It may be that I assume to[o] much responsibility in attempting to write these pages. The world will probably say so, and I am aware of my deficiencies. I am neither clever, nor learned, nor talented. When a child they used to scold and find fault with me because they said I was dull and stupid. Perhaps under other circumstances and with more encouragement I might have appeared better; for I was shy and reserved and scarce dared open my lips to any one I had none of that quickness and animation which are so much admired in children, but rather a silent unobtrusive way of observing things and events, and wishing to understand them better than I could.
I was not brought up by any body in particular that I know of. I had no training, no cultivation. The birds of the air, or beasts of the feild are not freer from moral culture than I was. No one seemed to care for me till I was able to work, and then it was Hannah do this and Hannah do that, but I never complained as I found a sort of pleasure and something to divert my thoughts in employment. Of my relatives I knew nothing. No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better. This seemed the harder to be borne, because my complexion was almost white, and the obnoxious descent could not be readily traced, though it gave a rotundity to my person, a wave and curl to my hair, and perhaps led me to fancy pictorial illustrations and flaming colors.
The busiest life has its leisure moments; it
was so with mine. I had from the first an instinctive desire for knowledge and
the means of mental improvement. Though neglected and a slave, I felt the
immortal longings in me. In the absence of books and teachers and schools I
determined to learn if not in a regular, approved, and scientific way. I was
aware that this plan would meet with opposition, perhaps with punishment. My
master never permitted his slaves to be taught. Education in his view tended to
enlarge and expand their ideas; made them less subservient to their superiors,
and besides that its blessings were destined to be conferred exclusively on the
higher and nobler race. Indeed though he was generally easy and good-tempered,
there was nothing liberal or democratic in his nature. Slaves were slaves to
him, and nothing more. Practically he regarded them not as men and women, but in
the same light as horses or other domestic animals. He
their necessities of food and clothing from the same motives of policy,
but [di]scounted the ideas of equality and fraternity as preposterous and
absurd. Of course I had nothing to expect from him, yet "where there's a will
there's a way."
I was employed about the house, consequently my labors were much easier than those of the field servants, and I enjoyed intervals of repose and rest unknown to them. Then, too, I was a mere child and some hours of each day were allotted to play. On such occasions, and while the other children of the house were amusing themselves I would quietly steal away from their company to ponder over the pages of some old book or newspaper that chance had thrown in [my] way. Though I knew not the meaning of a single letter, and had not the means of finding out I loved to look at them and think that some day I should probably understand them all.
My dream was destined to be realized. One day
I was sitting on a little bank, beneath the shade of some large
trees, at a short distance from my playmates, when an aged woman
approached me. She was white, and looked venerable with her grey hair smoothly
put back beneath a plain sun bonnet, and I recollected having seen her once or
twice at my master's house whither she came to sell salves and ointments, and
hearing it remarked that she was the wife of a sand-digger and very poor.
She smiled benevolently and inquired why I concealed my book, and with child-like artlessness I told her all. How earnestly I desired knowledge, how our Master interdicted it, and how I was trying to teach myself. She stood for a few moments apparently buried in deep thought, but I interpreted her looks and actions favorably, and an idea struck me that perhaps she could read, and would become my teacher. She seemed to understand my wish before I expressed it.
"Child" she said "I was thinking of our Saviour's words to Peter where he commands the latter to 'feed his lambs.' I will dispense to you such knowledge as I possess. Come to me each day. I will teach you to read in the hope and trust that you will thereby be made better in this world and that to come.["] Her demeanor like her words was very grave and solemn.
"Where do you live?["] I inquired.
"In the little cottage just around the foot of the hill" she replied.
"I will come: Oh how eagerly, how joyfully" I answered "but if master finds it out his anger will be terrible; and then I have no means of paying you."
She smiled quietly, bade me fear nothing, and went her way. I returned home that evening with a light heart. Pleased, delighted, overwhelmed with my good fortune in prospective I felt like a being to whom a new world with all its mysteries and marvels was opening, and could scarcely repress my tears of joy and thankfulness. It sometimes seems that we require sympathy more in joy than sorrow; for the heart exultant, and overflowing with good nature longs to impart a portion of its happiness. Especial[l]y is this the case with children. How it augments the importance of any little success to them that some one probably a mother will receive the intelligence with a show of delight and interest. But I had no mother, no friend.
The next day and the next I went out to gather
blackberries, and took advantage of the fine opportunity to visit my worthy
instructress and receive my first lesson. I was surprised at the smallness yet
perfect neatness of her dwelling, at the quiet and orderly repose that reigned
in through all its appointments; it was in such pleasing contrast to our
great house with its bustle, confusion, and troops of servants of all ages and
"Hannah, my dear, you are welcome" she said
coming forward and extending her hand. "I rejoice to see you. I am, or rather
was a northern woman, and consequently have no prejudices against your birth, or
race, or condition, indeed I feel a warmer interest in your welfare than I
should were you the daughter of a queen.["] I should have thanked her for so
much kindness, and
interest such expressions of motherly interest, but
could find no words, and so sat silent and embarrassed.
I had heard of the North where the people were all free, and where the colored race had so many and such true friends, and was more delighted with her, and with the idea that I had found some of them than I could possibly have expressed in words.
At length while I was stumbling over the
alphabet and trying to impress the different forms of the letters on my mind, an
old man with a cane and silvered hair walked in, and coming close to me inquired
"Is this the girl
mother of whom you spoke, mother?" and when she
answered in the affirmative he said many words of kindness and encouragement to
me, and that though a slave I must be good and trust in God.
They were an aged couple, who for more than fifty years had occupied the same home, and who had shared together all the vicissitudes of life—its joys and sorrows, its hopes and fears. Wealth had been theirs, with all the appliances of luxury, and they became poor through a series of misfortunes. Yet as they had borne riches with virtuous moderation they conformed to poverty with subdued content, and readily exchanged the splendid mansion for the lowly cottage, and the merchant's desk and counting room for the fields of toil. Not that they were insensible to the benefits or advantages of riches, but they felt that life had something more—that the peace of God and their own consciences united to honor and intelligence were in themselves a fortune which the world neither gave nor could take away.
They had long before relinquished all selfish projects and ambitious aims. To be upright and honest, to incumber neither public nor private charity, and to contribute something to the happiness of others seemed to be the sum total of their present desires. Uncle Siah, as I learned to call him, had long been unable to work, except at some of the lighter branches of employment, or in cultivating the small garden which furnished their supply of exce[l]lent vegetables and likewise the simple herbs which imparted such healing properties to the salves and unguents that the kind old woman distributed around the neighborhood.
Educated at the north they both felt keenly on the subject of slavery and the degradation and ignorance it imposes on one portion of the human race. Yet all their conversation on this point was tempered with the utmost discretion and judgement, and though they could not be reconciled to the system they were disposed to stand still and wait in faith and hope for the salvation of the Lord.
In their morning and evening sacrifice of worship the poor slave was always remembered, and even their devout songs of praise were imbued with the same spirit. They loved to think and to speak of all mankind as brothers, the children of one great parent, and all bound to the same eternity.
Simple and retiring in their habits modest unostentatious and poor their virtues were almost wholly unknown. In that wearied and bent old man, who frequently went out in pleasant weather to sell baskets at the doors of the rich few recognised the possessor of sterling worth, and the candidate for immortality, yet his meek gentle smile, and loving words excited their sympathies and won their regard.
How I wished to be with them all the time—how I entreated them to buy me, but in vain. They had not the means.
It must not be supposed that learning to read was all they taught me, or that my visits to them were made with regularity. They gave me an insight to many things. They cultivated my moral nature. They led me to the foot of the Cross. Sometimes in the evening while the other slaves were enjoying the banjo and the dance I would steal away to hold sweet converse with them. Sometimes a morning walk with the other children, or an errand to a neighbors would furnish the desired opportunity, and sometimes an interval of many days elapsed between my calls to their house.
At such times, however, I tried to remember the good things they had taught me, and to improve myself by gathering up such crumbs of knowledge as I could, and adding little by little to my stock of information. Of course my opportunities were limited, and I had much to make me miserable and discontented. The life of a slave at best is not a pleasant one, but I had formed a resolution to always look on the bright side of things, to be industrious, cheerful, and true-hearted, to do some good though in an humble way, and to win some love if I could. "I am a slave" thus my thoughts would run. "I can never be great, nor rich; I cannot hold an elevated position in society, but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of an eternal reward.["]
By and by as I grew older, and was enabled to manifest my good intentions, not so much by words, as a manner of sympathy and consideration for every one, I was quite astonished to see how much I was trusted and confided in, how I was made the repository of secrets, and how the weak, the sick, and the suffering came to me for advice and assistance. Then the little slave children were almost entirely confided to my care. I hope that I was good and gentle to them; for I pitied their hard and cruel fate very much, and used to think that, notwithstanding all the labor and trouble they gave me, if I could so discharge my duty by them that in after years their memories would hover over this as the sunshiny period of their lives I should be amply repaid.
What a blessing it is that faith, and hope, and love are universal in their nature and operation—that poor as well as rich, bond as well as free are susceptible to their pleasing influences, and contain within themselves a treasure of consolation for all the ills of life. These little children, slaves though they were, and doomed to a life of toil and drudgery, ignorant, and untutored, assimilated thus to the highest and proudest in the land—thus evinced their equal origin, and immortal destiny.
How much love and confidence and affection I
won it is impossible to describe. How the rude and boisterous became gentle and
obliging, and how ready
they all were to serve and obey me, not because I
exacted the service or obedience, but because their own loving natures prompted
them to reciprocate my love. How I longed to become their teacher, and open the
door of knowledge to their minds by instructing them to read but it might not
be. I could not have even hoped to escape detection would have and
discovery would have entailed punishment on all.
Thus the seasons passed away. Summer insensibly melted into autumn, and autumn gave place to winter. I still visited Aunt Hetty, and enjoyed the benefits of her gracious counsels. Seated by the clear wood fire she was always busy in the preparation or repair of garments as perfect taste and economy dictated, or plying her bright knitting needles by the evening lamp, while her aged companion sat socially by her side.
One evening I was sitting with them, and reading from the book of God. Our intercourse had remained so long undiscovered that I had almost ceased to fear disclosure. Probably I had grown less circumspect though not intentionally, or it might be that in conformity to the inscrutable ways of Providence the faith and strength of these aged servants of the Cross were to be tried by a more severe ordeal. Alas: Alas that I should have been the means.
The door suddenly opened without warning, and the overseer of my master's estate walked into the house. My horror, and grief, and astonishment were indescribable. I felt Oh how much more than I tell. He addressed me rudely, and bade me begone home on the instant. I durst not disobey, but retreating through the doorway I glanced back at the calm sedate countenances of the aged couple, who were all unmoved by the torrent of threats and invectives he poured out against them.
My Master was absent at the time,
the overseer could find no precedent for my case, and so I escaped the
punishment I should otherwise have suffered. Not so with my venerable and
venerated teachers. It was considered necessary to make an example of them, that
others might be deterred from the like attempts. Years passed, however, before I
learned their fate. The cruel overseer would not tell me whither he had removed
them, but to all my inquiries he simply answered that he would take good care I
never saw them again. My fancy painted them as immured in a dungeon for the
crime of teaching a slave to read. Their cottage of home remained
uninhabited for a time, and then strangers came and took possession of it. But
Oh the difference to me. For days and weeks I was inconsolable, and how I hated
and blamed myself as the cause of their misery. After a time the intensity of my
feelings subsided, and I came to a more rational and consistent manner of
thinking. I concluded that they were happy whatever might be their condition,
and that only by doing right and being good I could make anything like an
adequate return for all they had done and suffered for me.
Another year passed away. There was to be a change in our establishment, and the ancient mansion of Lindendale was to receive a mistress. Hitherto our master had been a bachelor. He was a portly man, middle-aged, and of aristocratic name and connexions. His estate had descended to him through many generations, and it was whispered though no one seemed to know, that he was bringing his beautiful bride to an impoverished house.
holidays and the time for warming fires to be
kindled in the dusty chimneys of southern chambers It was then that our master
brought home his bride The
remembrance is fresh to me as that of yesterday. The holidays were passed, and
we had been promised another in honor of the occasion. But we were not animated
with the idea of that half so much as because something had occurred to break
the dull monotony of our existence; something that would give life, and zest,
and interest, to one day at least; and something that would afford a theme for
conversation and speculation. Then our preparations were quite wonderful, and
the old housekeeper nearly overdid herself in fidgetting and fretting and
worrying while dragging her unwieldly weight of flesh up and down the
staircases, along the galleries and passages, and through the rooms where floors
were undergoing the process of being rubbed bright, carpets were being spread,
curtains shaken out, beds puffed and covered and furniture dusted and
polished, and all things prepared as beseemed the dignity of the family and the
fastidious taste of its expected mistress. It was a grand time for me as now I
had an opportunity of seeing the house, and ascertaining what a fine old place
it was. Heretofore all except certain apartments had been interdicted to us, but
now that the chambers were opened to be aired and renovated no one could prevent
us making good use of our eyes. And we saw on all sides the appearance of wealth
and splendor, and the appliances to every luxury. What a variety of beautiful
rooms, all splendid yet so different, and seemingly inhabited by marble images
of art, or human forms pictured on the walls. What an array of costly furniture
adorned the rich saloons and gorgeous halls. We thought our master must be a
very great man to have so much wealth at his command, but it never occurred to
us to inquire whose sweat and blood and unpaid labor had contributed to produce
The evening previous to the expected arrival
of the bridal party Mrs Bry the housekeeper, announced the preparations to be
complete and all things in readiness. Then she remembered that the windows of
one apartment had been left open for a freer admission of air.
It must be
closed They must be closed and barred and the good old dame imposed that
duty on me. "I am so excessively weary or I would attend to it myself" she said
giving me my directions "but I think that I can rely on you not to touch or
misplace anything or loiter in the rooms." I assured her that she could and
departed on my errand.
There is something inexpressibly dreary and solemn in passing through the silent rooms of a large house, especially one whence many generations have passed to the grave. Involuntarily you find yourself thinking of them, and wondering how they looked in life, and how the rooms looked in their possession, and whether or not they would recognise their former habitations if restored once more to earth and them. Then all we have heard or fancied of spiritual existences occur to us. There is the echo of a stealthy tread behind us. There is a shadow flitting past through the gloom. There is a sound, but it does not seem of mortality. A supernatural thrill pervades your frame, and you feel the presence of mysterious beings. It may be foolish and childish, but it is one of the unaccountable things instinctive to the human nature.
Thus I felt while threading the long galleries
which led to the southern turret. The apartment there was stately rather than
splendid, and in other days before the northern and eastern wing had been added
to the building it had formed the family drawing room, and was now from its
retired situation the favorite resort of my master; when he became weary of
noise and bustle and turmoil as he sometimes did. It was adorned with a long
succession of family portraits ranged against the walls in due order of age and
ancestral dignity. To these portraits Mrs Bry had informed me a strange legend
was attached. It was said that Sir Clifford De Vincent, a nobleman of power and
influence in the old world, having incurred the wrath of his sovereign, fled for
safety to the shores of the Old Dominion, and became the founder of my Master's
When the When the house had been completed according to
his directions, he ordered his portrait and that of his wife to be hung in the
drawing room, and denounced a severe malediction against the person who should
ever presume to remove them, and against any possessor of the mansion who being
of his name and blood should neglect to follow his example. And well had his
wishes been obeyed. Generation had succeeded generation, and a long line of De
Vincents occupied the family residence, yet each one inheritor had
contributed to the adornments of the drawing-room a faithful transcript of his
person and lineaments, side by side with that of his Lady. The ceremonial of
hanging up these portraits was usually made the occasion of a great festivity,
in which hundreds of the neighboring gentry participated. But my master had seen
fit to dissent from this custom, and his portrait unaccompanied by that of a
Lady had been added to the number, though without the usual demonstration of
mirth and rejoicing.
Memories of the dead give at any time a
haunting air to a silent room. How much more this becomes the case when standing
face to face with their pictured resemblances and looking into the stony eyes
motionless and void of expression as those of an exhumed corpse. But even as I
gazed the golden light of sunset penetrating through the open windows in an
oblique direction set each rigid feature in a glow. Movements like those of life
came over the line of stolid faces as the shadows of a linden played there. The
stern old sire with sword and armorial bearings seems moodily to relax his
brow aspect. The countenance of another, a veteran in the
old-time wars, assumes a gracious expression it never wore in life; and another
appears to open and shut his lips continually though they emit no sound. Over
the pale pure features of a bride descends a halo of glory; the long shining
locks of a young mother waver and float over the child she holds; and the frozen
cheek of an ancient dame seems beguiled into smiles and dimples.
Involuntarily I gazed as the fire of the sun
died out, even untill the floor became dusky, and the shadows of the linden
falling broader and deeper wrapped all in gloom. Hitherto I had not contemplated
my Master's picture; for my thoughts had been with the dead, but now I looked
for it, where it hung solitary, and thought how soon it would have a companion
like the others, and what a new aspect would thereby be given to the apartment.
But was it prophecy, or presentiment, or why was it that this idea was attended
to my mind with something painful? That it seemed the first scene in some
fearful tragedy; the foreboding of some great calamity; a curse of destiny that
no circumstances could avert or soften. And why was it that as I mused the
portrait of my master
changed seemed to change from its usually kind and
placid expression to one of wrath and gloom, that the calm brow should become
wrinkled with passion, the lips turgid with malevolence—yet thus it was.
Though filled with superstitious awe I was in no haste to leave the room; for there surrounded by mysterious associations I seemed suddenly to have grown old, to have entered a new world of thoughts, and feelings and sentiments. I was not a slave with these pictured memorials of the past. They could not enforce drudgery, or condemn me on account of my color to a life of servitude. As their companion I could think and speculate. In their presence my mind seemed to run riotous and exult in its freedom as a rational being, and one destined for something higher and better than this world can afford.
I closed the windows, for the night air had become sharp and piercing, and the linden creaked and swayed its branches to the fitful gusts. Then, there was a sharp voice at the door. It said "child what are you doing?["] I turned round and answered "Looking at the pictures."
Mrs Bry alarmed at my prolonged absence had actually dragged her unweildly person thither to acertain the cause.
"Looking at the pictures" she repeated "as if such an ignorant thing as you are would know any thing about them."
Ignorance, forsooth. Can ignorance quench the
immortal mind or prevent its feeling at times the indications of its heavenly
origin. Can it destroy that deep abiding appreciation of the beautiful that
seems inherent to the human soul? Can it seal up the fountains of truth and all
intuitive perception of life, death and eternity? I think not. Those to whom man
learns little nature teaches little, nature like a wise and prudent
mother teaches much.