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Why Read Slave Narratives?

Posted on 01 October 2013 by Barbara Beckwith (329)

I bring an array of books to the People Challenging Racism class I co-lead, offering to loan them during the semester. These books include memoirs by formerly enslaved men and women. But that none of the students – young, old, white or of color – asks to borrow any of these personal accounts of bondage.

I understand their reluctance: I wouldn’t have either, until recently. Yes, I’d read about slavery. But I’d never considered going to the source: the wide range of slave narratives available both in books and online.

My avoidance dates back decades, to the Roots mini-series. I couldn’t watch more than the initial show, so appalled was I by the graphic scenes of whippings, and by a horrific punishment I could never have imagined: metal grills clamped over slaves’ faces that allowed them to neither talk nor eat.

I had also turned away from accounts of the Holocaust. In both cases, I feared that they’d be solely about bondsmen and bondswomen stripped of dignity, agency, and humanity.

My change of heart and mind started with a plaque I noticed in front of a house in my neighborhood in Cambridge (MA). Installed as part of my city’s new African American Heritage Trail, it marked the home of Harriett Jacobs, who, more than 150 years ago, self-published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, a memoir of her enslavement, escape, and life as an emancipated woman.

As a fellow writer, I was intrigued. So I put my qualms aside, and read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, and then a dozen other books penned by men and women who had endured bondage.

I found that yes, they describe the horror of forced labor, rape, hunger, thirst, 16-hour workdays, illiteracy, and brutality. But they’re also a testament to endurance and resistance.

Jacobs wrote about being sexually harassed by her owner, a common oppression that was rarely acknowledged. It caused her to flee, hiding in the nearby home of her emancipated grandmother. For seven years, she stayed in its attic crawl space, watching her children at play, and writing decoy letters to be conveyed to New York City and re-mailed back South so that her master would think she’d reached a free state. She eventually did escape by boat to the North, although her owners continued to pursue her.

The wives of slave owners come off little better than their husbands in these “fugitive slave” memoirs. Jacobs was regularly beaten by her master’s wife, who blamed her simply for being the object of her husband’s lust. Wives often insisted that children born of such unions be sold to far away plantations. Many would use imagined infractions as an excuse to whip any slave their husbands forced into sex.

Each man or woman who owned slaves had a choice to treat them well or harshly. Frederick Douglass learned a few letters of the alphabet from his mistress until her husband told her to stop. Douglass then turned to Baltimore street urchins, trading pieces of bread for lessons and using Tom Sawyer-worthy stratagems. He’d declare: “I can write better than you can” and then copy whatever words they wrote down.

To my surprise, enslaved people not only found ways to educate themselves, they also often boldly fought back against abuse, despite the risk. Douglass, after resisting a severe whipping by a “slave breaker” overseer, bested his oppressor in a two-hour struggle and was never beaten again. The experience, he wrote, “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”
His memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, is now considered an American classic.

Most slave narratives, I discovered, are not only testaments to resistance, they’re also gripping, even thrilling, accounts of strategically brilliant escapes. Light-skinned Elizabeth Craft disguised herself a white man and traveled by rail with her “slave” – actually, her darker skinned husband. She wrapped her arm in bandages to avoid signing her name, since she could neither read nor write. Henry Brown escaped slavery by arranging to be crated up and shipped, by wagon, railroad, and steamboat, to Philadelphia. His Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, was published in 1949. The next year, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act legalized slave-catching in free states. To escape bounty hunters, he fled to England, where he republished his book and gave hundreds of anti-slavery lectures.

One of the plethora of largely unread slave narratives is sure to be seen, if not read, by mainstream American. Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave came out as a movie in 2013. Northrop was a free Black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY — educated, employed, and an accomplished violinist – when two white men persuaded him to join them on an entertainment tour and helped him secure papers to certify him as a free black man. Northrup woke one day without those papers, chained in a slave pen, having been drugged and delivered to a slave trader. Northrup’s insistence that he was a free man was met with a flogging that nearly killed him. Sold at an auction block within sight of the White House, he spent the next 12 years abused by a series of plantation owners. His family searched for him fruitlessly: the slave trader had changed his name to “Platt” to deceive anyone trying to find and free him.

The man who finally did free him was a white Southerner who opposed slavery. He helped Northrup send letters to Northerners to confirm his status as a free man, and showed up one day with a sheriff to free him. Reunited with his family, Northrup became a fervent abolitionist, giving talks about his experience throughout the Northeast to gain support for the movement.

Why hadn’t I known about enslaved people’s resistance, or about the thousands of slaves who managed to escape? Why had I absorbed only their victimhood? Back in the 1950s, most textbooks focused on the politics and economics of slavery, ignoring the human cost. I grew up viewing slaves as degraded by their experience ala Gone with the Wind, just as I viewed Jews as compliant when herded into boxcars and gassed in ovens.

Just after reading Northrup’s harrowing tale, I read similarly eye-opening accounts of Holocaust survivors, including A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. Caroline Moorehead documents how ordinary women in concentration camps resisted their captors and devised ways to help each other survive. They made paste that would put color in an ill woman’s face so she wouldn’t be “selected” for execution. They documented the Nazi’s atrocities on stolen paper that they hid in cracks between bunks. One woman, assigned to help with an experiment on the uterus of a Jewish woman, instead drugged her, reported that she was dead, and smuggled her into another camp. Assigned to forced labor in munitions factories, they committed small acts of sabotage, loosening screws, mixing salt into grease, dropping fragile equipment, and burning out motors: “We did all we could to be “intelligently stupid.”

Enslaved people resisted in parallel ways. They “forgot” to put out fires, sabotaged equipment, feigned illness, ran away for weeks — returning only when guaranteed better treatment. Some resorted to mutilating themselves, to suicide, or to killing their children to save them from life in bondage.

Accounts of survivors of both slavery and the Holocaust are testaments to the dignity and agency of people deemed less than human. “Those who were defined by law and custom as less than human literally wrote themselves into human existence,” writes scholar Richard Newman. We need these stories to balance our images of victims with counter images of resilience and resistance. And to know what forms of resistance we, too, are capable of, when humanity requires it in the face of inhumanity.

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