William Wells Brown: “Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself” (1847)

As we travelled toward a land of liberty, my heart would at times leap for joy. At other times, being, as I was, almost constantly on my feet, I felt as though I could travel no further. But when I thought of slavery with its Democratic whips—and Republican chains—its evangelical blood-hounds, and its religious slave-holders—when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward, my heart strengthened, and I forgot that I was tired of hungry. (404)


William Wells Brown’s slave narrative was published two years after Douglass’ and was immediately compared to it. Even in the introduction to the text by Edmund Quincy, it is presented as a complement to Douglass’ narrative, presenting a picture of slavery in another part of the nation. In one way they are comparable. Both Brown and Douglass escaped slavery taking advantage of their situation in the border states and having a degree of personal mobility. Douglass escaped slavery after working in urban areas. Brown was always on the move as a the personal slave of a slave trader James Walker. Also, like Douglass, he went from slavery to political activism. But while Douglass kept his activities to political affairs, working even in the foreign service after the Civil War, Brown became a notable black intellectual. If he started his career compared to Douglass, he ended it as someone holding the door for the great turn of the century black intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois. That he wrote some of the first histories of African Americans makes him particularly relevant. Indeed, his works in history were so substantial the Library of America recently published a volume of his writings.

Like Douglass, Brown had complete contempt for the religious infrastructure of slavery and eagerly points out the failings of the ideology that supports slavery. This is most acute in Brown’s account in respect to family. Brown describes how he was stolen into slavery at the moment of his birth and how his family was broken up (his mother and seven siblings were sold to different homes), but he often hints at the political hypocrisy of democracy and Christianity, which he seems to have no use for. The description of his master “getting religion” paints a rather ridiculous picture of reform on the planation, which amount to not improvement of conditions but the addition of a preacher on the planation to focus on the slaves.


Brown’s opportunity to gain his freedom came from his mobility. In this he compared to Douglass as well. But first, working for the slave trade Walker gave him a chance to see much of the Old South, including the slave trading market in New Orleans. One of these slaves Walker trader is the center of Brown’s story for a few pages: Cynthia. She was purchased in New Orleans. “I knew her well. She was a quadroon, and one of the most beautiful women I ever saw. She was a native of St. Louis, and bore an irreproachable character for virtue and propriety of conduct.” (392) Walker raped her using threats of selling her to a planation. When she finally gave into these threats he made her his personal concubine, leading to four children. Brown later learned that she was simply sold away after Walker married.

Brown also wants to focus on the general debasement of morals that slavery causes for both masters and slaves. He documents how he used lies and deceit to try to gain his freedom, something he thinks was unacceptable is it meant fooling people who were not his immediate oppressors, but that this became necessary for survival and escape. In one incident he tricked another boy into getting whipped instead of himself. “This incident shows how it is that slavery makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it afterwards reproaches them, and uses them as arguments to prove that they deserve no better fate. I have often, since my escape, deeply regretted the deception I practiced upon this poor fellow, and I heartily desire that it may be, at some time or other, in my power to make him amends for his vicarious sufferings in my behalf.” (398–399)

Some of the most powerful passages come from Brown’s vivid description of buying and selling of slaves. Brown experienced these slave markets several times. Of course, it exposes the myth of paternalism as well, showing the exploitation is worked into the system itself. “Dark and revolting as is the picture here drawn, it is from the pen of one living in the midst of slavery. But though these men may cant about negro-drivers, and tell what despicable creatures they are, who it is, I ask, that supplies them with the human beings that they are tearing asunder? I answer, as far as I have any knowledge of the State where I came from, that those who raise slaves for the market are to be found among all classes, from Thomas H. Benton down to the lowest political demagogue, who may be able to purchase a woman for the purpose of raising stock, and from the Doctor of Divinity down to the most humble lay member in the church.” (410)

The last third of the narrative recounts Brown’s various attempts to escape. The first few attempts failed but through these frustrations we learn about the quite elaborate system developed to locate, imprison, punish, and return runaway slaves. Brown went through this more than once. He ends with the hypocrisy of a government that claims to be democratic and in favor of liberty but forces its most oppressed members (not yet citizens of course) to flee to a monarch (Canada).

I realize that the myth of paternalism is not that needs to be broken down. Anyone who is not a disgusting Southern apologist can see that it was little more than a cover for exploitation. Yet, it is important to think about how the destruction of slavery required attacking the myths that sustained it. Late capitalism has its own myths and we should not think it a waste of time to expose the myths and denounce their use in sustaining and providing cover for systems of oppression.


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