Henry Bibb: “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb” (1849)

A slave marrying to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house of houses of ill-fame. Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. (455)

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Henry Bibb lived a tragically short life, filled with personal frustrations and failures. He escaped slavery twice. After the first escape he was recaptured and sold back into slavery. When he returned South yet again, it was to find his wife, who had become the mistress of her master. He renounced her and remarried someone else before beginning abolitionist work in Canada after the Fugitive Slave Law made his stay in the United States problematic. Unlike many of the authors of the antebellum slave narratives, Bibb never saw the end of slavery in North America. Let me just stop here and mention that in the first three of the antebellum slave narratives published in this book (Douglass, Brown, and Bibbs) sexual violence plays a key role. This strongly suggests that it was universal or near universal. Slavery in the United States simply provided too many opportunities for sexual violence without any contravening power. American slavery was—among other things—systematic and institutionalized rape.

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I have never read Bibb’s narrative before coming across it in this collection, but I was immediately struck at how rich a description he gives of what it is like to be a slave. What other former slaves hinted at, Bibb describes with brutal clarity. What others simply neglect or did not experience, Bibb articulates. A good example of this is his clarity about what it was like to be an enslaved man with a wife, how that affected his decisions, and the bittersweet result of his getting sold to his wife’s planation. While he got to see his wife, Malinda, more often, he also had to experience her degradation and the violence of the system inflicted on her while he was powerless to stop it. Another example of this is his quite vivid and interesting descriptions of superstitions among slaves, including one charm Bibb purchased to protect himself from punishment (and no, it did not work).

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Bibb was apparently under great pressure to defend the truth of his claims because the book’s preface includes a dozen testimonials from various people who knew Bibb, clarifying the truth of his claims (one of these is from the master he ran away from). The fact that he had to do this, reeks of racism suggesting that only that which can be confirmed by white people can be considered true.

Freedom was never far from Bibb’s mind. Even his decision to marry was burdened by his realization that by marrying he would more likely bind himself to his status as a slave. Running away as a married man troubled him deeply. “I was to put into operation my former resolution, which was to bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave. I acted upon the former, although I confess it to be one of the most self-denying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family.” (460) While he escaped that time, he returned to fetch his family and fell back into slavery.

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Chapter seven and eight is particularly notable for Bibb’s description of institutions of power used to maintain slavery in the South. These varies from the informal mob to the formal legal institutions of the courts and a “slave prison.” Bibb stayed at one of these slave prisons in Louisville with his family. It was a combination of a prison, a workhouse, and location for sexual violence. “Soon after she arrived at this place, Garrison gave her to understand what he brought here there for, and made a most disgraceful assault on her virtue, which she promptly repeled;  for which Garrison punished her with the lash, threatning her that if she did not submit that he would sell her child. The next day he made the same attempt, which she resisted, declaring that she would not submit to it; and again he tied her up and flogged her until her garments were stained with blood. He then sent our child off to another part of the city, and said he meant to sell it.” (493–494)

In their various attempts to escape, Bibb and his family faced many hardships. One of his children died. But through all of this, his determination to escape remained. We learn how difficult and unlikely it was to escape as a family. In the end, Bibb escaped from an Indian man who purchased him after his family was broken. He made his way through the Indian Territory, through the prairie and finally to Michigan.

The narrative ends with Bibb’s final attempt to secure the freedom of his wife. We may see his decision to break off his marriage as harsh (“practically dead to me as a white, for she was living in a state of adultery”), since it is not likely that Malinda had much choice in becoming a concubine of her master. Bibb confesses as much, but adds “it is quite probably that they have other children according to the law of nature, which would have a tendency to unite them stronger together.” (553) Bibb does use this as part of his moral polemic against slavery, calling all slave marriages farces without legal standing. I, of course, understand this argument on grounds of equality and justice, but I am still ambivalent about the state sanctioning specific relationships. Why would an informal slave marriage be less morally binding than one approved of by the government (especially a government that condoned slavery)?

In any case, this is the best slave narrative for approaching the question of sexuality and it is also one of the most dramatically exciting because Bibb is always attempting to escape. He did not need to go through the process like Douglass of achieving moral independence first (if he did he does not really mention it). Bibb simply wakes up one day deciding to be free and never retreats from his goal.

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