Jacob D. Green: “Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky” (1864)

About ten o’clock I stole out to the stable when all was still; and while I was getting on one of my master’s horses I said to myself—Master was in here at six o’clock and saw all these horses clean, so I must look out and be back time enough to have you clean when he gets up in the morning. I thought what a dash I should cut among the pretty yellow and Sambo gals, and I felt quite confident, of course, that I should have my pick among the best looking ones, for my good clothes, and my abundance of money, and my own good looks—in fact, I thought no mean things of my self. (960)

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Jacob Green, perhaps next to Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, is the most elusive of the authors of the slave narratives in this collection. Most of the authors were engaged actively in abolitionist work and therefore had fairly well-documented lives. What we know of Green comes from his escapes, which he documented in a short narrative. Despite coming at the end of a long tradition of American slave narratives, it is less politically conscious and seems to buck many of the conventions (such as an emphasis on hypocrisy or contradiction). Perhaps, for Green, these arguments had been made and defended. What strikes me, having read this the first time today, is that Green’s narrative is really an account of tricks, lies, schemes, and manipulation. If the background of his story was not so tragic it would almost work as a comedic adventure story. I kept thinking of England’s Jack Sheppard, the young working class man, who inspired the imagination of the English working class by escaping from Newgate a series of times before finally being murdered by the state. Both of stories of people in continual opposition to their situation and for that reason have a rightful place in folk mythology. I wonder why Green is not more well-known.

The schemes start from the first page, with a white boy stealing some corn and then trying to force some of the slave boys to take the blame. On the next page we see the lies of white religion. Here this is not presented as hypocrisy but rather as a vulgar attempt to deceive slaves. A page later we learn that Green’s mistress is an adulteress, keeping two lovers on the side, a situation that led to legal shenanigans when one put gunpowder into the other’s pipe. The first time Green was flogged, he was framed by his master’s son for firing a pistol. I could go on. These are just in the first few pages. They are building up to Green’s three major schemes, his escape attempts in 1839, 1846, and finally in 1848.

Although there is a rather playful side to Green’s narrative rooted in the mutual use of tricks, not far under the surface is the same descriptions of the horrors of slavery that define the slave narrative genre. One of the most memorable in this little book comes from Green’s experience in a slave auction. His was the closest I have seen in an original source describing how slaves were “packaged” during these auctions. He also dwells on the experience of an enslaved woman, Sally, who had to watch as her family was split up during one horrifying day at the auction. When she begged for her family to be sold as a unit, she was struck on the head and killed. Ruben, Sally’s husband then attacked his master, beating him to death, before being shot himself. Green later composed a long poem about Ruben’s death. In many ways, this is the true climax of the narrative. In comparison, Green’s final escape seems mundane. This climax is a reminder that violence was the reason slavery survived.

In a way, what Green is trying to say is that neither masters nor slaves were fooling each other. Both sides knew they were being scammed by the others. When the stakes were small (a night of freedom, stolen food) this could really appear to be a game. It was not a game, however. When the stakes were high, the brutal and tyrannical nature of the system came down on its victims, or in rarer cases the frustrations of those on bondage exploded. Green, the slave trickster, ends his tale with deadly seriousness.

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