Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)

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Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)

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As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

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.

Harriet Jacobs: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861)

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope around a man’s body, and suspend him form the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eight commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provide the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicious. . . . If a slave stole from him even a pound of meat or a peck of corn, if detection followed, he was put in chains and imprisoned, and so kept till his form was attenuated by hunger and sickness. (791–792)

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The genre of the American slave narrative reached its apogee with Harriet Jacob’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, published when the Civil War had just begun but was still—for President Abraham Lincoln and most of the North—about the preservation of the Union. The Confederate leaders, in contrast, knew very well that the war was about slavery, the central institution of the South. Perhaps no document shows how integral slavery was to the psychological and intimate foundation of the South than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The narrative was put out by Lydia Maria Child, but it was actually Jacobs’ insistence that made the book possible. She has been writing it for almost a decade, around the time that friends of her purchased her freedom (apparently without Jacobs’ consent). She was a fugitive slave since 1835, spending seven years hiding in a crawlspace not far from her owners before she was able to escape. Some more facts of her life are revealing. Jacobs was born and lived in bondage in North Carolina. She was sent to the household of James Norcom when she was twelve years old after her owner died. She had two children (one when she was 16 the other when she was 20) with a local white lawyer. During her teenage years she was sexually harassed and intimidated by James Norcom while at the same time fending off intense feelings of hostility and resentment from James’ wife. She was around 22 when she went into hiding. Her immediate goal was to get Norcom to sell her children to their biological father. This worked. For much of her early life she lived with her brother, who also escaped from slavery. After arriving in New York she worked next to (I do not know if she worked with) Frederick Douglass, sharing the same building with him. She ran an anti-slavery bookstore and he ran the newspaper the North Star, in Rochester. Most of her income came from sewing at this time. Jacobs’ did some important work during Reconstruction around Washington D.C. She died at the turn of the twentieth century. As far as I know Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was her only published work, and this was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

 

The entire narrative is written with changed names, the most interesting of which was the use of “Dr. Flint” for Dr. James Norcom, suggesting her perspective on his character.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is rich in details about the lives of slaves in the South. Her descriptions of violence, religious life, celebrations (such as a charming look at the slave’s Christmas), the political influence of slave holders at the local level, the surveillance systems build up by slave holders after Nat Turner’s revolt, and most importantly the gender politics at the root of slavery are all expressed with the necessary moral clarity. While I do think that Jacobs is most important for her complex look at the experience of enslaved women and the domestic and sexual politics that the system seemed to make inevitable, readers should not miss some of the other themes she carefully documents. The response to Nat Turner’s revolt by the planation South is required reading for anti-authoritarians because it shows a surveillance state being created almost overnight.

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Jacobs’ narrative is also the most clear in this set about the experience of enslaved children. The vast majority of her time as a slave was during her childhood. Of course, like all slaves, she grew up fast, but she was still amazingly young when she escaped. So she had some very sharp memories of childhood in slavery. In this she may be like the Great Depression-era slave narratives collected by Works Progress Administration writers. Most of those oral histories are from people who were still quite young when slavery in the United States ended. I rather enjoyed this passage:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life has been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning. How have those years dealt with slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (775–776)

While slave narratives are full of these contradictions, this passage reminds us that the color line had to be learned and taught. (Readers will know that this blog is a big fan of children for their libertarian spirits, belief in justice and solidarity, and their Promethean spirit.)

In lieu of a full analysis, I will point out that chapters 12 and 13 are the most relevant for an analysis of power in the South, dealing first with the changes to the militia and the security systems on plantations after news of Nat Turner’s revolt horrified the Southern ruling class. These chapters also describe the use of Christianity as a defense against slave insurrection. In both cases, however, Jacobs documents the possibility of resistance, either through taking advantage of expectations or—as in the case of the church—forming competing vernacular religious traditions.

As for the sexual politics of slavery, no one (as far as I know) is clearer than Jacobs. I suppose any patriarchal slave society (Are there any other kind?) would face these tensions. The nature of the color line made sexual transgressions by masters more conspicuous I suppose. Wives of planters had to live with their husband’s illegitimate children nearby and clearly noticeable. Jacobs was stuck between Norcom’s violent harassment and constant threats and her mistress’s jealousy. In turn Jacobs was able to use her sexuality to resistant and ensure freer future for her children. Her relationship with a well-off white man was likely well-thought out (perhaps not unlike Sally Hemmings).

Jacobs tries to get her readers to emphasize with long-suffering white wives. Much of the power of her propaganda comes from her skill at shattering the myth of the family.

I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. (781)

William and Ellen Craft: “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes. (742)

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The story of William and Ellen Craft is a fascinating look at Atlantic history. This couple were born as slaves in Georgia but they ended their lives active in the suppression of international slavery, working in Africa and England, even starting a school in Africa. Later they became active in the Reconstruction South before their efforts to start up an industrial school in their home town, before it was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, agents of the post-Civil War counter-revolution. They eventually started a cooperative farm. Their life forms a nice circle of Atlantic currents.

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The narrative has no byline and is written from William Craft’s perspective, but I will assume that they were shared authors since they shared the experiences that led to the publication of the narrative. It seems that the two of them were together on all of their travels and labors. For all we know, the inspiration for this narrative was Ellen Craft but the voice was given to William to meet the expectations of a patriarchal audience.

The main story of Ellen and William Craft’s narrative is the means of their escape from slavery in the Deep South. Most of the slave narratives came from slaves who escaped from the Border States. It was rare for slaves from Georgia to escape. The Crafts’ method involved Ellen—a light skinned woman—posing as an invalid with William posing as his personal servant. The plan worked fairly well, with only a few snags. The train station in Baltimore was the most troublesome, which was on close lookout for escaping slaves.

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The narrative begins with a point essential to the Crafts’ escape: the flexibility of the color line in the United States. The Crafts discuss how even whites could be enslaved, mistaken for biracial people. White parents even sold some of their children into slavery. They discuss at length a case of a German girl who was enslaved until she was properly identified. This same ambiguity helped Ellen and William Craft escape slavery, but the Crafts want to go father and use it to suggest an internal weakness of the logic of slavery, at least among those who argued that slavery was a good system because it was based on race. (This is a common thread in antebellum pro-slavery thought, which argued for the system from a position of natural law.) In an interesting way the Crafts hacked the system of slavery, including the tendency of masters to move slaves around the country.

The Crafts’ main audience seems to be English readers, so they spend quite a bit of time describing the system of slavery in the United States, going over things that would have been obvious to readers in the United States. I wonder how much impact slave narratives like this one had on the Civil War era diplomacy, which led to the effective isolation of the Confederacy despite the economic ties between England and the South. I would like to know more about this history of reading slave narratives around the world. And of course, it was not strictly a U.S. genre.

The Crafts are also a useful introduction to the dilemma of free blacks in the antebellum South, or more precisely the reasons for the intense hatred toward free blacks shared by the white Southern planting class. “They have no mercy upon, nor sympathy for, any negro whom they cannot enslave. They say that God made the black man to be a slave for the white, and act as though they really believed that all free persons of colour are in open rebellion to a direct command from heave, and that they (the whites) are God’s chosen agents to out upon them unlimited vengeance.” (701–702) They follow this with a description of legal efforts to make freedom impossible for blacks in the South, by expelling such people.

Although not one of the most well-known slave narratives, it is one of the best to explore the subtle line between freedom and slavery and the flexibility of the color line, which is itself a major theme of post-war black writing. I think we can also look at the Crafts as a couple of Atlantic radicals and use them to articulate the international dimension of their struggle.

Sojourner Truth: “Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave,” (1850)

She came to the conclusion, that she had been taking part in a great drama, which was, in itself, but one great system of robbery and wrong. “Yes,” she said, “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” True, she had not received labor from others, and stinted their pay, as she felt had been practiced against her; but she had taken their work from them, which was their only means to get money, and was the same to them in the end. For instance—a gentleman where she lived would give her a half dollar to hire a poor man to clear the new-fallen snow from the steps and sidewalks. She would arise early, and perform the labor herself, putting the money into her own pocket. . . But, in her retrospection, she thought of all the misery she might have been adding to, in her selfish grasping, and it troubled her conscience sorely; and this insensibility to the claims of human brotherhood, and the wants of the destitute and wretched poor, she now saw, as she never had done before, to be unfeeling, selfish and wicked. (640–641)

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The most significant aspect of the Sojourner Truth’s narrative of her experience being enslaved in New York until 1828 is that is shows how fine the line was between slavery and freedom in most of early American history. This Library of America collection does not include Twelve Years a Slave, which makes a similar case, but the slave narratives often show how easily it was to fall into slavery from freedom and how tenuous it was even in the North. Henry Bibb’s escape and return to slavery is another example of this. In the end, the lesson is that no black person in pre-Civil War America were free unless that freedom was voluntarily given by whites. Sojourner Truth says as much in the title of her narrative when she adds “Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York.” Furthermore, Truth’s life story speaks of how vicious and degrading life could be in the United States even for free black women.

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Truth tells her story in third person, using her birth name, Isabella. She uses small vignettes instead of chapters to break up her story. She was born in the late eighteenth century when slavery was still a major institution in several Northern states. Her enslaved parents spoke Dutch. New York at the time was a society with slavery, if not a full-blown slave society. This distinction mattered little to Isabella and her parents who endured all the violence and exploitation of slavery. Despite its importance, New York abolished slavery. Isabella was promised her freedom one year earlier, but due to an injury that rendered her less productive, her master (now a farmer in New Paltz) kept her in slavery until the end. This event reflects one of Truth’s major arguments about the one-sided nature of slavery and the weakness of contract, promises and even law in defending enslaved men and women.

But the reliance on the state for freedom is no more self-assured as seen in the sale of Isabella’s son to the deep South. This was forbidden in the law ending slavery to prevent people from simply selling soon-to-be-freed slaves, making the law potentially moot. Nevertheless, Isabella’s son was sold and it took a fair amount of struggle for her to bring him out of slavery. It is a sign of just how weak the law can be in the face of the interests of those with money and power in the society.

As for the fate of freed men and women in a society actively defending the rights of slavers and the consumers of humanity:

We have now see Isabella, her youngest daughter, and her only son, in possession of, at least, their nominal freedom. It has been said that the freedom of the most free of the colored people of this country is but nominal; but stinted and limited as it is, at best, it is an immense remove from chattel slavery. This fact is disputed, I know. (619)

Precious to be sure but nevertheless, its limitations reflect a moral failing for the society.

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.

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)

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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.

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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.