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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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.

Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.