slave-narrative

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12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt is set to release today, 18 October 2013. The film is based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup and his fight for survival and freedom during the pre-Civil War era in the United States.

However, the accuracy of Northup’s text is disputed. A recent article in the New York Times highlighted some of the scholarly arguments surrounding the anti-slavery genre. Here is a brief reading list to gather some background information on the film and this academic debate.

  1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, edited with an introduction by Deborah E. McDowell
  2. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory edited by Kenneth S. Greenberg
  3. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, introduction by Valerie Smith
  4. Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave by William L. Andrews and Regina E. Mason
  5. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy by Howard Jones
  6. Six Women’s Slave Narratives introduction by William L. Andrews
  7. The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel by Julia Sun-Joo Lee
  8. Slave Narratives after Slavery edited by William L. Andrews
  9. The Slave’s Narrative edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Image credit: 12 Years a Slave image gallery (Cameron Cook)

memory.loc.gov
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress and includes more than 200 photographs from the Prints and Photographs Division that are now made available to the public for the first time. Born in Slavery was made possible by a major gift from the Citigroup Foundation.

One can argue about whether Anglo-American slave narratives are of any use for the study of slavery in the Dutch colonies, but for my present purpose it is more interesting to note the remarkable fact that these narratives are connected to real-life, colonial slavery at all. Since the late eighteenth century, virtually no Dutch critic has thought of Anglo-American slave narratives as meaningful tools to discuss or reflect on the slave trade, slavery, or its legacy. On the other hand, slave narratives did make sense as sensational, gothic leisure literature, and as texts that underscored orthodox Protestant interpretations of slavery as a spiritual deprivation that called for personal and collective transformation. Only in the late twentieth century did these traditional Protestant readings give way to post-colonial interpretations stressing Black experience, Black agency, and Black subjectivity.
—  Marijke Huisman, Beyond the Subject: Anglo-American Slave Narratives in the Netherlands, 1789-2013
The book contains 42 of the best Louisiana narratives, many of which were not sent to Washington with the rest of the interviews but housed at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches. These invaluable interviews have been seen by few.

Photo of Harriet A. Jacobs, 1894
Currently listening to the audiobook of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
“Harriet Ann Jacobs (February 11, 1813 – March 7, 1897) was an African-American writer who escaped from slavery and became an abolitionist speaker and reformer. Jacobs’ single work, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, was one of the first autobiographical narratives about the struggle for freedom by female slaves and an account of the sexual harassment and abuse they endured.”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Ann_Jacobs)

More about Harriet Jacobs: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/bio.html
The audiobook: https://librivox.org/incidents-in-the-life-of-a-slave-girl-by-harriet-jacobs/

As in 1790, Dutch readers were incapable of connecting the autobiographical genre to the slavery debate. This makes sense when one takes into account the nature of the debate. Since the late eighteenth century, the central question was not so much the moral evaluation of the slavery system or the humanity of Black people, but the funding of emancipation. According to the Dutch, this required a harmonization between slaves’ rights to freedom and slave owners’ property rights. Personal accounts of fugitive slaves like Douglass—who, by fleeing, had not respected their owner’s property rights—were therefore of very little use. The fact that this position was even taken by Dutch abolitionists also shows their specific style of protest. They did not aim to mobilize the masses, as did their Anglo-American counterparts, but adhered to a political culture that conceived politics as the domain of a small elite of reasonable and objective men looking for governmental solutions to technical problems.
—  Marijke Huisman, Beyond the Subject: Anglo-American Slave Narratives in the Netherlands, 1789–2013 (x)
My master used to read prayers in public to the ship’s crew every Sabbath day, and when I first saw him read, I was never so surprised in my life as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it and move his lips. I wished it would do so with me. As soon as my master had done reading, I followed him to the place where he put the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me, I opened it and put my ear down close upon it, in great hopes that it would say something to me; but I was very sorry and greatly disappointed when I found that it would not speak. This thought immediately presented itself to me, that everybody and everything despised me because I was black.
—  James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, from his autobiography. Born around 1710 in modern-day Nigeria, Gronniosaw was brought as a slave from Africa to Barbados to New York City, where he was bought by a minister who taught him Christianity and how to read Dutch. After being freed upon his master’s death around 1747, immigrating to England in 1762, and marrying a widowed weaver, he dictated his life’s story to “a young lady.” It was printed in 1772, the first slave narrative published in English.  From Lapham’s Quarterly.

Currently reading: Henry Bibb (1815-1854) autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself

This illustration is featured on page 81 of the 1849 edition and captioned, “My heart is almost broken.”

Full text is here: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bibb/bibb.html
Audio book: https://librivox.org/narrative-of-the-life-and-adventures-of-henry-bibb-an-american-slave-by-henry-bibb/

It’s Women’s History Month!  In the GWS Librarian’s office, we have a 17 volume collection of Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.  Using these volumes, we’ll be showcasing a variety of women every week from across the globe and giving a brief biography.

Mary Prince (c. 1788-after 1833)

Mary Prince was born around 1788 to an enslaved woman in Bermuda.  While Prince was still a baby, she and her mother were sold to a Captain Darrel.  His granddaughter took a liking to Prince, a time that Prince remembered fondly, but noted that she “was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave.”  When she was 12, Prince was hired out for three months, but was soon returned to be sold with her siblings in the marketplace.  Prince wrote about the humiliating and heartbreaking experience later in her account, noting that she was “soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled [her] in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb…as if [she] could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beast." 

Prince changed hands several more times, and like many other slaves, she suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her owners.  Prince was eventually able to petition for her freedom in 1827 when her owners took her to England.  After obtaining her freedom, Prince worked for the editor of the Anti-Slavery Reporter and campaigned against slavery herself.  In 1831, Prince published her autobiography entitled The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, and is known to be the first African-English woman to publish an account of her life as a slave.  Prince lived as a free woman until her death sometime after 1833. 

Harriet Jacobs Won Hide-n-Seek

She hid for seven years in her grandmother’s attic to escape slavery. She lived in a tiny crawlspace. During that time, she read and worked on her writing skills. Her first publication was “Letter from a Fugitive Slave” (1853), published anonymously. Most K-12th graders have never heard of Jacobs. She’s got a powerful story, and one vital to the American historical tradition. It’s honest, real, and from a woman’s perspective.

Lesis Writes Home. Possibly the only first person slave narrative from ancient Greece.

Λῆσις [ις ] ἐπιστέλλει Ξενοκλεῖ καὶ τῆι μητρὶ μηδαμῶς περιιδν αὐτὸν ἀπολόμενον ἐν τῶι χαλκείωι, ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸς δεσπότας αὐτ ἐλθν καὶ ἐνευρέσθαι τι βέλτιον αὐτῶι. Ἀνθρώπωι γὰρ παραδέδομαι πάνυ πονηρῶι· μαστιγόμενος ἀπόλλυμαι· δέδεμαι· προπηλακίζομαι· μᾶλλον μᾶλ[λ]ον.

Lesis(is) writes to Xenokles and his mother to overlook in no way that he is dying in the foundry, but to come to his masters and find something better for him. For I have been given to a very toilsome man. I’m dying! Being whipped! I’ve been tied up! I’m trampled! More and more!

(Translation is mine. The Greek text is rendered as it is presented in Jordan, David. A Personal Letter Found in the Athenian Agora. Hesperia, Vol. 69, No. 1 (2000), p. 95) Lesis might just be an apprentice though. It’s hard to say.