Novel by fugitive slave gives view into Black History

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By Warren Parkin

One way to celebrate Black History month is to explore the rich tapestry of African American literature, a body of writing that includes well-known non-fiction works such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, and lesser-known fiction works such as The Bondwoman‘s Narrative by Hannah Crafts.

Composed in the 1850s the Bondwoman’s Narrative is the first African American novel by a fugitive slave and probably the first novel authored by a black woman. Perhaps due to the author’s status as a fugitive slave recently escaped from North Carolina, or due to the outbreak of the Civil War, the novel waited a century and a half before its publication in 2002 by Warner Books.

The book narrates the story of Hannah, who grows up hungering for knowledge and developing skills of intellect and social observation as she serves a variety of masters and finally, cross-dressing as a man and then passing as a white woman, makes her escape from slavery.

Firmly entrenched in the Romantic Tradition, the novel employs typical motifs of coincidence, babies switched at birth, a brooding gothic atmosphere, ghost stories, a dark and mysterious villainous stranger, weather that reflects the characters’ emotions, and desire for individual freedom and true love. These ingredients make for an exciting plot, while details about service as a house slave and interactions with masters and mistresses provide historical insight into antebellum culture.

Although highly condemnatory of slavery, this book does not engage in the whole-sale stereotyping of whites or blacks; nor does it make the mistake of villainizing whites while idealizing blacks. Instead, Crafts goes out of her way to humanize everyone, treating characters as people with diverse strengths, flaws, world-views and cultural biases. On a very basic level, she portrays people who do good and evil but in the end are linked as “children of one great parent” who share the twin fates of life and death.

The novel is autobiographical, actually calling Hannah’s final owner by name, and detailing a well-used escape route used by slaves. Unlike literature written by whites about blacks such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Crafts’ dialogue is highly readable, avoiding lapses into prolonged exaggeration of stereotypical black English.

The plot hinges on what Crafts sees as the absurdly unjust custom of classifying people as slaves from birth, repeatedly using the white person of color - that is, a person who in all appearances is white but is a genetic mix of white and black - to emphasize that genetic heritage should not be used to consign anyone to slavery. The novel seems to ask the white reader, If such people are really slaves, how sure of your genetic heritage are you? Could you possibly have any black relative in your family tree? In such a world, slavery for any white person is only a genealogical detail away.

The narrative is imbued with religious discourse, spirituality and contemplation of things eternal, the mystery that surrounds life. Even so, Crafts does not shy away from describing details of punishment, the fall-out of marital infidelity, squalor and injustice.

Throughout the novel Crafts shows how slavery debases both the enslaved and the enslaver. Exploitation of innocence - whether in children or young enslaved women - takes center stage, heightening for the reader a sense of the injustices produced by the peculiar institution. She finds marriage an untenable custom for enslaved people because it leads to producing more slaves. For Crafts, marriage and reproduction fall in the realm of freedom, an expression of commitment possible only when two people are at liberty to exercise free will. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a pioneering giant in the field of African American Studies, the introduction to this edition details his acquisition of the manuscript and search for the author’s identity, and the appendix details the scientific sleuthing that Joe Nickell undertook to historically authenticate the text. The introduction and the appendix by themselves make this book worth reading.

History buffs, teachers, advanced middle school students and book lovers everywhere will find a treasure trove of mystery, social mores, adventure, and literary interest in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative, available in trade paperback for $14.95.

Warren Parkin resides in East Levy County and is a graduate of the University of Utah. He holds degrees in Spanish Literature and English Literature.