Abstract and Keywords
The introduction to the Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative argues for the importance of sophisticated approaches to slave testimony while also presenting an overview of the diversity and complexity of that testimony. The Handbook addresses a broad range of sources, far beyond the traditional book-length autobiographies usually associated with the genre of slave narratives. The introduction offers background on the troubled history of scholarship on the history of slavery, the gradual recognition of the importance of slave testimony, and then the challenge of recovering and reading often highly mediated accounts from the formerly enslaved. Highlighting the role of slave testimony in battling against misrepresentations and racism, the introduction argues for a more expansive understanding of the formative role of the institution of slavery in U.S. history and culture. The introduction then provides an overview of the Handbook's organization, with brief commentary on individual chapters.
On November 14, 1847, William Wells Brown delivered a lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, a lecture recorded by Henry M. Parkhurst, “phonographic reporter,” and published by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In that lecture, Brown announced that his subject would be American slavery “as it is,” including “its influence on American character and morals” (4). Brown knew his subject, for he was born a slave near Lexington, Kentucky, the son of an enslaved black woman and a slaveholding white man, and indeed was probably related to his owner. He escaped from slavery in 1834 and eventually would become one of the leading abolitionists of his time, a recognized and respected lecturer and prolific writer. In this lecture, though, Brown begins by claiming that he faces an impossible task. “Slavery has never been represented,” he asserts, and “Slavery never can be represented” (4). Any attempt to represent the system of slavery could only fail; and if he were to try to represent it, he would need to whisper it to his audience “one at a time” (4). Brown then goes on to represent slavery in a masterful performance that includes definitions of slavery, examples of its intimate violations, commentary on the white press and commercial interests involved in the maintenance of the national system of slavery, remarks on the legal system required by slavery, and observations on the extent to which slavery has corrupted white American character, including the political and religious ideals to which white Americans claimed devotion. It was a system, as Brown’s opening remarks indicated, at once so extensive and so intimate as to both resist and require representation—and the representation that could only fail would somehow need to be both general and individualized, both a grand dissertation and an intimate communication, whispered to individual ears but finding the one in the many, the many in the one.
For Brown, slavery was the economic, political, and social system that provided the underlying but unspeakable unity to a nation all but lost in its own mythology and its own degradation, and subsequent national experience and historical research have demonstrated there is ample reason to agree with his conclusions. In this address—and, indeed, in his very existence—Brown represented a nation that regularly proclaimed its devotion to liberty even though every aspect of the nation—political, economic, social, (p. 2) legal, even theological—was devoted to slavery. This was a nation that regularly celebrated a founding document proclaiming that all men are created equal even as it was devoted to creating the fictions of race so as to enforce unjust, enslaving, and even murderous social distinctions. This is a nation whose champion of liberty, New Hampshire’s Daniel Webster, helped to craft a political compromise in 1850 that violated the rights of African Americans, both those who had escaped from slavery and those who were nominally free. This was a nation whose highest legal authorities declared in 1857 that black Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This was a nation whose most popular and influential form of entertainment was blackface minstrelsy, and indeed a nation almost obsessed with defining and controlling the terms of black identity. The impact of slavery was felt in every corner of American life—and in the century-and-a-half since slavery was legally ended, the lingering effects of slavery still remain strong. Try to imagine American history without slavery. It simply isn’t possible. No matter where you look—be it the history of the labor movement or the history of entertainment—you will soon encounter clear evidence of the forceful effects of slavery or of the racial attitudes and distinctions that slavery both required and encouraged.
This is not the story of slavery that you will encounter in any American textbook, even today. In most cases, you’ll find slavery safely relegated to a discrete chapter, or a portion of a chapter—a difficult episode in American history, but one finally resolved by the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment, a resolution even more firmly established by the successful election and reelection of an African American President (including his negotiation of the electoral college that was itself shaped by the history of slavery). However, the full history of slavery is not one that can be brought to a neat conclusion, particularly since prominent among the effects of history have been a studied avoidance of the subject in American society and the mis-education of both white and black Americans on their shared history. In Brown’s time, those African Americans fortunate enough to live in nominal freedom faced lives shaped by persistent and crippling racism, what Hosea Easton, one of Brown’s contemporaries, called “slavery in disguise” (Treatise 46). This “slavery in disguise” was just as pernicious in its way as was legal bondage, restricting African American opportunity to the extent that it limited the growth and threatened the vitality of African American communities struggling to establish themselves in a racist environment. Surveying the effects of being excluded from schools and from lifelong prospects, African American activist David Walker bemoaned in 1827 the prevalence in black communities of “ignorance, the mother of treachery and deceit, [that] gnaws into our very vitals” (Appeal 21). But there was ignorance enough to go around, as white Americans developed increasingly elaborate legal, social, and theological justifications for maintaining slavery and racial dominance in the land of freedom.
Even in New England, often considered the center of anti-slavery activity, white Americans who resisted the anti-slavery movement (and even many who supported it) tried to contain or, in various ways, eliminate African Americans as a significant presence in the region. Historian Joanne Pope Melish is particularly instructive on this point in her book Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, (p. 3) 1780–1860. “New England whites,” Melish notes, “employed an array of strategies to effect the removal” of people of color “and to efface people of color and their history in New England.” Melish looks at a wide range of measures by which New England whites tried to render African Americans, along with the history of slavery in New England, invisible:
Some of these efforts were symbolic: representing people of color as ridiculous or dangerous “strangers” in anecdotes, cartoons, and broadsides; emphasizing slavery and “race” as “southern problems”; characterizing New England slavery as brief and mild, or even denying its having existed; inventing games and instructional problems in which the object was to make “the negroes” disappear; digging up the corpses of people of color. Other efforts aimed to eliminate the presence of living people of color: conducting official roundups and “warnings-out”; rioting in and vandalizing black neighborhoods. Finally, some efforts involved both symbolic and physical elements, such as the American Colonization Society’s campaign to demonize free people of color and raise funds to ship them to Africa.
As Melish notes, many of these measures involved the strategic misrepresentation of black character and of the black presence in national history (which was, for many, white national history). Even those who escaped from slavery to tell their stories in the North found that the white North had stories of their own to tell.
The problems Melish summarizes extended far beyond New England, and African Americans recognized the importance, though also the challenge, of fighting their battles on the printed page. In 1827, an editorial from the first edition of Freedom’s Journal announced the central mission of the newspaper—to be the voice of the community, and to thereby exercise some influence in the representation of African American character. “We wish to plead our own cause,” the editorial stated:
too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of color; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one (“To Our Patrons”).
In 1853, African Americans amplified the central conditions of this mission in the Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th and 8th, 1853, emphasizing that black uplift required responses to white characterizations. “What stone has been left unturned to degrade us?,” the convention members asked:
What hand has refused to fan the flame of prejudice against us? What American artist has not caricatured us? What wit has not laughed at us in our wretchedness? What songster has not made merry over our depressed spirits? What press has not ridiculed and contemned us? What pulpit has withheld from our devoted heads its angry lightning, or its sanctimonious hate? (16–17).
In 1859, publisher and editor Thomas Hamilton continued this cause in his opening “Apology” for the Anglo-African Magazine, emphasizing the systemic nature of those misrepresentations. “The wealth, the intellect, the Legislation, (State and Federal,) the pulpit, and the science of America,” Hamilton asserted, “have concentrated on no one point so heartily as in the endeavor to write down the negro as something less than a man” (Anglo-African 1). Small wonder that William Wells Brown believed that slavery never had and never would be represented. Even if one could do justice to the subject, one would still have to break through imposing walls of prejudice and racial control before one could hope for a proper hearing.
But that is exactly what many African Americans who had experienced slavery firsthand tried to do, and their efforts to tell their stories, to represent the unrepresentable, are collectively known as “slave narratives,” the body of testimony to which the book you are reading is devoted. In a study that was essential—indeed, foundational—in inspiring and guiding serious scholarly interest in slave narratives, Marion Wilson Starling provided in 1946 “a bibliographic guide to the location of 6006 narrative records,” records that “extend from 1703–1944” (xxvi). These records, Starling notes, “are to be discovered in judicial records, broadsides, private printings, abolitionist newspapers and volumes, scholarly journals, church records, unpublished collections, and a few regular publications” (xxvi). Included among those narratives are the book-length autobiographies and biographies that have been celebrated for their historical importance. Books such as Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901) were well known in their own time and have come to be considered as definitive accounts of the different significant eras of slavery from the colonial to the post-Civil War eras. Other books, such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) or Lucy A. Delaney’s From the Darkness Cometh the Light or Struggles for Freedom, were relatively unknown in their own time but have since been recognized as essential entrances to the history of slavery, even as correctives to the history viewed through the pages of narratives written by men. But beyond the books lies a broad range of testimony, including over 10,000 pages of interviews gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The record of slave narratives is, in other words, extensive, varied, and rich. African Americans, it turns out, did much to address their exclusion from and misrepresentation in the historical record.
So why are we still struggling to come to a balanced and comprehensive understanding of this history, one that extends beyond a discrete chapter in a history textbook, a chapter seemingly designed to keep slavery, as it were, in its place? In part, the answer is that scholars were slow in appreciating the value of this rich record. For many years, scholars dismissed the recorded testimony of the formerly enslaved as unreliable historical records, to the extent that they considered such testimony at all. The early histories of slavery—most prominently, Ulrich B. Phillips’s influential American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929)—focused their studies, and based their findings, on the records of white southerners, the planters who relied on (p. 5) slave labor, attending almost exclusively to the plantations that have come to symbolize slavery. Accordingly, many were prepared to accept Phillips’s assumptions about “negroes, who for the most part were by racial quality submissive rather than defiant, light-hearted instead of gloomy, amiable and ingratiating instead of sullen, and whose very defects invited paternalism rather than repression” (Phillips 341–342). Certainly, many nineteenth-century white Americans viewed the enslaved in this way, and any historian looking at the “evidence,” the great balk of books and documents written by white Americans characterizing enslaved blacks, would have reason to come to such conclusions, but critical attention to slave narratives would lead one to different conclusions. Phillips’s conclusions were challenged strongly, though, in the 1950s. Kenneth Stampp offered a more comprehensive view of plantation life in The Peculiar Institution (1956), arguing for the need to dissociate white romantic views of plantation slavery from hard reality, and arguing against the assumptions of fundamental racial difference central to Phillips’s thinking. In Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959, revised in 1968 and 1976) Stanley Elkins also argued against such assumptions, but reached conclusions similar to Phillips’ by a different route, arguing that docile slaves—the Sambo type, in Elkins’s study—were not born but shaped by hard experience under slavery.
As historians increasingly debated such conclusions about the character of the enslaved, they eventually recognized the importance of considering slave testimony itself. Neither Stampp nor Elkins relied on slave narratives, either written accounts or the large body of WPA testimony, but by the 1970s slave testimony inspired a flood of important reconsiderations of slave life, and, therefore, of the history of slavery more broadly. Among the most influential of these studies were John W. Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the American South (1972), George Rawick’s From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (1972), Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Herbert G. Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (1976), and Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977). The importance of this shift in historical practice cannot be overstated. Blassingame, for example, begins his preface to The Slave Community by noting that “even a cursory examination of the literature shows that historians have never systematically explored the life experience of American slaves,” whereas “southern planters, on the other hand, have had an extremely good press in the United States” (xi). Historians, he observes, “have, in effect, been listening to only one side of a complicated debate” (xi). His concerns in The Slave Community, he emphasized, were dramatically different: “This book describes and analyzes the life of the black slave: his African heritage, culture, family, acculturation, behavior, religion, and personality” (xi). As this list suggests, the range of questions to ask of slave testimony was broad, and the books published in the 1970s, while doing much to prepare for a balanced debate, largely surveyed a previously unexplored historical landscape.
With new resources, though, came new complications, for slave testimony was anything but transparent. Many early book-length narratives were published specifically to (p. 6) promote the anti-slavery cause, and their authenticity was questioned so frequently—often, because white readers didn’t believe that black Americans were capable of writing their own life stories—that the phrase “written by himself” or “written by herself” became a regular feature of these publications. Addressing those narratives, James Olney has observed,
Unlike autobiography in general the narratives are all trained on one and the same objective reality, they have a coherent and defined audience, and have behind them and guiding them an organized group of ‘sponsors,’ and they are possessed of very specific motives, intentions, and uses understood by narrators, sponsors, and audiences alike: to reveal the truth of slavery and so to bring about its abolition. How, then, could the narratives be anything but very much like one another? (154)
Although Blassingame had hoped to find in his sources evidence of “the slave’s inner life, his thoughts, actions, self-concepts, or personality,” Olney suggests that such interiority is obscured by the political conditions under which the narratives were produced. Indeed, Olney argues that “the conventions for slave narratives were so early and so firmly established that one can imagine a sort of master outline…drawn from the great narratives and guiding the lesser ones” (152). This outline would include the presentation of the book, the testimonials or prefaces written by white abolitionists “or by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text” (152); but it would include as well a number of narrative episodes—for example, the struggle for the acquisition of literacy, descriptions of “Christian” slaveholders who were more cruel than others, descriptions of whippings, and a “description of the amounts of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year” (153). What “truth of slavery” could one hope to find from such resources beyond the views that guided them in the first place?
Even if we note that Olney’s conclusions apply only to a relative handful of slave narratives, we face other challenges in getting to the heart of the testimony both revealed in and obscured by these accounts. If we focus only on book-length narratives, we need to account for autobiographies published specifically in the service of anti-slavery organizations; autobiographies published independently and often without a primary political purpose; multiple versions of autobiographical narratives, offering both contradictory and evolving accounts of the same life story; biographies by white authors on black subjects, often revealing much more about the author than the subject; autobiographies written by a white amanuensis, often with white authors clearly engaged in acts of ventriloquism, putting words in the mouths of their subjects; multiple versions of narratives written by a white biographer or amanuensis; hybrid narratives of fiction and autobiography, with unclear lines between the actual and the imagined; and singular tales of discovered or local stories—for example, Henry Trumbull’s Life and Adventures of Robert, the Hermit of Massachusetts, not a book that fits into any clear political purpose or any master outline of the genre. If one were to bring together examples of all these forms of “the slave narrative,” one would have trouble piecing together a clear history of “the slave community.” Even the three versions of his life that Frederick (p. 7) Douglass wrote and published over the years—Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)—do not add up to a clear and consistent life portrait. If we extend our perspective to take in the whole of slave testimony, the story gets even more complicated, and the call for a coherent portrait is both compelling and elusive.
Nor would a comparative reading of these narratives allow one to focus exclusively on the history of slavery, for almost all the narratives published before the Civil War were written after the enslaved subject had reached at least nominal freedom, and all the narratives published after the war are as much about a tenuous and restricted freedom as about slavery. As Rhondda R. Thomas explains in her contribution to this volume, locating the narratives both geographically and historically can sometimes be difficult. Are these stories about the South or about the North—or about Canada or Great Britain, where many fugitive slaves moved to protect the freedom they had struggled to attain? Do we account for them by their points of departure or by their points of arrival and publication sites? One thinks, for example, of William Andrews’s collection of North Carolina narratives, Arna Bontemps’s collection of Connecticut narratives, and Eugene McCarthy and Thomas Doughton’s collection of narratives associated with Worcester, Massachusetts. In each case, the scholars have made connections among a gathering of narratives and published them together to address a particular regional history, but the same narratives could have been gathered differently to speak of other regions, other histories. Some narratives were written in England, such as William and Ellen Crafts’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom or the “First English Edition” of Henry Box Brown’s story; others are associated with other significant historical sites (Elizabeth Keckley, for example, who served in the White House during the Lincoln admistration); and some were published and promoted in social spaces generally (and sometimes strangely) not marked in current scholarship as significant sites of nineteenth-century African American history (for example, Lucy Delaney’s, published in St. Louis—a significant site of African American history, but one only gradually earning the attention of scholars—or Louis Hughes’s, published in Milwaukee). In virtually all slave narratives, one needs to account for significant movement, involving different social spaces, shifting social and political contingencies, and sometimes even fundamentally different legal and social definitions of “blackness” or “whiteness” as the narrative subject travels from place to place, where different laws and customs applied.
Even if we focus on a single account, we are likely to have reason to question the means by which we can get to the views of those who experienced slavery. In both book-length narratives and the wider field of slave remembrance, the testimonies of those who had experienced slavery are often highly mediated—that is, presented to us by others. Since all of white culture so frequently seemed devoted to creating fictions about what it means to be black, the interest of even the most trusted white Americans in the life stories of black Americans was almost always a mixed blessing. Scholars and teachers still struggle to make the point, for example, that many of Sojourner Truth’s speeches were later misremembered and misrepresented, as white writers not only put words in her mouth but also presented Truth’s speech patterns in stereotypical black southern dialect, (p. 8) even though Truth was raised in a Dutch-speaking area of New York. Sarah Bradford, looking to help Harriet Tubman, wrote a biography that begins by having the young Tubman engaged with “a group of merry little darkies,” a biography that also praises Tubman by distinguishing her and her family from other African Americans, asserting that “all should not be judged by the idle, miserable darkies who have swarmed about Washington and other cities since the War” (Bradford 13, 69). Such well-intended but prejudiced misrepresentations were not unusual, and almost all African American public figures of the time demonstrate a keen understanding of what it means to live in a white supremacist culture. African American narrators accordingly were cautious about the prospect of revealing the details of their lives even to benevolent white readers who were simultaneously being influenced by a culture bent on trivializing, eliminating, and otherwise controlling the African American presence in the North. As many slave narrators realized, to tell your story is to give someone control over your life, unless they are willing to reveal just as much about themselves. As Robert B. Stepto has observed,
The risks that written storytelling undertakes are…at least twofold: one is that the reader will become a hearer but not manage an authenticating response; the other is that the reader will remain a reader and not only belittle or reject storytelling’s particular “keen disturbance,” but also issue confrontational responses which sustain altogether different definitions of literature, of literacy, and of appropriate reader response. (308)
Slave narratives, accordingly, are difficult acts of remembrance—difficult in the attempt to tell a deeply intimate story of violation, and difficult in the means by which that story is related and received.
The most striking example of an African American life virtually lost in its story is that of Josiah Henson, who became associated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous fictional character Uncle Tom. Following the publication of the original version of his story in 1849 and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, Henson became famous, somewhat improbably, as the “model” for the character Uncle Tom in Stowe’s novel. By the time the last version of Henson’s story was published, his life had become so identified with that of Uncle Tom that any hope of understanding the actual man was lost in the fame of the fictional character. As Robin Winks has observed, “Henson was seldom left free to be himself, to assimilate if he wished to into the mainstream of Canadian life—even of black Canadian life—for he became the focus of abolitionist attention, a tool to be used in a propaganda campaign which was not above much juggling with the facts, however proper its ultimate goals may have been” (Introduction vi). Henson’s original narrative, published in 1849, was written by Samuel A. Eliot, “a former Mayor of Boston who was well-known for his moderate anti-slavery views” (Winks xiii). This version tells the story of a man who escaped from slavery and eventually settled in the Dawn settlement in Canada, where he worked to promote that developing African American community. There is no evidence that this narrative provided Stowe with her model for the character Uncle Tom, but after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, the association developed all the same, perhaps aided by Stowe’s preface to the “substantially revised” version of Henson’s life published (p. 9) in 1858 (Winks xxxi). After that time, Henson’s narrative was in the hands of the English clergyman-editor John Lobb. The third version of Henson’s narrative, published in 1877, was entitled “Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life”: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”), From 1789 to 1876. In 1881, Lobb published The Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (“Uncle Tom”) From 1789 to 1881, a version that includes a chapter entitled “Mrs. Stowe’s Characters,” another entitled “‘Uncle Tom’ and the Editor’s Visit to Her Majesty the Queen,” a “Summary of ‘Uncle Tom’s’ Public Services,” and an appendix offering “A Sketch of Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe.”
One could trace a similar path in the histories of many of those who tried to draw from their lives either to testify against slavery or to leave some sign of a life, a community, and a world all but lost in the dominant version of history. The different editions of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth can be viewed as a struggle between someone known for her strong voice and the sometimes condescending voices of those who present themselves as her biographers and champions. Many scholars view Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), as a declaration of independence from William Lloyd Garrison and other white abolitionists who helped make possible Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). Henry “Box” Brown followed his original narrative, authored by white abolitionist Charles Stearns—Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks upon the Remedy for Slavery (1849)—with one that emphasizes Brown’s attempt to reclaim his story, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851). In a different kind of self-reclamation, Thomas Jones resisted the kind of association that haunted Josiah Henson. Jones’s original narrative, published in 1855, was entitled Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Years later, Jones published another version, still written by another, but this one highlighting Jones’s professional accomplishments and community: The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones (1885). For those who published just one version of their narrative, similar problems abound, and one needs to be attentive to the cacophony of voices and the challenges of local contexts and interracial connections if one is to get at the full story of slavery and its effects.
When we turn from book-length slave narratives to the broader field of slave testimony, we encounter even greater challenges. As Marie Jenkins Schwartz and Sharon Ann Musher explain in their contributions to this volume, the WPA interviews of the 1930s yielded a great deal of testimony that historians have sometimes ignored and often struggled to evaluate. In many cases, the interviewers were white, and those who had experienced slavery (not to mention the harsh racial climate following slavery) were naturally hesitant to trust such interviewers. Moreover, those being interviewed were, in many cases, only children when they experienced slavery, so their stories often carry traces of the ways in which oral culture and other influences shape memory over time. Other recorded testimony comes to us from various sources—newspapers, diaries or memoirs, even pension records, to mention only a few. In each case, we receive these narratives through the (p. 10) complicating filters of a difficult history, and the narratives we receive often reveal as much about those filters as about the conditions of slavery or the struggle for freedom.
The slave narratives, from whatever source, are valuable to us, though, not despite such complications but because of them, for such complications are not incidental to the story of American slavery and its effects but very much a part of it. Unless we want to continue the struggle to maintain the history of U.S. slavery as a conveniently discrete chapter in American history, we need to attend to the comprehensive reach of this story. In other words, we need to catch up to William Wells Brown, who in his 1847 speech before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, insisted that addressing the realities of slavery means addressing its effects far beyond the experiences of the enslaved. It is difficult to think of any aspect of U.S. culture and society that has not been influenced and, at times, fundamentally shaped by the political, economic, philosophical, and theological gymnastics required to maintain a system of slavery in a land that declared itself for liberty and equality. The difficult collaborations and other transactions between white and black Americans in the slave narratives reveal a great deal about the effects of slavery, the ways in which a convoluted and incoherent social order settled into habits of mind. So much slave testimony comes to us indirectly, making the larger story one of patchwork history and gathered traces of a still-dynamic past—but the search for that larger story is a quest that involves us in the heart of American history. As we discover anew as the past erupts again and again, forcing itself back into our consciousness, this is a story that has everything to do with who Americans are, who they can reasonably hope to be, and how they can move closer to the ideals they have for so long claimed as central to their national character.
Addressing the ongoing challenge to “manage an authenticating response” to the enormous and still only partially examined body of slave testimony, The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative is both a glance back and a look forward. Included in this Handbook are 25 essays from some of the most thoughtful, informed, and conscientious scholars in the field, and in their individual chapters, each scholar offers a view of the work that has come before so as to get to the work that remains. The guiding principle for the volume is that articulated by William Wells Brown so many years ago, that slavery both cannot and must be represented, and that the task of addressing this vast world of concerns takes one beyond the usual borders that distinguish between south and north, slave and free, black and white. Applied to the slave narratives, the challenge is to look for narratives beyond those contained in the usual historical archives, beyond the book-length narratives that usually represent the whole of testimony, and beyond the few leading figures who usually are expected to speak for all—most often, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and only a very few others. As Deborah E. McDowell has noted, scholars and teachers have long “privileged and mystified Douglass’s narrative” by having it serve a “double duty: not only does it make slavery intelligible, but the ‘black experience’ as well” (p. 11) (38–39). When offering this observation, McDowell was especially concerned with the absence of attention to women who wrote or told of their lives under slavery. “It is this choice of Douglass as…‘representative man,’” McDowell argues, “as the part that stands for the whole, that reproduces the omission of women from view, except as afterthoughts different from ‘the same’ (black men)” (56). The same point could be made more broadly to include authors who were less recognizably literary in their approach to their stories, or slaves whose stories relied on others for the telling, from those whose stories were related in, say, the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (a collection of documentary evidence to support her contested representation of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to those whose stories relied on the understanding of, or even the questions selected by, the interviewers for the Federal Writers’ Project. A central premise of The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative is that the search for slave testimony is ongoing, as is the attempt to give that testimony a fair hearing and an appropriate context once it has been recovered.
The essays included in this volume are designed to promote scholarship that will continue the work of recovering the testimony of the enslaved while also developing innovative methods for attending to that body of testimony creatively and thoughtfully. In planning the volume and preparing the essays, we have prioritized the broad tradition over individual authors, and while we account for the important scholarship that has brought us this far, we offer, as well, approaches that will take us deeper into the environment, even the soundscapes, of slavery. Our intent is not to highlight the singularity of any particular account, nor to comfortably locate slave narratives in traditional literary or cultural history, but rather to faithfully represent a body of writing and testimony that was designed to speak for the many, to represent the unspeakable, and to account for the experience of enslaved and nominally free communities. There are no chapters devoted to major writers, since various resources already exist for that purpose and since those writers naturally emerge as central figures in many of the essays. In almost all the chapters, we have tried to encapsulate the conventional wisdom on the subject in the process of exploring critical new directions for approaching these concerns. The goal of this Oxford Handbook is to encourage research on a great number of understudied narratives while demonstrating the rich complexity of this field of study for those just entering it.
What stories do slave narratives tell? What histories do they reveal? How do they fit into, challenge, undermine, or otherwise complicate the stories we rely upon, the histories to which we turn and from which we draw for inspiration and guidance? The chapters in this section address the challenge of answering such questions. In many ways, Mitch Kachun offers an introduction to all that follows by addressing the importance of memory in our approach to slave narratives—both the memories of those who told their stories, and the remembrance that should follow the telling. Attending to our reliance (p. 12) on both the vagaries and the intimacies of memory, Kachun explores the fractured but insistent presence of slave narratives in the nation’s shared history, a sense of history that often comes to us piecemeal, in traces and fragments through various sources. Following those traces, Eric Gardner addresses the deep connection between the recording and the remembrance of history. African American historians have long recognized that many of the documents they need to piece together African American history are scattered among public records and other archives devoted to other purposes. The story of African American attempts to come to an understanding of their own history is a story of ongoing attempts to identify and gather those scattered documents. Gardner explores the challenges of doing this work in search of slave testimony, working from archive to archive, both with and against the intended purposes of those archives. Dickson Bruce takes us from the archives to the practice of history, addressing the impact of the recognition of slave narratives as important if complicated forms of historical evidence. Noting that the slave narratives that receive the most attention were usually written or narrated by exceptional men and women, Bruce notes how these narratives nonetheless provide us with an entrance into communities otherwise obscured by the historical record. Jeannine DeLombard approaches the historical record from a different angle, reminding us that slavery was a legal institution—a seemingly simple fact, until one remembers that most slave testimony emerged from a difficult legal transaction—presented either by fugitives from American law or by those who had negotiated a legal “freedom” from slavery, which is far different from the idealized freedom that seems to await at the end in popular stories of the heroic Underground Railroad. Slave narratives, DeLombard demonstrates, are often quite focused on legal matters—from commentary on Constitutional theory to negotiations and disputes over the nature or even the possibility of one’s always tenuous “freedom.”
Although they are sometimes treated as straightforward individual statements, slave narratives are anything but, and the challenge of identifying and working through the layered testimonies is the subject of this section. Marie Jenkins Schwartz comments on the challenges posed by the rich records of the WPA interviews. Noting that scholars initially viewed the narratives with suspicion, since there were so many reasons to see the interviews as biased or otherwise flawed, Schwartz notes that historians should always treat historical documents with some skepticism, but she notes that the historical commentary on the WPA records itself constitutes an important historical archive that should also be approached with some skepticism. When these records are considered together—WPA interviews and the scholarship marking their gradual acceptance as historical evidence—we are able to realize the value of this testimony, including its ability to shape the methods, practice, and conclusions of historical scholarship over time. Sharon Ann Musher addresses the WPA documents as well, emphasizing the importance of a body of (p. 13) testimony that takes us beyond the stories of the exceptional figures we encounter through most of the “classic” book-length slave narratives. Noting the challenge of evaluating these documents, Musher focuses on specific problems the WPA narratives pose for researchers and explains how such problems can be productively addressed. Exploring yet another layer of the historical record, Elizabeth Regosin reminds us that slave narratives can be found in documents not specifically devoted to recording individual accounts of enslavement. Regosin turns to the Civil War pension records in the National Archives to gather testimony from those who looked for compensation for the service of African American soldiers during the Civil War. In doing so, she not only uncovers a rich body of testimony that, like the WPA narratives, take us beyond the perspectives of the exceptional few, she also underscores the ways in which slave narratives always speak of a difficult negotiation over the legal terms of one’s recognition as a national subject. John Michael Vlach extends the point still further, noting that slave testimony is written across the landscape, inscribed even on the oft-romanticized facade of slavery, the plantation. Who built the plantations, Vlach asks, and shaped the surrounding landscape—and what can we learn by studying the design of the houses of the enslaved and the environments shaped by the enslaved, either in collaboration with or against the designs of their owners?
After searching WPA accounts, pension records, and the architecture of slavery for a stable and reliable record of the lives and perspectives of the enslaved, one might be prepared to believe that the most prominent of the slave narratives—the published texts former slaves authored or narrated—should be easy to access. In fact, though, these narratives are deeply layered as well, and the enslaved sometimes found themselves bound in print as they had been bound in life, at the mercy of white narrators, editors, publishers, and critics. What does it mean to think of these narratives as books, to place them in the world of publishing, distribution, and reception, to consider the presentation of this testimony in a culture in which books circulated widely and had broad and intimate power? What does it mean to consider them in the context of American literary history? Teresa Goddu initiates this section’s concerns by meditating on the slave narratives as material objects, as books in an active print culture that included conventions of printing, distribution, and reception. Dwight McBride and Justin A. Joyce examine the significance of print culture as well, focusing on readers. Slave narrators found a ready audience, McBride and Joyce observe, but it was an audience rather too ready—that is, an audience ready to understand them before they had told their individual stories. Both of these chapters, then, address the ways in which those who told their stories had to work with and against assumptions about black Americans and slavery, negotiating the (often racist) conventions of communication and understanding. Kenneth Warren, in turn, explores the role of these narratives in the most elevated realm for considering matters of communication and understanding, literary history. Noting that the story (p. 14) of the individual fugitive slave’s quest for freedom has played a more pronounced role in American literary history than has the more significant history of emancipation, Warren explores the tension central to the slave narratives—between exceptional individuals and anonymous, exploited laborers—and finds in that tension a central theme of American intellectual and literary history. Indeed, ideological contradictions and cultural tensions abound in slave narratives, and if we are to fully address the implications of these challenging but revealing texts, we need to pay attention to their visual as well as their discursive cues, as Marcus Wood explains in his chapter. Slave narratives often make pointed use of illustrations, but those illustrations (even photographs of prominent people) are anything but straightforward supplements to the narrative message. Rather, the illustrations themselves offered layered testimony, often carrying traces of other sources, and often opening up rather than resolving narrative possibilities. And what happens to those narrative possibilities when the assumed purpose of slave narratives—a strong anti-slavery message, a call to action—is no longer the primary or even a pressing point? Addressing this question, William Andrews looks at slave narratives published after the Civil War, and thus at a time when one could not hope for even the problematically sympathetic readers that McBride and Joyce describe.
Experience and Authority
We return, then, to the larger purpose of slave narratives—not just to argue against the institution of slavery but to represent the lives affected by slavery, that is, the individuals and communities shaped by the economic, political, and social policies and practices needed for the maintenance of this system for controlling laboring populations. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman explores the intimate challenges of serving as a witness to the sexual control and violations fundamental to experience of slavery, including the challenges of strategically turning such violations to the reader’s own experience, forcing recognition of the fundamental wrongs encouraged by a system that gave people absolute control over others. But even that message of sexual violence needed to operate in a culture with established prejudices about the possibilities and rights assigned to women, and DoVeanna Fulton accordingly explores the deeply feminist work promoted by women who told their story, work still required if we are to do justice to those stories today. Maurice O. Wallace extends that point by noting that even black males needed to struggle against the priorities of a patriarchal culture, particularly in that the system of slavery and the definition of masculinity were both deeply shaped by capitalist ideology. Given the challenges of establishing individual authority over one’s identity, many slave narratives highlight the importance of family and community, though these relationships were often complicated by the realities of slavery and what counted as freedom for those who escaped. Brenda Stevenson addresses the broad spectrum of family and community affiliations presented in slave narratives, from African ties to loved ones separated by slavery. Finally, Barbara McCaskill explores the difficult collaborations involved in virtually every slave narrative—from (p. 15) collaborations between black narrators and white authors to those broader collaborations suggested by the presentation of family and community in the narratives.
Environments and Migrations
As individuals are shaped by their communities, so both individuals and communities are influenced by their environments and, through acts of both resistance and witnessing, can work to influence those environments in turn. Kimberly Smith explores the ways in which slave narratives both reflect and comment on a landscape itself managed by the dictates of the economic and social priorities of the system of slavery. Although these narratives are not often included in the history of nature writing, Smith explains why they should be, and how they might lead us to a better understanding of terms and goals of environmental studies. But as we consider the role of the communities and environments central to the perspectives and identities of those who offered their testimonies of enslavement, Rhondda R. Thomas cautions us to think carefully about how we locate slave narratives. Slave narratives, she notes, are complex commentaries on the importance of place and often resist our attempts to categorize them geographically in support of a conceptually neat understanding of the past (and, accordingly, of the present). Accounting for Thomas’s analysis, we need to question this Handbook’s own conceptual foundation—the focus on African American slave narratives. Although this volume is devoted primarily to those narratives that address the history of slavery in the United States, one cannot account for that history without accounting for nations and communities beyond U.S. borders. Winfried Siemerling explores the presence of slave narratives in the Americas broadly, and builds to the special significance of Canada in these narratives. Nicole N. Aljoe turns to another particularly significant region and surveys Caribbean Slave Narratives that, important in and of themselves, offer important perspectives on the conditions and dynamics of slave testimony broadly. As these scholars demonstrate, such international perspectives are important not only for context but because U.S. slavery is grounded in a deeply international and intercontinental history. Nor is this history limited to the dynamics of the slave trade or to the border-crossing of U.S. slaves, as Helen Thomas demonstrates, noting the ways in which the history of the slave trade influenced British literature, and then the ways that literature, in turn, became an important presence in slave narratives.
Echoes and Traces
That slave narratives can teach us much about who we are and how our world was shaped is now firmly established, though there is still much work to do. Some of that work involves the ongoing attempt to recover existing slave testimony wherever we can find it. Some of that work, too, involves following the traces of this history, and of this (p. 16) narrative tradition, beyond the testimony of the enslaved. Just as the history of slavery involved and influenced every aspect of American governance and culture, so slave narratives have been influential as well, for the importance of accounting for lives shaped by this history has not diminished over time. This final section, accordingly, addresses the echoes and traces of slavery in other narratives and expressive forms. Daphne Brooks explores “the poetics of the sonic slave narrative” in her chapter on Blind Tom, whose testimony is as pressing but also as complicated as anything we might find in a “classic” narrative by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. Joycelyn Moody, in turn, looks at two “postmemory narratives,” two narratives not about the experience of slavery but rather about slavery’s traces in the narratives of two African Americans in Rhode Island, Elleanor Eldridge and William J. Brown. Together, these chapters are intended to guide us to the broad world of testimony essential to the larger story toward which all slave narratives gesture, the story that we can only come to know gradually, and often through traces that themselves carry the shadows of an obscuring history. Following such traces, some have talked of certain African American novels and autobiographies as part of a “neo-slave-narrative tradition,” others have traced influences that lead from the spirituals to jazz, and still others have noted continuities in dance, in pottery, in quilting, in folklore, even in physical gestures. Fundamentally, the slave narratives are about a history that presses for a hearing, and the closing chapters of this volume are case studies in responding to that call.
To understand the ways in which the story of an individual life can be understood as a story about history is hardly a simple matter. In their introduction to History & Memory, Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally suggest that “the first black American historians may have been the authors of slave narratives, those whose testimonies comprised not only eyewitness accounts of remembered experience but also a set of world views with interpretations, analyses, and historical judgments.” “At these points,” they argue, “memory and history come together.” As the following studies of slave narratives collectively demonstrate, ths history of slavery involves conditions and struggles that can be understood only if one accounts for the perspective and moral understanding that arises from lived experience. Who tells the story, how one tells the story, why one is telling the story, and what larger vision of history one is serving—these are questions of inescapable implications for this history that, as William Wells Brown suggested, never can be fully represented. One must bring oneself to this history, as did those who left us these narratives, and even as we attempt to tell the larger story, we can never allow ourselves to stray too far from the many individual stories that have provided us with our intimate entrance to this difficult past. The scholars who have contributed the chapters to this volume have all entered into a deeply personal relationship with this demanding but elusive history, and with the sources they study. We hope that this volume offers its readers with the background, guidance, and vision that might inspire them to carry this work to the next generation.
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