The Bondwoman's Narrative
THE BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE
The Bondwoman's Narrative is a literary work recounting the life of a young slave and her escape from slavery to freedom. It was probably written in the late 1850s by an author identified as "Hannah Crafts," identified on the title page as "a Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina." The work remained in manuscript until 2002 when, having been recovered and investigated by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., it was first published. Its origins are obscure. Nevertheless it is a work that has important implications for understanding antebellum American literary and cultural history.
The young slave whose experiences are chronicled in The Bondwoman's Narrative is herself named Hannah, portrayed for much of the text as a relatively privileged slave, almost white in complexion and for the most part mildly treated. The author uses Hannah's privileged status, however, in ways intended to highlight the cruelty of slavery as a system and its power to corrupt slaves and slaveholders alike.
The story begins in Hannah's childhood. Already eager for knowledge and for virtue, she is fortunate to encounter "Aunt Hetty" and "Uncle Siah," an aging white couple who, recognizing her abilities, teach her to read while leading her to Christianity. They do so at great risk to themselves and, ultimately discovered, are driven from their home in retaliation for their kindness to a slave.
Following this revealing episode Hannah embarks on her first major adventure. Her master is to marry, and the bride is soon to arrive. The text describes Hannah's situation as a slave, the author pausing to tell what is essentially a ghost story, recounting the prolonged, excruciating death of a slave woman forcibly suspended from a tree, her spirit, according to legend, continuing to haunt the household through the tree's creaking and groaning. The story is a digression but nevertheless dramatizes slavery's cruel possibilities and the brutality inherent in the system. Following this the tale returns to the action as the bride arrives, accompanied by, among others, Mr. Trappe, a lawyer and a villain.
The bride is beautiful and kind, and she also has a secret, known to Trappe. Her mother was a slave, and Trappe has been blackmailing her to maintain the secret. Faced with a threat from Trappe to break his silence, and encouraged by Hannah, she decides to flee. Hannah joins her in the attempt. The two encounter great trials, and the attempt does not succeed. They are captured, imprisoned, and ultimately returned to Hannah's master's house, where Trappe threatens to remand the young woman to slavery. In her anguish she ruptures a blood vessel and dies. Hannah is sold to a slave trader.
With the sale, Hannah begins her second adventure. As the trader drives her to market, his wagon crashes. The trader is killed, but Hannah is rescued, coming under the care of a slaveholding couple, Mr. and Mrs. Henry. Though Hannah reveals her slave status, they treat her more as a patient and a guest. As Hannah notes, their own slaves are treated fairly too. Here again the work includes several digressions, including the story of a young couple who desire to wed and, facing forcible separation—the groom, from another plantation, is to be sold away—escape to the North.
The young lovers had invited Hannah to join them, but she had refused, despite having been severely disappointed by Mrs. Henry. Happy in the household, she has asked Mrs. Henry to purchase her—the trader's heirs have asserted a claim of their own. Mrs. Henry cannot because of a promise she had earlier made to her father. A slave trader, he had come to feel guilty and had, on his deathbed, demanded a solemn promise from his daughter that she would neither buy nor sell a slave. Despite the benefit to Hannah, Mrs. Henry will keep her word. Instead, and in keeping with the peculiar morality of a slaveholding society, she will arrange with Hannah's legal owner to transfer her to a friend and distant relative, Mrs. Wheeler of North Carolina, known to be a kind and considerate mistress.
The transfer inaugurates the third and final phase of Hannah's story. Mrs. Wheeler is the wife of a leading politician and, despite Mrs. Henry's impression, a spoiled and demanding mistress. Initially she takes Hannah to Washington, D.C., where Hannah observes her efforts, and those of her husband, to win preferment in a viciously competitive arena. Hannah's job is to ensure that Mrs. Wheeler will be appropriately presentable in this difficult world—to dress her hair, provide her cosmetics, and manage her dress, almost never to Mrs. Wheeler's satisfaction. There is one episode, both comic and portentous, in which Hannah buys a powder for Mrs. Wheeler that has the unexpected effect of turning the woman's face from white to black. Although the effect is quickly reversed, Mrs. Wheeler becomes an object of scandal and ridicule, and Hannah becomes an object of Mrs. Wheeler's wrath.
Upon the Wheelers' return to North Carolina, the anger comes out. Here Hannah has her first encounter with what she sees as the worst of the plantation South and its brutalized people. Out of spite Mrs. Wheeler has sentenced Hannah to work as a field slave and to be forcibly wed to one of the other slaves. Taken to the quarters, Hannah, repulsed by her surroundings, is viciously attacked by another woman. Fleeing, she decides to escape.
Hannah has a perilous escape, knowing she is being pursued. She spends a brief period in the company of a young brother and sister trying to make their way from South Carolina. The sister is ill and soon dies. Hannah travels on with the brother, but when they are spotted he is shot and killed. Hannah manages to get away and fortunately encounters Aunt Hetty, her early benefactor, who assists her in completing her journey. She sails north, learning en route that the villainous Trappe has suffered a violent end. The story ends with Hannah free, reunited with her mother, married, and embarked on a career as a teacher.
WHO WAS HANNAH CRAFTS?
There is much about The Bondwoman's Narrative that has been both uncertain and controversial. Some of the greatest controversy has focused on the question of authorship: Who was Hannah Crafts? Some scholars have tended to take the title page at its word, despite the fact that it has hitherto been impossible to locate a "Hannah Crafts" in the historical record. Identifying Crafts as a fugitive slave, they have also accepted The Bondwoman's Narrative as one of the first works by a female fugitive, roughly contemporary with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).
Uncertainty also exists about the extent to which the work is autobiographical. There is some evidence that parts of the book could have been written by a fugitive familiar with at least some of what the work recounts, especially in its geographical references and, even more, in regard to the Wheelers. John Wheeler was a prominent North Carolina slaveholder and politician. The Narrative's portrayal has at least some connection with what is known about the historical Wheelers, although how much is subject to debate.
But the character of the work itself further complicates such questions. The text of The Bondwoman's Narrative draws heavily on a wide variety of literary sources, in recognizable and identifiable ways, to create its portrait of Hannah the slave. Antebellum America produced many fugitive slave autobiographies; in none was the role of literary antecedents so pervasive. Thus even scholars who accept the identity of Hannah Crafts as a fugitive slave and recognize the story's autobiographical possibilities tend to view The Bondwoman's Narrative as less an autobiography than a work of fiction, in which facts are enhanced with themes and motifs designed for maximum literary effect.
Because of the work's clearly novelistic features, other scholars have suggested alternative possibilities regarding its authorship. These have included identifying "Hannah Crafts" as a pseudonym adopted by a free woman of color, living in the North, attempting a work of antislavery fiction using first-person narration. Whether fugitive or free, of course, the author would join Harriet E. Wilson—whose Our Nig, the fictional autobiography of a New England free woman appeared in 1859—as a pioneering African American female novelist. Some also have suggested that the author might have been white—like such writers as Richard Hildreth in The Slave, or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836) and Mattie Griffith in Autobiography of a Female Slave (1856)—using a black voice for antislavery purposes. Most scholars believe, however, that internal evidence, especially in regard to characterization and setting, is inconsistent with such a view.
For the present, both the authorship and the autobiographical dimensions of the work remain unclear. So, it should be noted, does the question of why the manuscript failed to achieve publication in its time. There is little about either the story or its possible authorship to provide a definitive answer.
THE PROBLEM OF SOURCES
Whatever its background, however, The Bondwoman's Narrative does draw on a pattern of sources and allusions that are essential to understanding its literary and historical significance. First, and despite its distinctiveness, The Bondwoman's Narrative does have notable connections to the tradition of autobiographies written by fugitive slaves. Working mainly within the abolitionist movement, these fugitives used narratives of their lives to expose the brutality of slavery. Such writers as Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and William and Ellen Craft were themselves prominent abolitionists, speaking widely and providing firsthand testimony to buttress abolitionism's key arguments. There has even been speculation that the author of The Bondwoman's Narrative, if writing under a pseudonym, chose "Hannah Crafts" deliberately to echo the name of the highly popular fugitive Ellen Craft.
Their narratives had literary as well as ideological impact. As the autobiographical tradition evolved, shaped by its political purposes as well as by its creators' experiences, it developed certain clear conventions. These included accounts of the writer's growing desire for freedom, episodes of physical and psychological brutality along with those revealing slaveholder callousness and licentiousness, and harrowing tales of escape. These conventions also included creating direct responses to proslavery arguments developing at this same time, using the fugitives' experiences to undermine slavery's defense.
The Bondwoman's Narrative helps to emphasize the appeal of these conventions for antislavery thought as, like most abolitionist fiction—including Richard Hildreth's and Mattie Griffith's novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853)—it draws heavily on them. Hannah's quest for literacy, her agonizing efforts to escape, the portraits of kindly and cruel whites, of angry mistresses, all had precedents in the autobiographical literature. And the work shows a clear awareness of the terms of the antebellum debate over slavery, including a subtle understanding of pro- and antislavery arguments alike. The debate is openly addressed at several points, as it was in most slave narratives.
Some critics have raised reservations about The Bondwoman's Narrative's tendency to stress Hannah's elitism, epitomized by her revulsion at being forced by Mrs. Wheeler to live among the field slaves, even to marry one. But statements of personal distinctiveness, even superiority, appeared in many narratives, including, for example, those of Douglass and Brown. There was nothing unique about the Narrative's Hannah.
Again, however, The Bondwoman's Narrative is a work in which autobiographical traditions are synthesized with conventions and motifs drawn from more general antebellum literary practices. The author shows a close familiarity with traditions of American sentimentalism. These traditions played an important role in other abolitionist fiction, including Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Brown's Clotel, texts that themselves probably influenced The Bondwoman's Narrative. The ill-fated bride and mistress, driven to death by the evil Trappe (a perfect sentimental villain), is closely modeled on the sentimental heroine—beautiful, sensitive, virtuous, and condemned to an early death. Hannah, like Brown's Clotel and Mattie Griffith's female slave, draws much of her poignancy from her devotion to sentimental ideals and from the trials she faces in trying to maintain those ideals in the hostile world of slavery.
Some elements in the work are reminiscent of popular motifs from gothic fiction, especially in such stories as the legend of the haunted tree. But some of the most noted sources for the Narrative come from nineteenth-century British fiction, well known in America, especially from the novels of such writers as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. Some of its passages and characters draw heavily on these sources, particularly Dickens's Bleak House (1852–1853) and Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), another fictional "autobiography." Whoever wrote The Bondwoman's Narrative was thus familiar with a wide array of sources, political, intellectual, and literary.
In its intricacy, The Bondwoman's Narrative is a valuable document for understanding antebellum American history. If the author was indeed a fugitive slave, then it would certainly be of great intrinsic significance. Not only would it add to the expanding corpus of antebellum African American literary work, but it also would highlight the complexities of slavery and the slave community. Its fugitive author would probably have represented a layer in slave society that remains inadequately understood but one that was distinctly present. This was that small class of literate slaves who interpreted the outside world to the larger slave community, helping to engender political and cultural perspectives fundamental to African American political and community development in the South both before and after Emancipation.
Even if the author was free, however, the work would also highlight the important role of literary activity in antebellum African American society. Historians have long noted this role, especially among free people of color. Free communities, North and South, placed great emphasis on literature and literary life, writing poems, stories, and other pieces they hoped could serve as weapons in the battle against discrimination. They founded newspapers, contributed to antislavery periodicals, and formed literary societies that served as central arenas for cultural and political affairs. As much as any other group of Americans, they expressed faith in the power of literature to change the society. "Hannah Crafts" showed that same faith, deliberately presenting her novel as an instrument in the antislavery cause.
But the very uncertainty of the novel's origins contributes to its significance as a literary and historical document. The Bondwoman's Narrative underlines the richness of the abolitionist literary tradition, including that represented by the large body of slave narratives. Because it builds such strong bridges to an array of literary sources, the text indicates the degree to which familiar abolitionist forms also participated in broader literary currents and the resonance between abolitionist work and more general concerns in ante-bellum America.
Taken by the Wheelers to North Carolina, Hannah is overwhelmed by the brutal world of plantation slavery and seeks to make its impact on slaves clear to her readers:
Isn't it a strange state to be like them. To shuffle up and down the lanes unfamiliar with the flowers, and in utter darkness as to the meaning of Nature's various hieroglyphical symbols, so abundant on the trees, the skies, in the leaves of grass, and everywhere. To see people ride in carriages, to hear such names as freedom, heaven, hope and happiness and not to have the least idea how it must seem to ride, any more than what the experience of these blessed names would be. It must be a strange state to be prized just according to the firmness of your joints, the strength of your sinews, and your capability of endurance. To be made to feel that you have no business here, there, or anywhere except just to work—work—work—And yet to know that you are here somehow, with once in a great while like a straggling ray in a dark place a faint aspiration for something better, or gli with a glimpse, a mere glimpse of something beyond. It must be a strange state to feel that in the judgement of those above you you are scarcely human, and to fear that their opinion is more than half right, that you really are assimilated to the brutes, that the horses, dogs and cattle have quite as many priveledges, and are probably your equals or it may be your superiors in knowledge, that even your shape is questionable as belonging to that order of superior beings whose delicacy you offend.
It must be strange to live in a world of civilisation and, elegance, and refinement, and yet know nothing about either, yet that is the way with multitudes and with none more than the slaves. The Constitution that asserts the right of freedom and equality to all mankind is a sealed book to them, and so is the Bible, that tells how Christ died for all; the bond as well as the free.
Crafts, The Bondwoman's Narrative, p. 201.
It also represents a sense on the part of its author that an African American voice, especially a fugitive voice, mattered in the fight against slavery. Scholars have only recently appreciated the importance of such a voice to abolitionism—and of authentic voices generally to an increasingly democratic American public sphere. The author of The Bondwoman's Narrative shows a great faith in such a view, and in doing so helps to reveal more fully the characteristics and transformations that shaped antebellum American life.
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