For this feature for Black History Month I wanted to read the most authentic stories I could, and so I researched into the most powerful arguments that had been made by former slaves for abolition so that I could hear their voices across the years and better understand what it was really like to suffer as they did. This post will review five of the most famous classic narratives.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Written in 1861, this is a memoir which tells of a house slave’s efforts to emancipate herself and move to the free states from North Carolina. Confusingly, the protagonist of this story is known as Linda (this was a pseudonym Jacobs used in the book to protect loved ones). The overwhelming obstacle Linda faced was a profoundly possessive master, Dr Flint who treated her cruelly but would not sell her at any price, to any bidder, under any conditions, even when she convinced white friends to attempt to buy her through intermediaries. Whilst she never tells the reader that he actually violated her, the spectre of it hangs over much of the early part of the book. The aspects of slavery that she condemns the most in the book are the ways in which it destroys the moral integrity of families through splitting up the black community as people are sold, and allowing slaveholders to freely compromise the trust in their own families through gratuitous and often unwanted sex with the black women who served them. Even as she suffered, Linda never became downtrodden, although she had to go into hiding for many long years before finally escaping. Dr Flint tried to squash this feisty single mother’s dreams of freedom in every possible way, and I rejoiced when he failed. Her happy ever after ending with her children by her side is one I won’t forget.
The History of Mary Prince
Of all of the books I read, this 1831 account of slavery in the West Indies was the most horrifying. Some of the depraved torture experienced by Mary Prince and her fellow slaves really took a strong stomach to read, and the wounds she received due to the working conditions she was forced to submit to in Turks and Caicos were almost nauseating. This is a very short book that you can read in a day but it takes a long time to digest what it really means and how it makes you feel. The ultimate disgrace is the presence of a number of validating letters by white people which the publishers of Mary’s time felt it necessary to include alongside her own words. Even after her death this phenomenal woman was not being credited enough for her formidable strength and forbearance, even though she was nearly disabled through hard labour and the injuries she received when she reached England in the company of the family that owned her. I cried when she finally and fatefully walked out of her horrible mistress’s house and took herself to the Anti-Slavery Society offices in London.
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup
Famously made into an award-winning movie, this was the book that I had looked forward to reading most. Northrup was a free black man tricked by duplicitous acquaintances into travelling from his home in New York State to the slave states. Once there he was kidnapped, whipped into submission and sold as ‘Platt’. He ended up in Louisiana working as a carpenter, picking cotton, and cutting sugar cane. He had many brushes with death. Northrup is very psychologically aware as a writer, and he dissects the angels and demons in the natures of the whites in the American South throughout this account with great skill. His description of Epps stands out as an exceptionally perceptive piece of observational writing. Master Epps was truly a monster, beating his slaves half to death to please his jealous wife, and then making them dance for him after he came home from a night of debauchery. He still had the gall to scold Northrup after his representatives from New York arrived with the papers proving he was always a free man. Towards the end, you have a clear sense of Northrup’s mission – he was writing for the ones who were left behind – for the voiceless, and those living in the shadow of whips and irons. Few plantation slaves were educated enough even to read so we are blessed to have his account which is a riveting read. As ever, the book is better than the film, even though it was written in 1853.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
When Frederick Douglass published the story of his life in 1845 it went on to become the most famous slave narrative ever published, because after he escaped to the free states, Douglass became a campaigner well known for his oratorical genius. This is quite a polemical piece of writing, as you would expect. The creative ways he fought to claim his right to learn to read would shame many of today’s schoolchildren! Among other things, he hid reading materials, asked little boys on the street what words meant and copied the letters he saw on the timbers that were used in the shipbuilder’s yard where he worked. Through sheer grit and skill he also got the chance to earn his own money to fund his escape (the details of which, disappointingly for us, have been withheld in the interests of the safety of those involved). Sadly he ended his life still officially ‘a fugitive’ but to have bought something that should never be a commodity in the first place is something this thoroughly principled man should never have had to do anyway.
The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano
‘My life and fortune have been extremely chequered, and my adventures various’, Equiano says in the closing paragraph of his 1789 work. The interesting narrative is truly what he says it is: a totally fascinating account of an extraordinary life. Equiano was an international traveller, entrepreneur and jack of all trades, and one of the first literary celebrities. This narrative takes us through his capture in Nigeria and journey to traders on the coast. From there he sailed to the West Indies, the U.S. and then London, where his early loyalty to his sea captain master led him into a life as a travelling sailor, at first in bondage, and later as a free black man. He visited many countries in Europe, and even sailed north of Greenland on a nearly doomed expedition to try and find a passage to India. There are some incredible ups and downs in this story, as he won and lost people he trusted, coming across at every turn the prejudice of white people who betrayed, try to kill him and steal from him and kidnap him to be sold back into slavery. His account of survivor’s guilt and spiritual conversion take up a reasonable chunk of the end of the book but notwithstanding this, if you are looking for a white-knuckle experience, this is the book to go for.
Historically it was often the forcefulness of the unvarnished truth of those speaking of their own suffering, and their witnessing to others sufferings, that brought it home to average reader how great the evil and injustice of slavery was. These accounts analyse from experience the terrible human cost of a system of economic inequality that benefitted the privileged few at the expense of the pain and death of millions. Reading these books has been a really enlightening experience, not just because I have come to appreciate the bravery it took to write them in the face of great prejudice, but also because they have without fail gripped me until the very last page. Often these accounts finish with the final triumph of their authors achieving freedom through their own determination, courage, intelligence and resilience. That said, some writers discuss how it is a bittersweet moment for them too because they taste liberty whilst being aware that so many people who were just as worthy as them had never known and would never know what it was like to be in control of their own lives and fortunes.