Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Letter to School Board -- Blog Post Eight

Date: December 6, 2009

To: Dallas ISD School Board

Re: High School English Curriculum

I am writing to suggest an addition in the curriculum for the district’s high school level English classes. I am currently a student at Austin College, a small liberal arts institution located in Sherman, TX. During the past semester I have been enrolled in an English class entitled “Slave Narratives.” For those of you who are not familiar with the genre, slave narratives are autobiographical works written by freed or escaped slaves. The autobiographical works that I’ve read while enrolled in the class have been authored by many figures that students are familiar with, but in reality know little about. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and many others have authored slave narratives that detail their lives while in slavery. I would argue that including their narratives in the high school English curriculum would allow the students to view these individuals in a broader light, not only as historical figures but as authors, too.

Additionally, the many of the conventions of the slave narrative genre would benefit the development of the students’ critical thinking skills. Slave narratives contain well articulated arguments for the humanity of slaves and the abolition of slavery. Slave narratives often build upon other literary genres, such as gothic and sentimental literary conventions. Exposing students to slave narratives would also expose them to a wealth of additional literary techniques and traditions. Exposure to these texts, along with an analysis of the specific rhetoric, would greatly prepare the students for entering college.

Specifically, I would like to recommend that The Bondwoman’s Narrative be added to the reading list for upper level English classes. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a recently discovered text, thought to be written by a fugitive slave named Hannah Crafts. The narrative is edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor and director of Harvard’s African-American Studies program. The novel is an especially unique gem from the slave narrative genre and is particularly relevant to English classes because it was written as a fictionalized autobiography. The novel intertwines the literary conventions of slave narratives, gothic novels, and sentimental novels into a text that transcends the boundaries of each literary tradition. It would be an especially mind-opening experience for the students.

I hope that you will seriously consider my proposal. Too long have we allowed our educational system to give students an incomplete and disjointed view of historical figures and events. Adding slave narratives to the curriculum of upper level English classes will allow the students to make critical connections between the many different subjects that they are taught in the classroom.

Aushianna Nadri

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Rhetorical Situation -- Blog Post Seven

In the preface to The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah Crafts questions her text, asking “Have I succeeded in portraying any of the peculiar features of that institution whose curse rests over the fairest land the sun shines upon? Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” (Crafts 3). It is at this early point in the novel that the reader can first glean Craft’s purpose for writing the text. Much of The Bondwoman’s Narrative focuses on highlighting the effects of slavery on all individuals, both white and black. Craft’s does this in a significant way: she uses her text to illustrate the problems of a legalistic world view, one in which laws must be followed, even if they are inherently unjust. Crafts uses this rhetorical strategy in order to demonstrate the damaging and cruel effects of slavery.

Legalism in The Bondwoman’s Narrative
As the text is a novel, Crafts never pointedly asserts that the characters are being excessively legalistic. However, Dickson D. Bruce Jr. argues that Crafts deals with the issue of legalism in two specific ways within the text. First, Crafts uses the character “Mr. Trappe” as a mechanism to critique the legalistic world view. Second, she discusses the deathbed promise that another character makes to their dying father, a promise that prevents that individual from purchasing and freeing Crafts” (Bruce 130-131). According to Bruce,
“Throughout the novel…Crafts creates an opposition between what might be described as a formalistic, even legalistic approach to human affairs and an approach based on deeper, more complex understanding of moral situations. The world, Crafts stresses, is not the sort of place for which rules should serve as the only guide to right action. Indeed a rule-governed approach to morality can lead to a kind of moral blindness” (Bruce 131).
The character Trappe, a retired lawyer, participates in the slave trade by purchasing attractive slave-women and selling them to traders that work mainly with brothels. Bruce argues that Trappe “plays the role of Hannah’s nemesis for much of the novel. Greedy, cruel, and indifferent to other’s suffering, Trappe is the personification of all that is evil in slavery” (Bruce 131). Through Mr. Trappe, we learn that Crafts’ mistress is actually the child of a slave who was switched at birth with the stillborn infant of her mother’s mistress. We also learn that it was Mr. Trappe who “discovered the secret of” Hannah’s mistress’s birth and that he had used his knowledge to blackmail the mistress. When Hannah’s mistress was unable to meet the terms of his blackmail, she attempts to flee. Eventually she is captured and returned to Mr. Trappe, who informs her that she is to be sold to slave traders. While informing her of this, Mr. Trappe tells her:

“…you will regard me as an enemy, as one who embittered your existence…yet in doing so you will be unjust. Rather blame the world that has made me what I am, like yourself the victim of circumstances…You are not the first fair dame whose descent I have traced back…to a sable son of Africa, and whose destiny has been in my hands as clearly and decidedly as you must perceive that yours is now…My conscience never troubles me…The circumstances in which I find people are not of my making. Neither are the laws that give me an advantage over them. If a beautiful woman is to be sold it is rather the fault of the law that permits it than of me who profits by it…Whatever the law permits, and public opinion encourages I do, when that says stop I go no further…” (Crafts 98).
Mr. Trappe’s speech to Hannah’s mistress is an explicit illustration of the very mindset that Crafts seeks to critique. Trappe justifies his actions by arguing that the law permits him to do so. Crafts disavows this type of legalistic justification for immoral actions and further positions her text in a way that opposes this mindset. To Crafts, morality must not be dictated merely by legal codes; rather, individuals must be guided by “conscience, empathy, and an appreciation for human needs in a way that transcends human contrivances, rules, and creeds” (Bruce 134).

Crafts also critiques legalism, or rule-based morality, by introducing “Mrs. Henry’s” character into the text. Mrs. Henry and her husband share an anti-slavery sentiment, but own the slaves that she inherited from her father. Hannah becomes acquainted with Mrs. Henry after being injured in an accident. As Hannah recovers from her injuries, she becomes very fond of the Henrys and asks Mrs. Henry to purchase her. Hannah pleads with Mrs. Henry, “…you can save me from this…I do not ask you to buy me and then set me free…Let me perform the menial service of your household…I care not…all I ask is to feel, and know of a certainty that I have a home, that someone cares for me, and that I am beyond the grip of these merciless slave-traders and speculators” (Crafts 125).

Although she expresses her desire to purchase Hannah, Mrs. Henry ultimately refuses, asserting that the purchase would violate a promise she made to her father on his deathbed — a promise that she would never purchase or sell a human being. After Hannah begins to beg, Mrs. Henry asks “…Dear Hannah, do you wish me to break that vow?” (Crafts 127). Hannah, lost in thought, informs the reader:
“I could not say that I did, yet my heart rose against the man, who in a slave-holding country could exact such a promise. Since in a multitude of cases the greatest favor that a mild kind-hearted man or woman can bestow on members of the outcast servile race is to buy them. I almost felt that he had done me a personal injury, an irreparable wrong” (Crafts 127).
Bruce argues that although “Mrs. Henry may be a woman whose motives are innocent and pure…her fidelity to her vow turns out to be a fidelity to a proslavery pledge” (Bruce 131). Essentially, Crafts encounter with Mrs. Henry serves to illustrate the “moral blindness” that legalism perpetuates. Although Mrs. Henry is keeping an oath, not following a specific law, the outcome is the same: she sentences Hannah to further, and even more cruel, enslavement. Bruce contends

“All she [Mrs. Henry] can propose is to persuade Hannah’s owner to sell Hannah to Mrs. Henry’s friends, the Wheelers of North Carolina. Mrs. Henry assures Hannah that the Wheelers will show her the same consideration she has received from the Henrys themselves. Arranging the sale, she unwittingly sentences Hannah to the most brutal slavery the young woman has ever known” (Bruce 130).
Craft’s critique of legalism is particularly relevant to the audience that she was attempting to reach with her text. Lawrence Buell argues that “much of the artfulness of The Bondwoman’s Narrative consists in scripting episodes for white northern readers that will make them feel vicariously entrapped by slavery…” (Buell 27). This becomes especially clear when we consider Craft’s critique of legalism in terms of the Fugitive Slave Act. As we have learned in class, the Fugitive Slave Act prohibited all citizens, both northern and southern, from aiding escaped slaves. Those who followed the law, even though they believed the law was unjust, would be criticized by Crafts as being morally blind. According to The Bondwoman’s Narrative, unjust laws can not and should not guide the decisions people make concerning moral dilemmas.

Works Cited

Bruce, Jr. Dickson D. “Mrs. Henry’s ‘Solemn Promise’ in Historical Perspective.” In Search of Hannah

          Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis

          Robbins. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004. 129-144. Print.

Buell, Lawrence. "Bondwoman Unbound: Hannah Craft’s Art and Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literary

          Practice." In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative. Eds.

          Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004. 16-29. Print.

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. New York: Warner Brothers, Inc., 2002. Print.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Historical Moment -- Blog Post Six

Filibustering in the 1850s

As we now know it, filibustering refers to “the parliamentary tactic used in the…Senate by a minority of the senators—sometimes even a single senator—to delay or prevent parliamentary action by talking so long that the majority either grants concessions or withdraws the bill” (Encyclopedia Britannica). However, at the time that Hannah Crafts was writing her novel the term “filibustering” referred to something quite different.

Filibustering in 1850s America was “the attempt to take over countries at peace with the United States via privately financed military expeditions” (Encyclopedia Britannica). According to Robert May, “…The invasions seriously endangered U.S. relations with Spain and other European powers…[President Millard] Fillmore's second annual message to Congress…in December 1851, gave…twice as much attention to the Cuban invasions as to the North-South crisis over slavery.” Although “The Neutrality Law of 1818” made filibustering illegal, May argues that “it would be a mistake to assume that American leaders, many of them avid territorial expansionists, shared an unwavering commitment to eradicate private expeditions” (May 7). He furthers, arguing that “from time to time, federal authorities prosecuted filibusters for violating the neutrality laws. Yet there were occasions when federal authorities found it convenient to overlook, or even assist, filibuster plots in the expectation that they might eventuate in U.S. territorial growth” (May 7-8).

Filibustering grew out of the popular ideology of Manifest Destiny, which argued that America should expand its territory from “sea to shining sea.”
“Spurred by land hunger and by the desire of proslavery Southerners to add future slave states to the Union, filibusterers were active during the decade prior to the [Civil War]…The high point of American filibustering was reached under William Walker, a Californian who first tried to take Mexican Baja (Lower) California and then turned his attention to Nicaragua. In 1855 Walker took advantage of a civil war in Nicaragua to take control of the country and set himself up as dictator. In May 1856 President Franklin Pierce recognized the Walker regime” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
 While there were many filibusters who undertook expeditions in many Latin American countries, William Walker’s story is particularly relevant to the Bondwoman’s Narrative because her owner, John Hill Wheeler, was the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua at the time that Walker seized control of the country. Furthermore, he recognized Walker’s government, even though it was against the wishes of the Secretary of State – William L. Marcy. Walker himself notes this in his book, The War in Nicaragua written in 1860:
“…the Secretary of State at Washington, remote from the scene of trouble, constantly wrought on by the ministers of foreign countries, and dreading the effect the new Nicaraguan movement would have on old political organizations in the United States, was always averse to any action which might favor the Americans in Nicaragua. Not many days, however, after Mr. Wheeler recognized the Walker government, facts occurred showing in a strong light the good policy of the American minister” (Walker 232).
Walker was eventually thrown out of power after he tried to take over the Accessory Transit Company which was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt raised a significant amount of support against Walker and was able to have him removed from power. Walker tried to regain power twice and the second time was arrested by British Troops in Honduras and was executed in 1860 (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009). As for filibustering, “it came to an end with the start of the American Civil War. Land hunger was never quite so strong again as the United States turned from an agrarian to an industrial nation. With the abolition of slavery, Southern support for such conquests disappeared” (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Works Cited

"Filibuster." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 28 Nov. 2009


"Filibustering." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 28 Nov. 2009


May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. 2002. University of

           North Carolina Press. Print.

Walker, William. The War in Nicaragua. 1860. New York: S. H. Goetzel & Co. Electronic. Retrieved

           November 27, 2009 from <>

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- The Slave Narrative Explained -- Blog Post Five

As we have learned throughout the semester, Slave Narratives are autobiographical works written by freed or escaped slaves. According to Lisa Clayton Robinson, slave narratives served a two-fold purpose for their authors: “it was a way of publicizing the horrors they had gone through, and it was also a method of proving their humanity…Slave authors were able to display their emotions and their intellects through their narratives” (Robinson). Furthermore, many of the slave narratives that we have read have been influenced by a heavy religious tradition. Donaghy and Wilhelm argue:

“Religion is a key component of early slave narratives. Conversion to Christianity gave African Americans a higher status, and in some cases baptism could lead to freedom…In addition, most readers of slave narratives were also Christians and became strongly invested in the slaves' stories because of their emphasis on religion” (Donaghy & Wilhelm).
Two of the narratives that we have read depend heavily on religious tradition and imagery. James Albert (Ukawsaw Gronniosaw) and Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) narratives’ both make religious illusions and speak of salvation. While they use different rhetorical strategies to “prove” their salvation, they both go through a “conversion process” which occurs in four stages: estrangement, loneliness, contemplation, and finally emancipation (Tanglen 9/4/2009). These particular narratives and many others borrow heavily from White Christian traditions in order to make themselves appealing to their White Christian Readers.

In many of the narratives that we have read, the authors go to great lengths to express their desire for literacy. In some of the narratives that we have read, this desire for literacy is expressed through the trope of the talking book. According to Bruce et al.,
“Equiano makes clear the quest for learning and the difficulty involved in acquiring it in his Interesting Narrative, wherein he sets up the trope of the talking book. Having observed his master and others moving their lips and reading out loud when examining a book (a common practice before this century), he, not yet literate, concluded that they were “talking” to the book, appearing to be carrying on a conversation with it” (Bruce et al.).
Additionally, the “trope of the talking book” also pointed to the changing ways of recording history among African slaves. According to Donaghy and Wilhelm, “prior to the publication of the first known African American slave narratives in the 1660s, the methods of preserving memory in the slave community were primarily oral and visual—dance, song, and storytelling” (Donaghy & Wilhelm).

Furthermore, many slave narrative authors also spend great amounts of time detailing how they learned to read and write. This occurred for two main reasons. First, it further proved the case for the humanity of blacks by providing evidence that they were able and willing to learn. Second, it bolstered the author’s and the narrative’s credibility.

Literary Conventions within the Slave Narrative

Sentimental Conventions
The authors of slave narratives often mimicked literary conventions included in popular works of their time. This served a dual purpose: it gave the narrative a greater appeal to its audience and also bolstered the author’s credibility because it demonstrated their “learnedness.” According to Donaghy and Wilhelm, “The similarities between novels of sentiment and slave narratives are striking, to be sure…This similarity suggests that the slave narrative, a purported true account of life in bondage, was more palatable to readers when the truth of the brutality of slavery was somewhat obscured by language and context” (Donaghy & Wilhelm). They further argue that while “Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs included graphic descriptions of physical violence in their accounts” they “did so in language that appears to be extremely contrived” (Donaghy & Wilhelm).
“These literary contrivances suggest that the authors had to keep in mind their intended audience in their efforts to recount and expose the horrors of slavery. This audience consisted mostly of educated white women from the northern middle-class and to a lesser extent men of the same social background. Appealing to the northern woman's sense of female or maternal compassion through a grammar and dialect similar to her own was an easier way for the writers of slave narratives to persuade readers to identify with the plight of slaves—an identification which might then incite readers to action” (Donaghy & Wilhelm).
Travel or Adventure Narratives
Of the narratives that we have read, Equiano’s narrative, in particular, contains many passages that mimic the literary conventions of “travel or adventure narratives.” Equiano details his experiences and encounters as he travels from place to place. He also recounts the adventures that he sets out upon, for example: sailing to other continents, being caught in a storm, etcetera.
According to Graham Dawson, “the adventure hero himself is an idealized figure whose actions render him superior to other characters and to the environment in which he moves…These qualities enable his overcoming of all obstacle to the successful completion of his quest…The adventure quest therefore provides a powerful metaphor for the human capacity to endeavor, risk and win through; for the prevailing of human purpose in the world” (Dawson 55).
Many of the narratives that we have read during the semester have included passages that detail the authors’ travels – from Africa to America, from Africa to the West Indies, or within America itself. These narratives have borrowed from – and built upon – the literary conventions of the travel/adventure narratives.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative contextualized by Slave Narrative Conventions

Desire for Literacy
The following is a passage from The Confessions of Nat Turner, a narrative that we read earlier this semester:
“…to a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive and observant of every thing that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed, and although this subject principally occupied my thoughts—there was nothing that I saw or heard of to which my attention was not directed— The manner in which I learned to read and write, not only had great influence on my own mind, as I acquired it with the most perfect ease, so much so that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet—but to the astonishment of the family, one day, when a book was shewn me to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects—this was a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood, particularly the blacks—and this learning was constantly improved at all opportunities— when I got large enough to go to work, while employed, I was reflecting on many things that would present themselves to my imagination, and whenever an opportunity occurred of looking at a book, when the school children were getting their lessons, I would find many things that the fertility of my own imagination had depicted to me before…” (Turner 250).
The following passage is taken from The Bondwoman’s Narrative:
“I had from the first an instinctive desire for knowledge and the means of mental improvement. Though neglected and a slave, I felt the immortal longings in me. In the absence of books and teachers and schools I determined to learn if not in a regular, approved, and scientific way...I was a mere child and some hours of each day were allotted to play. On such occasions, and while the other children of the house were amusing themselves I would quietly steal away from their company to ponder over the pages of some old book or newspaper that chance had thrown in my way” (Crafts 6-7).
The similarities between the two passages serve as an example of the emphasis on literacy that is a major convention of the slave narrative genre. In both passages, Turner and Crafts express their desire for literacy from a very early age. Additionally, both describe stealing away from other children and their chores to read books and any other reading materials they could find.

Condemnation of Slavery/Expression of Abolitionist Sentiment
The following is a passage from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, a narrative that we read earlier this semester:

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? [Page 88] Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery. (Equiano 79).
The following passage is taken from The Bondwoman’s Narrative:
“Degradation, neglect, and ill treatment had wrought on them its legitimate effects. All day they toil beneath the burning sun, scarcely conscious that any link exists between themselves and other portions of the human race....What do you think of it? Doctors of Divinity Isn’t it a strange state to be like them...It must be strange to live in a world of civilization and, elegance and refinement, and yet know nothing about either, yet that is the way with multitudes and with non more that the slaves. The Constitution that asserts the right of freedom and equality to all mankind is a sealed book to the, and so is the Bible, that tells how Christ dies for all; the bond as well as the free” (Crafts 200-201).
The similarities between the two passages indicate the strain of anti-slavery sentiment that shaped many of the slave narratives that we read. However, this tendency did not impact all of the narratives that we were exposed to—Gronniosaw’s narrative was not shaped by anti-slavery sentiment, rather religious conversion and salvation. The tendency towards writing narratives that included anti-slavery sentiment impacted many of the later narratives that we read: Eqiuano, Douglass, Jacobs, etc.

Works Cited

Dawson, Graham. “Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities.

            Routledge. 1994. Print.

Dickson, Bruce D., Shields, John C., John Sekora, Craig H. Werner and Valerie Smith. “Literary History.”

            The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L.Andrews. Ed.

            Frances SmithFoster. Ed. TrudierHarris. Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved

            November 27, 2009. <>

Donaghy, Daniel &.Wilhelm, Stephanie J. “Slave Narratives.” Encyclopedia of African American History,

            1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Paul Finkelman.

            Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved November 27, 2009.


Equiano, Olaudah. “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” Slave Narratives. Eds. William L.

            Andrews & Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002. Pages 35-242.

Robinson, Lisa Clayton. “Slave Narratives.” Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African

            American Experience, Second Edition. Ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

            Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved November 27, 2009.


Turner, Nat. “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Slave Narratives. Eds. William L. Andrews & Henry Louis

             Gates Jr. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002. Pages 243-266.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Annotated Web Links -- Blog Post Four

Bloom, John. “Assignment America: Literary blackface?” United Press International, Inc.

          Online. 24 June 2002. Web. 18 November 2009. Click here to go to the Web Page.

In his review of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Bloom refutes the editor’s (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) assertion that the novel was written by an escaped slave woman. Bloom argues that Gates provides no conclusive proof of Hannah Crafts existence, much less her racial identity. Bloom’s purpose in writing this article is to respond to the hype generated by the release of the narrative as “the first novel written by an ex-slave woman.” He does this by refuting the evidence provided by Gates in the introduction to the narrative.

Haynes, Monica L. “Researcher tries to unlock the identity of a slave-era author.” Pittsburg

           Post- Gazette Online. 22 April 2003. Web. 18 November 2009. Click here to go to the

           Web Page.

This article details a researcher’s attempts to discover a record of Hannah Crafts in census documents from the 1850s. Haynes interviewed Stephanie English, a researcher hired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to find information about the narrative and its author. This article is of particular importance because it provides insight into the methods used to undertake historical research. Furthermore, it provides a glimpse of the depth of research needed to investigate historical figures.

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Annotated Article Citations -- Blog Post Three

Baym, Nina. “The Case for Hannah Vincent.” In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on
            the Bondwoman’s Narrative. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New

            York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004. 315-331. Print.

In her article, Baym argues that Hannah Vincent, a free black woman who lived in New Jersey, is the most probable author of the narrative. She discusses her reasoning for such a contention and further addresses any issues that would arise if Vincent was, in fact, the author. Baym argues that the idea of the narrative being written by an ex-slave is highly unlikely because of the author’s use of “literary conventions.” However, Baym does not rule out the possibility of the work being written by a fugitive slave.

Bruce, Jr. Dickson D. “Mrs. Henry’s ‘Solemn Promise’ in Historical Perspective.” In Search

            of  Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative. Eds. Henry Louis

            Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004. 129-144. Print.

In his article, Bruce discusses the “solemn promise” Mrs. Henry [a character in the novel] made to her father on his deathbed: a promise never to buy of sell a human being. This promise prevents Mrs. Henry from purchasing Hannah, even though she wishes to save her from the horrors of slavery. Bruce’s article serves to contextualize the significance of this promise in the time period that the novel was written. According to Bruce, Hannah’s inclusion of this promise in her story serves as a critique of a “rule governed approach to morality” which can lead to “moral blindness.” Furthermore, it indicates that Crafts was either personally familiar with the abolitionist movement [that rejected “legalism] or had read texts published by abolitionists.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. “The Bondwoman’s Narrative and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In Search

             of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative. Eds. Henry Louis
             Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004. 106-116. Print.

In her article, Fagan Yellin compares and contrasts the similarities of The Bondwoman’s Narrative to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to Fagan Yellin, both authors make use of gothic imagery and the trope of the “Tragic Mulatto” character. However, she argues that the stories present “very different statements about slavery and racism in nineteenth century America.” Fagan Yellin’s purpose in writing the article is to describe the how Stowe’s novel shaped The Bondwoman’s Narrative, both in the way it copies the conventions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in the ways it differs from the novel.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bondwoman's Narrative -- Who is Hannah Crafts? -- Blog Post Two

Tracing the Lineage of the Narrative
The Bondwoman’s Narrative went up for auction in 2001 at Swann Galleries’ annual auction of “Printed and Manuscript African-Americana” (Gates IX). According to Gates (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) the catalogue description of the narrative reads:
"Unpublished Original Manuscript. Offered by Emily Driscoll in her 1948 catalogue, with her description reading in part, ‘a fictionalized biography, written in effusive style, purporting to be the story, or the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts, a mulatto, born in Virginia.’ The manuscript consists of 21 chapters, each headed by an epigraph. The narrative is not only that of the mulatto Hannah, but also of her mistress who turns out to be a light-skinned woman passing for white. It is uncertain that this work is written by a “negro.” The work is written by someone intimately familiar with the areas in the South where the narrative takes place. Her escape route is one sometimes used by run-aways” (Gates, XI).
Gates also adds that the narrative was thought to have been written around the 1850s. It was being sold from Dorothy Porter Wesley’s library. Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905-1995) had a long and illustrious career as a librarian and historian at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center. According to Gates, “Porter Wesley was one of the most famous black librarians and bibliophiles of the twentieth century....” (Gates XII).

Gates was particularly enthused that the narrative was from Porter Wesley’s collection because he believed that “her notes about the manuscript, if she had left any, would be crucial in establishing the racial identity of the author of [the] text” (Gates XII). Establishing the author’s race was especially important because if the author was a black woman, then the “autobiographical novel” could possibly be “the first novel written by a black woman…who had been a slave” (Gates XII). Although Gates poured through multiple sets of census records and even hired a historian to authenticate the text, he could not locate a record of Hannah Crafts. However, he does use his introduction to the text to describe the novel’s numerous characteristics that support the assertion that it was written by a black woman. A selection of these characteristics is discussed below.

Literary Racial Ventriloquism
Gates asserts that one of the reasons he believed that the narrative was written by a black woman was because of “Craft’s claim to authorship as a ‘fugitive slave’…fewer than a dozen white authors in the nineteenth century engaged in literary racial ventriloquism” (Gates XIII). According to Gates, “Literary Racial Ventriloquism,” in this case, would be a white author “adopting a black persona and claiming to be black” (Gates XIII). He argues that white authors dropped the trend of racial ventriloquism in the 19th century after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

According to Gates, “Beecher Stowe redefined the function—and economic and political potential—of the entire genre … by retaining her own identity and writing about blacks, rather than as a black” (Gates XIII). He furthers, arguing that “there was no commercial advantage to be gained by a white author writing as a black one; Stowe sold hundreds of thousands more copies…than all of the black-authored slave narratives together” (Gates XIV).

Craft’s Approach to Other African Americans
Dorothy Porter Wesley argues that “there is no doubt that she [the author] was a Negro because her approach to other Negroes is that they are people first of all” (Gates XIX). This has a dual meaning. First, it means that the author did not express any subconscious racism as many white authors did when describing blacks. The expression of subconscious racism ran rampant throughout many novels written by whites about blacks. The Bondwoman’s narrative, however, does not share this same tendency.

More importantly, and much more telling of the author’s race, is the fact that in her descriptions of people in the narrative, her “default racial baseline” is black. “Whereas black writers assumed the humanity of black characters as the default…white writers…used whiteness. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to take one example, white characters receive virtually no racial identification...Blackness, by contrast, is almost always marked” (Gates XIX). In this text however, the reverse is true and “only as the story unfolds, in most instances, does it become apparent that they are Negroes” (Gates XIX). Essentially, Craft’s treatment of black characters in her text strongly indicates that she was black.

Craft’s Emphasis on Literacy
As we’ve learned in class, one of the conventions of the slave narrative genre is the author’s focus on the importance of literacy. This text follows that convention and Crafts “is at pains to explain to her readers how she became literate” (Gates XXII). Craft’s places great emphasis on her yearning for literacy, asserting that she “had from the first an instinctive desire for knowledge and the means of mental improvement” (Crafts 6). She also describes occasions when she “would steal away…to ponder of the pages of some old book or newspaper…though I [Crafts] knew not the meaning of a single letter…” (Crafts 7). I would contend that this is one of the weaker points of Gate’s analysis because this convention could have easily been mimicked by a white writer.

Craft’s Depiction of the “Tension Between House Slaves and Field Slaves”
According to Gates, “rarely have African American class or color tensions…been represented so openly and honestly as in this novel” (Gates XXIII). One example of the depiction of this tension in the narrative is Craft’s horror at being sent to live “among the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts” (Crafts 205). Gates also contends that although authors such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs discuss “class distinctions” in their narratives, they don’t talk about them as freely as Crafts does.

This supports Gates and Porter Wesley’s assumption that Crafts was, in fact, black. Gates argues that a white writer would most likely not have been aware of these tensions and would not have been able to describe them as precisely as Crafts does.

Furthermore, if the narrative had been written by an abolitionist, working towards ending slavery, they would not place an emphasis on these tensions, as they might have detracted from their purpose for writing the narrative

The Editor: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is also the chair of Afro-American Studies Department and heads the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, also at Harvard.

Gates has published numerous texts about slave narratives and has also served as editor for a number of slave narrative anthologies. His introduction to the Bondwoman’s presents the research that he did to determine the identity of Hannah Crafts.

After purchasing the manuscript in 2001, he had the novel published in 2002. There have been six editions of the narrative.

Works Cited

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. New York: Warner Brothers, Inc., 2002. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. By Hannah Crafts. New
                 York: Warner Brothers, Inc., 2002. IX-LXXIV. Print.