What I Learned from Reading Slave Narratives

 

Harriet_Ann_Jacobs1894

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, 1861

You should not read this post; you should just read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I can tell you that my heart hurt when I read Harriet Jacobs’ account of her life, but you need to feel that for yourself. You need to spend some time thinking about the white men who raped their slaves and then enslaved their own children. It’s not enough to just contemplate the fact that this happened, you need to hear from a woman who lived under these circumstances. Harriet Jacobs recounts living in terror from age fifteen, which was when her “master” began threatening her sexually. I could tell you how I feel about that, but you shouldn’t hear it from me, you should hear it from her.

You should think about the enslaved fathers who had no power to protect their wives and children from being raped. You should think about the mothers who felt that the only reason to keep living was their children and yet prayed that their children would die as infants rather than live as slaves.

I can tell you that Harriet Jacobs’ fear of being raped was so great that she hid in a crawlspace barely bigger than a coffin for seven years until she could escape to the North, but you need to hear it from her. Her words as she describes listening to the voices of her children below her, but being unable to talk to them or hold them are more important than the words you are reading right now.

This is such an important book. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the only firsthand accounts of slavery from a woman’s perspective. Just before the commencement of the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs began publishing her account of her life serially in The New York Tribune, but her very veiled descriptions of sexual harassment were deemed unsuitable for publication. At that time white women were protected from even knowing about the acts of violence that a man could legally commit against his black slaves.

Facts about the history of slavery are horrifying. Yet, it’s too easy to shudder at a line in a textbook and pass on the next sentence, the next chapter, the next thought, without truly contemplating the meaning of slavery for the enslaved. When we study history, we spend too much time on the lives of great men, and not enough time on the lives of the people. Personally, I think the best measure for evaluating the greatness of a historical figure is by the effect their actions had on the quality of life of the people within their power. All of the people within their power. No slave owner should be held up as a great man or woman.

I’m losing focus and I’m getting very tense. I am going to stop writing, because I am not important. Harriet Jacobs is important. If you are from the US or live in the US, you need to read this book.

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Everything You’ve Heard About Canada Is a Lie, the Susanna Moodie Story

roughing it in the bush

Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie, 1852

Just in case you forgot most of what you learned in your history classes: England had an overpopulation problem in the 1830s. Speculators tried to sell Brits on the idea of leaving England to try their fortunes in the New World. Canada, being part of the Commonwealth, was a popular destination for plucky, ambitious adventurers.

Sadly, there was no internet in the 1830s. Hopeful emigrants couldn’t pull up a “My Canadian Farm” blog to ascertain whether the get-rich-quick-in-Canada stories were true. Susanna Moodie and her family heard that in Canada the soil is fertile, the climate is congenial and the natives are welcoming. Best of all, there was some kind of homesteading deal going on where you could get land for free, kind of, if you farmed it. There was no farmland left in England, so they packed their bags and set sail for Quebec.

Things started to go wrong as soon as they sighted Canadian shores. Quebec was hit with a cholera epidemic. Instead of resting from her long voyage in the city, Moodie had to strike out into the wilderness with her husband and baby immediately.

Roughing It in the Bush is a narrative of the trials Moodie and her family faced while attempting to settle the backwoods of Canada. Those trials included:

  • soil not as advertised. Only somewhat fertile.
  • fucking cold winters.
  • fire burns down part of house and almost kills children.
  • rude, impoverished neighbors constantly borrowing tools and not returning them. (Moodie really did not like anyone born in Canada. Occasionally, she encountered another Brit and thoroughly enjoyed their company.)
  • husband had to leave a few times to participate in skirmishes between England and settlers seeking independence. He participated on the Loyalist/Royalist side.
  • constant fear of natives.
  • cold, cold winters.
  • constantly pregnant.
  • wild animals.
  • cold winters.

I found Moodie’s narrative incredibly compelling. Her sense of humor livens up what could easily have been a long list of complaints. Even though, I rarely read non-fiction, I was drawn to her story of hardship. Imagining her out in the woods, pregnant, struggling through dismal winters to keep her family safe and fed…touches your heartstrings.

Eventually, her husband got a job in a town and they moved out of the bush. Moodie describes this moment with an extremely elated sense of relief. Once she was safely established in civilization, she started writing to earn a bit of extra money for her 7,000 kids. She wrote Roughing It in the Bush to dissuade others from buying into the “Free Awesome Farms in Canada!” narrative.

You might like Roughing It in the Bush if:

  • you love Little House of the Prairie, but you just don’t think life as a settler could possibly have been as quaint and idyllic a Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays it.

Final Thoughts:

Margaret Atwood wrote a book of poetry inspired by the life and writings of Susanna Moodie. She’s kind of a big deal in Canadian literature. I liked the book. You might too, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Everybody Needs to Read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

If you haven’t read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or you haven’t read it in a long time, you should read it. It will make you feel terrible, but you should read it. It has a happy ending.

I read this book when I was a child and while I really wasn’t able to process or understand the cruelty that Douglass witnessed and endured as a slave, I was inspired by the strength of his character. As an adult, the facts of Douglass’ early life are much more gut-wrenchingly horrific, and his ability to retain a sense of personal worth and dignity are even more admirable.

No rags-to-riches story in the canon of English fiction is more dramatic than the true story of Frederick Douglass’ life. As a child he was separated from his mother. He suspected that his white owner was his father, but this was never acknowledged. He was barely fed and given one shirt per year as clothing. During winter, on “the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his owner began to teach him to read, until her husband made her stop, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read. With dogged determination and resourcefulness, Douglass secretly continued to teach himself how to read. He read abolitionist tracts. He became more enraged at the cruel injustice of slavery and more determined to be free.

Look, I was going to keep writing, but I don’t actually want to say much about this book. You don’t need to hear it from me, you should hear it from Frederick Douglass himself. The entire purpose of a “slave narrative” is to learn about oppression from the oppressed, instead of getting your information second hand. Besides, Douglass is way more eloquent than I am. Every line in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass agitates my emotions.

I have admired Frederick Douglass for a long time. I think he possibly lived the most admirable life of any American ever.

I didn’t dress up as Frederick Douglass, because that didn’t seem respectful and racial politics are complicated. What I did do was visit the house where he lived in Washington, D.C. which is a historical site now. If you live in or are visiting the D.C. area, you should go to the site and learn about this man. Ironically, his house is very close to a school where I taught. A school in which 98% of students are African American and 14% of students are proficient in reading. Frederick Douglass’ work is not done.

One other thing I must mention, Douglass spoke out vehemently about the false Christianity of the slaveholders. In his experience, religious slaveholders were the most cruel. I probably don’t need to warn any of my readers about the way religion is still used in this country as a justification for hatred, oppression and cruelty towards minorities. But, here’s an excellent quote for good measure:

“Men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

Beware of religious revivalism. It saves no souls.

Here are some  more quotes:

Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.

It’s easier to build strong children then repair broken men.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Final thoughts:

Just read it. It’s not very long. It’s in the public domain, so you can get it for free. No excuses, just read it.

White Men Shoot Bear, Indians, Mexicans

Lady Crockett

Lady Crockett

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, David Crockett, 1834 and The Big Bear of Arkansas, T. B. Thorpe, 1836

Today, I bring you two stories of ego-maniacal white men exploiting the riches of North America!  The Big Bear of Arkansas is a short story in which a man entertains his fellow steamboat riders with a tale of hunting bear in Arkansas. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is an autobiography written by Crockett to increase his popularity heading into a presidential campaign. Why did I choose to review these two items of literature together? Because  I figured you only need to hear me rant about wanton, excessive bear slaughter once on this blog.

The Big Bear of Arkansas is a “big fish” story, but about a bear. This short story features a man bragging about the bounteous game and fertile soil of Arkansas. He then describes in detail his hunting of a semi-mystical bear. That’s all there is to it. It has a proto-Mark Twain vibe. The story also contains one of the most sickeningly racist metaphors I have ever heard. I won’t repeat it here, because it’s disgusting.

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett was also disturbingly racist, which I’ll address in a moment. Crockett talks about his wild upbringing in Tennessee. He was the son of a dirt poor farmer, who hired young David out to neighboring farmers and traveling salesmen to help pay off his debts. Crockett describes his misadventures and hardscrabble lifestyle with colorful, folksy colloquialisms—really the only worthwhile element in this narrative.

As a young man, Crockett joined Andrew Jackson’s militia to fight the Creek Indians. If his callous description of the slaughter of Creek warriors doesn’t turn your stomach, this excerpt will:

We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters.

[…] We went back to our Indian town on the next day, when many of the carcasses of the Indians were still to be seen. They looked very awful, for the burning had not entirely consumed them, but given them a very terrible appearance, at least what remained of them. It was, somehow or other, found out that the house had a potatoe cellar under it, and an immediate examination was made, for we were all as hungry as wolves. We found a fine chance of potatoes in it, and hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had a little rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before had run down on them, and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat.

Now, I don’t know if that really happened. But I do know that Davy Crockett chose to include this in his autobiography, so he must have thought this charming detail would win hearts and minds and help him get the presidency.

The rest of the book consists of Crockett bragging about how much smarter he is than his political opponents and how great he is at hunting. He dedicates many pages to describing his bear hunts. He actually boasts that he could shoot so many bear in a day that he had to leave much of the meat to rot.

Crockett’s autobiography consists almost entirely of the egotistical ramblings of an entitled white man.  His argument for why he deserves the presidency boils down to “I am great at slaughtering bear and Indians.” It’s nauseating.

You might like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re really into hunting.

You might not like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re disgusted by the worldview of settlers who not only felt entitled to shoot everything they saw whether man or beast, but felt that their skill as slaughterers was ennobling.

Final thoughts:

David Crockett was neither noteworthy nor admirable. He represents some of the worst, most destructive American ideals. Ideals that lead to cruelty and oppression. It’s completely ridiculous that we make a hero out of this guy. There are plenty of forgotten Americans who achieved more and lived more commendable lives. He died at the Alamo and he’s very quotable. That’s all.

Listen, it’s good to question the foundation of American values. If you’re on a mission to indulge your bitter skepticism and growing sense of dissatisfaction with the U.S.A., Crockett’s autobiography will help.  Godspeed.