"The Bondwoman's Narrative"
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran APR 28, 2002)I should tell you in the interest of full disclosure that I am a certified history geek, having taught high school American History for ten years. I sometimes start conversations with "You know, that Chester A. Arthur was really pretty interesting." I taunted my non-history geek husband when he couldn't name the five living former American vice presidents. I can deliver a fascinating lecture on late 19th century Populism and the concept of free silver. Well, it's fascinating to me. My name is Shannon and I have a problem. So you'll pardon me while I drool over the newly discovered manuscript The Bondwoman's Narrative. Scholars believe it to be the oldest surviving novel written by an African American woman, c. 1855. Even more exciting is the evidence that it was not filtered through the editorial eyes of a well-meaning but censorial abolitionist. You should drool too, even if you're not a history geek.
Edited by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is a fictional work describing the life and travels of a mulatto slave woman named Hannah Crafts. We meet her at Lindendale Plantation where she is a house slave, her chief duties to serve as personal maid to the plantation's new mistress. Owing to her light skin color and beautiful face, Hannah occupies a rather exalted position in the slave society. In attempting to authenticate the novel, Professor Gates points to the description of this hierarchy as evidence that the author actually experienced slavery. Few who had not been slaves themselves recognized such a caste system existed, instead they lumped all slaves together into one lowly class. In addition to the class distinctions within slavery, Crafts describes the relationship between her white mistress and herself. "Those who suppose that southern ladies keep their attendants at a distance, scarely speaking to them, . . .have a very erroneous impression. Between the mistress and her slave a freedom exists probably not to be found elsewhere." Gates and other scholars believe observation could only come from someone who has seen slavery from the "inside."
Perhaps the most compelling textual evidence of the manuscript's authenticity is how Crafts treats her African American characters. The reader hears of them as people first, black people second. Race is not each character's defining characteristic. "Queer looking old men, whose black faces withered and puckered. . .fat portly dames whose ebony complexions . . .boys, girls, and an abundance of babies." Anyone who has read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" will notice a difference between this style and that of white author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Scholars believe this to be the defining piece of evidence in the question of whether Hannah Crafts was indeed an African American. Professor Gates does not rely solely on textual references in his claim of authenticity. He consulted Dr. Joe Nickell, "an investigator and historical-document examiner" who perused the handwriting, historical references, type of ink, punctuation, and other factors before concluding that the manuscript was probably produced between 1853 and 1861. In his introduction, Professor Gates also details his excruciating search for a fugitive slave named Hannah Crafts. When he thinks he has found her, his excitement nearly leaps from the page. "I was so ecstatic that I took my wife and best friend out to celebrate over a bit too much champagne. We had a glorious celebration." Upon learning the potential Hannah was illiterate, he deadpans, "My hangover returned."
The chief villain in the novel is the aptly named Mr. Trappe, a lawyer who specializes in exposing black people passing as white. "No blood-hound was ever keener in scenting out the African taint than that old man." Mr. Trappe discovers Hannah's mistress actually is black and threatens exposure, setting the two women off in an escape attempt.
Mr. Trappe tracks the two down and Hannah passes through the hands of several masters, finally arriving as a personal maid to Mrs. Wheeler, a nasty, paranoid woman who later forces Hannah into the fields. Hannah flees again, leading to some of the most descriptive passages of the book. "The heavens wore a fearful and awful aspect. . .There was a rich red arch of beautiful light, . . .sheets of waving flame. As I gazed long lines of clouds, came sweeping on before the wind, the glowing arch with its fiery banners gave way before them, and all was darkness."
Some readers may be unable to get past the misspellings, the "creative" punctuation, or the abundance of coincidences that run through "The Bondwoman's Narrative," for Professor Gates chose to leave the writing as intact as possible. Those who are not fans of the gothic novel will certainly disapprove of the creaking trees, crashing portraits, raging storms, and the convenient appearance of ghosts. These are however, small tradeoffs for the opportunity to read an unedited and unfiltered view of slavery as put forth by a true autodidact. Those who can get past these troubles are in for a delicious treat, a remarkable view of life in the past. As Professor Gates notes, "While we may not yet be certain of her name, we do know who Hannah Crafts is, we know the central and defining facts about her life. . .that she was a keen observer of the dynamics of slave life. Hannah Crafts has given us a black sentimental novel, one based closely on her experiences as slave, but one at times written in a most unsentimental manner."
Oh, and if you're still racking your brain over the five living former vice presidents, they're Al Gore, Dan Quayle, George Bush, Walter Mondale, and Gerald Ford. I'm not taunting anyone honest.
- Amazon readers rating: from 36 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Bondwoman's Narrative (April 2002)
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- Maine Antique Digest article on Swann's annual auction
- Independent Online article titled Exposed Roots
- Guardian Unlimited Observer review of The Bondwoman's Narrative
- Daily Nation news article The Bondwoman's Narrative
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About the Author:Hannah Crafts was a self-educated house slave and the author of THE BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE, an unprecedented historical and literary event, written in the 1850's, the only known novel by a female African American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a noted African American scholar and is one of the most prominent and well-known academics in the United States today. He is the Chair of Harvard's African American studies program. He is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, co-editor of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience and co-editor of The Harvard Guide to African American History. Additionally he narrated the six-hour PBS documentary series Wonders of the African World (1999).
Gates is also the author of:
- The Classic Slave Narratives (1987)
- Loose Cannons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992)
- Figures in Black: Words, Signs adn the "Racial" Self
- The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism
- The Future of the Race (1996)
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997)
- The African American Century: How Black America Has Shaped Our Country (2000)