Book club

The Bondwoman’s Narrative: Our Readers’ Verdicts

In most cases there is something horrible in the idea of being bought and sold; it sent a thrill to my heart, a shiver through my brain. For a moment I felt dizzy, but a moment only. I had experienced too much trouble and anxiety to be overwhelmed by this. Then, too, I thought that though my perishable body was at their disposal, my soul was beyond their reach. They could never quench my immortality, shake my abiding faith and confidence in God, or destroy my living assurance in the efficacy of the dying Saviour’s blood.[1]

In this passage, the protagonist of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah, describes how it feels to be sold, and to be treated not as a human being but as a source of profit. While she is valuable as a slave only for her body, and obedience to her master, she maintains her identity and sense of self through her faith in God.

Slave auction
Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia, wood engraving, The Illustrated London News, 27 September 1856, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-15398.

When our book group met at Mycenae House in southeast London on Friday 20th July, we debated the author’s purpose in writing the book. Was it intended primarily as a critique of slavery? Was it a tale of redemption, where Hannah, the pious Christian eventually finds salvation? Was it a form of wish fulfilment, where everyone gets what they deserve, whether the cruel Mr Trappe or vain Mrs Wheeler? Most felt that the author was a skilled social observer who used reading and writing as a way to reflect on the world, and escape from her condition. They saw her as someone who was extremely observant and perceptive of others’ feelings and who, through her writing, wanted to offer a damning critique of slavery.

We discussed how, alongside this, the author endeavoured to write a typical nineteenth-century novel, which shared many qualities with the sentimental and Gothic novels that we have read each month in our group. As in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, any supernatural occurrences are explained away, such as the ‘ghost’ which is revealed to be a runaway slave. The novel format enabled the author to offer more hope than in an autobiography, as by the story’s conclusion Hannah is reunited with her mother, from whom she was separated during her infancy.

Some viewed the book as, in part, a coming of age story, as the character Hannah becomes increasingly critical of the appalling injustices of slavery as the story unfolds. Readers felt that Chapter 16 represents a key moment, where Hannah is banished from the house to work in the fields in North Carolina. In this section, the author’s voice comes to the fore, and readers can hear her anger:

It must be a strange state to be prized just according to the firmness of your joints, the strength of our sinews, and your capability of endurence [sic]. To be made to feel that you have no business here, there, or anywhere except just to work – work – work….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 [sic], 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.[2]

Readers reflected that each of the books we have read in this group has featured one key passage where the author appears to speak directly to readers, articulating their own worldview with regard to institutions such as slavery, marriage, the church, and issues such as female morality and education. In this way, novels fulfil a didactic function as well as being a source of diversion and entertainment.

When asked what they might want to ask the author, our readers wanted to ask her why she wrote the book, and whether she tried to have it published in her own time. If so, for what purpose? They believed that it could potentially have been powerful ammunition in the fight for emancipation.

Readers found the book shocking in how it depicts people being bought and sold as almost an everyday occurrence. It brought home the individual and emotional reality of life under slavery – the injustice, degradation, insult, monotony – and above all the psychological impact of having your freedom taken away. In a modern era where school textbooks can present slaves as ‘workers’, where slavery is repeatedly presented as a ‘choice’, and there is a lingering nostalgia surrounding plantation life, our readers concluded that The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an important book that should be widely read.[3] As Crafts writes:

those who think that the greatest evils of slavery are connected with physical suffering possess no just or rational ideas of human nature. The soul, the immortal soul must ever long and yearn for a thousand things inseperable [sic] to liberty. Then, too, the fear, the apprehension, the dread, and deep anxiety always attending that condition in a greater or less degree. There can be no certainty, no abiding confidence in the possession of any good thing.[4]

If you are interested in reading more stories by former slaves, see the Library of Congress’ collections ‘Born in Slavery‘ and ‘Voices from the Days of Slavery‘.

We hope that you enjoyed reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative. 

[1] Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative (Warner Books: New York, 2003), Ch. 8, pp. 105-6.

[2] Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Ch. 16, p. 205.

[3] For example, see Tom Dart, ‘Textbook passage referring to slaves as “workers” prompts outcry’, The Guardian (2015), https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/oct/05/mcgraw-hill-textbook-slaves-workers-texas; Daina Ramey Berry, ‘American slavery: separating fact from myth’, The Conversation (2017), http://theconversation.com/american-slavery-separating-fact-from-myth-79620; Tara Isabella Burton, ‘The insidious cultural history of Kanye West’s slavery coments’ (2018), https://www.vox.com/2018/5/2/17311148/kanye-west-slavery-choice-harriet-tubman-quote-comments-trump; Yohuru Williams, ‘The Most Damaging Myths about Slavery, Debunked’ (2018), https://www.history.com/news/debunking-slavery-myths

[4] Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Ch. 7, p. 97.

0 comments on “The Bondwoman’s Narrative: Our Readers’ Verdicts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: