Sunday, June 04, 2006

Soul Survivors: Slave Narratives

I have been reading a book of what are commonly termed "slave narratives", entitled Soul Survivors.

I have been reading "slave narratives" since I was a child. What is unique about this collection, edited by Marcia Williams, is that it contains only narratives by women.

The stories cover a wide historical range, from the Revolutionary War in 1776 to the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and beyond.

This collection also contains "Incidents from the Life of a Slave Girl", by Harriet Jacobs, which many of us have already read as a separate volume. This is one of the rare texts which portray the sexual harassment and abuse which enslaved African women and young people must have commonly experienced.

The author shares her own experiences as a way of depicting the immorality that was inflicted upon enslaved women, and to which they were often forced to submit. I can't help thinking that many women probably did not write of these experiences, either because of embarassment or because they feared being labelled "immoral" or "loose" themselves.

African American women, during and after enslavement, were often at pains to prove that they were not sexually "immoral" because our women were commonly labelled as such by their enslavers, who used this as a justification for raping or prostituting African American girls and women.

Jacobs describes having to hide in a small attic for seven years to escape from her libidinous 'owner' who was so obsessed with her that he scoured the country trying to track her down. She also depicts how, prior to her escape, her white mistress heaped scorn and abuse on her and other enslaved women because of her husband's licentious behaviour and her own intense sexual jealousy.

Many of the women describe the horrendous physical abuse, including beatings, whippings and heavy labour, that they continually experienced. Many of these personal histories were recorded in order to support the abolitionist cause.

In fact, one of the authors, Mary Prince from the Caribbean, states, "I am often much vexed and I feel great sorrow when I hear some people say that slaves ... do not need better usage and do not want to be free. They believe the foreign people who deceive them and say slaves are happy". She continues, "There is no modesty or decency shown by the owner to his slaves".

The authors all describe their great sorrow and grief at having been sold away from their own children, partners, parents, brothers and sisters, and their attempts to reunite with their family members. They also relate the enslaved African people's constant attempts to gain their freedom by any means necessary, either through escape or through purchasing their own or their children's freedom, sometimes saving up for years in order to do so.

Another common experience was the greed and duplicity of white people: many of the authors were descended from people who had been born free in the United States but kidnapped and sold into enslavement; and several had been freed by their owners but still found themselves enslaved and sold. One woman even took her owner to court to sue for her freedom and won.

My one criticism of this collection is that it could have done with better editing. There are no historical or bibliographic notes or indications as to the sources of these narratives. The table of contents does not even contain page numbers. The narratives sometimes jump around in time and I found this confusing.

Having said that, this volume is an important addition to any collection of African diasporic history.

Click here to order Soul Survivors.

See also: 2007 Commemoration

Keywords: Enslavement, Slavery, African American, African Caribbean, African Diaspora, Black History, African heritage, slave narratives, women

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