Wednesday, May 18, 2005

An excerpt from The Bondwoman's Narrative

For some time now, I've been working my way through Hannah Crafts' novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative as part of my book project. Written in the 1850s but only recently rediscovered, and edited and published a couple of years ago by Henry Louis Gates, this novel appears to be the first novel written by an African-American woman born into slavery. The novel is indebted to the gothic- and sentimental-novel traditions, but it is also noteworthy because Crafts' narrator (who is also named Hannah) shows insight into the oft-noted (by both black and white writers of the time) paradox that, although its supporters publicly argued that slavery was a God-ordained institution, its practice by slaveholders was far from instinctual as far as human nature was concerned.
We see this expressed succinctly in the following passage. Some context: Hannah is the maid of a woman who, we learn, is passing as white unbeknownst to the man she has just married. When an ex-lover threatens to reveal her secret, she and Hannah run away. They are caught and held in a jail cell. Among the other occupants is an old woman who is suffering from dementia and who regales them with tales of her difficult life. She's just told Hannah and her mistress how all she had heard while a child was the "beauties" of slavery yet could not see them herself. Hannah asks her, "Have you ever seen it so?"
The woman replies:

"Oh you must not ask me such questions, indeed you must not. It might involve us in a great deal of trouble. I have learned what all who live in a land of slaver[y] must learn sooner or later; that is to profess approbation where you cannot feel it; to be hard when most inclined to melt; and to say that all is right, and good; and true when you know that nothing could be more wrong and unjust." (84)

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