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Robert J. Moore
The scope of this unit will not be confined to nonfictional narratives, but will also include those fictionalized narratives of Charles Chesnutt which appeared in The Conjure Woman. “Po’ Sandy” wrenches the heart with its poignant rendering of Uncle Julius’ tale of a slave turned into a tree to escape slavery only to be chopped down for lumber to build a new kitchen. Arguably all autobiography is fiction at some point. This unit will cross that imaginary line shamelessly.
More obscure slave narratives will be sought for this unit. Many are beginning to surface in recent studies. Dark voices from unmarked graves haunt quietly yet incessantly. These voices beg to be heard.
In brief, the letter chronicles the delivery of more than twenty African slaves to the colonies after the ship survived a storm in the West Indies. According to Lester, “[t]he African slave trade was already over a hundred years old when the Dutch ship landed twenty Africans at the Jamestown colony in 1619.” Lester tells us further that “[e]ighteen years after the first Africans came to the Jamestown colony, the first American built slave ship sailed from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Its name was the Desire.” (Lester, p. X.)
The narrative is told in the characteristic two voices of many slave writings (Gates, xiv). The first voice is that of the eleven-year-old Benin prince who is captured with his sister by marauding rival tribesmen. In this phase of the narration, the reader learns fragmented aspects of West African Igbo culture. We learn that Olaudah came from a tribe known for its poetry, music and artistry, that his father was a wealthy chieftain who had many slaves, and that slavery as it was practiced among the West African people for all its brutality was in no comparison to the total denial of humanity that Olaudah and his kinsmen were to face.
The second voice belongs to the cultivated black Englishman who cleverly, ingeniously fashions a story whose sharp purpose is to seduce the reader into loving and respecting the African boy’s courage, craftiness, intelligence, and his invincible yearning for freedom.
- 1. Describe daily life of Olaudah among his family.
- 2. How did Olaudah plan to escape his African captors?
- 3. What character traits do we notice about the narrator?
- 4. Describe Olaudah’s first recollection of a slave ship and of the European captors on board.
- 5. Describe life in the hole below deck.
- 6. How effective do you feel is Olaudah’s appeal to the conscience of his Christian readers?
- 1. View video from Roots by Alex Haley on the capture of Kunta Kinte.
- 2. Reenact household slavery as practiced by the Igbo people.
- 3. Make a list of major differences between slavery in Africa and slavery in the New World.
John Blassingame in Slave Testimony provides an 1847 third person interview with a John Homrn, age twenty-four (24) who was born in Sierra Leone in 1823. John apparently was English speaking. According to the interview:
His parents, though ranked amongst the humbler class, lived in comfort and respectability. At an early age he was placed at school, and was grounded in the rudiment of knowledge; hence he was able to read and write well . . . . [H]is father intended that he should learn his business, which was that of a carpenter. (Blassingame, 254.)The story further tells that John’s father entrusted his son’s care to a gentleman Paul Fevre, a native of the United States who was in need of a valet. Unsuspecting the underlying treachery, John left with the merchant for Cuba where he was enslaved. John became the slave of a Franciso Solen, a brutal man. Information taken from John revealed that:
[T]he nature of the labour generally performed by slaves is of the most arduous description . . . The usual hours of labour on the estates were from six in the morning until ten at night, without any intermission, save a half hour devoted to meals. During crop time, the hours were from three o’clock in the morning until eleven at night. A driver was placed over them to watch their proceedings, and the slightest cessation was punished with severity . . . The punishments inflicted on these slaves are of the most horrifying characterthe whip, the stocks, chains, gags, and other instruments are employed. There is a severe mode of punishment adopted, called “bucking,”the hands of the poor victim are first tied together, and then passed over the knees; a stick is then passed between the arms and knees, and the sufferer being rendered helpless, the castigation is administered. (Blassingame, 257.)Above quoted passages reprinted by permission from Slave Testimony © 1977 by Louisiana State University Press.
But not only are the slaves overworked and cruelly punished, but they are ill-fed. Their food never varies throughout the year: a little corn flour and salt fish is their only nourishment . . . . (Blassingame, 260).
Fortunately for John Homrn, he was able to escape his cruel fate by boarding a ship bound for England. With the help of a sympathetic sea captain, Homrn reached the office of the British and Foreign Antislavery Society where he was able to convince the authorities that he was a free born man. He returned to Sierra Leone. (261)
Activity Rewrite the third person narrative in the first person. Imagine what emotions would be expressed that may have been omitted in the third person narration.
I don’t know how old I was when I found myself standing on the toppen (sic) part of a high stump with a lot of white folks walking around looking at the little scared boy that was me.Above quoted passage reprinted by permission from To Be A Slave © 1968 by Dell Publishing Company.
Library of Congress
Poignant first person slave narratives about being sold at auction are provided by B. A. Botkin in Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery, from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1938. A narration “He Sold Him Over and Over” gives a humorous account that ends in understated tragedy:
There was a white man live close to us, but over in Louisian’. He had raised him a great big black man what brung (sic) fancy price on the block. The black man sure love that white man. This white man would sell Old Johnthat’s the black man’s nameon the block to some man from Georgia or other place far off. Then after while the white man would steal Old John back and bring him home and feed him good, then sell him again. After he had sold Old John some lot of times, he coaxed Old John off in the swamp one day, and Old John found dead several days later. The white folks said that the owner kilt (sic) him, ‘cause a dead nigger won’t tell no tales. (Botkin, 158-9)Another moving tale is entitled “Two Sellings That Day.”
Then they says they gwine sell me, ‘cause Miss Nancy’s father-in-law dies and they got rid of some of us. She didn’t want to sell me, so she tell me to be sassy and no one would buy me. They takes me to Houston and to the market, and a man call George Fraser sells the slaves. The market was a (sic) open house, more like a shed. We all stands to one side till our turn comes. They wasn’t nothing else you could do.Above quoted passages reprinted by permission from LAY MY BURDEN DOWN © 1945 by University of Chicago Press.
They stands me up on a block of wood, and a man bid me in. I felt mad. You see, I was young then, too young to know better. I don’t know what they sold me for, but the man what bought me made me open my mouth while he looks at my teeth. They done all us that-a-way, sells us like you sell a hoss (sic). Then my old master bids me goodby and tries to give me a dog, but I ‘members what Miss Nancy done say and I sasses him and slapped the dog out of his hand. So then man what bought me say, “When one o’clock come, you got to sell her ‘gain, she’s sassy. If she done me that way I’d kill her.” So they sells me twice the same day. They was two sellings that day. (Botkin, 153)
Activities Assign individual students to memorize the narratives as speeches to be presented in class. Other students may choose to mime the action in the story during the recitation.
Critics of Blassingame asserted that he found the work “too melodramatic to be authentic” because he used the male narrative as the standard, the most notable example, Narrative by Frederick Douglass, (Washington, p. 7) Issues of sexual liaisons between slave women and white masters were not the major concern of black men in their quest for freedom. Slave women in their narratives told of their struggle to resist their brutal treatment which was often sexual in form. Slave men told of their flight to freedom, a direct route to manhood. For women, flight was not always feasible, for it invariably meant leaving the children behind, as in the case of Harriet Jacobs. Freedom was not a place (the North) but rather a state of mind. Women in their struggle endured victimization in ways that make them appear passive. Yet their struggle is no less noble or heroic.
- The Trials of Girlhoodwhich introduces the lecherous white master Dr. Flint who pursues Linda relentlessly.
- The Jealous Mistresswhich reveals how Linda uses the jealousy of the white mistress to protect her from Dr. Flint’s sexual advances.
- The Loverwhich laments the futility of a slave woman to choose her own husband under slavery’s bitter yoke.
- A Perilous Passage in The Slave Girl’s Lifewhich reveals Linda’s clever plot to repel Dr. Flint by selecting a kind white man to be the father of her children.
- The New Tie to Lifewhich relates further details that Mr. Sands, the father of Linda’s child, had promised to care for their child and to perhaps buy Linda.
- Another Link to Lifewhich tells of the baptism of Linda’s child.
- Continued Persecutionswhich shows Linda’s grandmother, a free black, to have power and courage to rebuke Dr. Flint when he comes into her house to torment Linda.
- Scenes at the Plantationwhich introduces Miss Fanny, the great aunt of Mr. Flint who for fifty dollars had purchased the freedom of Linda’s grandmother.
- Free at Lastwhich tells of the sudden death of Dr. Flint after Linda’s long-awaited flight to New England to freedom where she rejoins her children.
- 1. Why did Harriet Jacobs and her collaborators publish this narrative under the pseudonym Linda Brent?
- 2. Why might any critic consider the work to lack authenticity?
- 3. What central themes are presented in this narrative that are in sharp contrast to those central themes in classic male slave narratives?
- 4. Is the heroism of Linda significantly compromised because she has chosen to have sexual relations with Mr. Sands, a white neighbor?
- 5. Discuss the symbolism in Linda’s self-imposed imprisonment in her grandmother’s cramped attic space as a means of attaining freedom. How does this compare to the male slave narrative which deals with flight to achieve manhood and freedom?
- 1. Have students recreate the cramped attic space in the classroom by using chairs and tables. Let them keep a log of their experiences.
- 2. View the video “Digging for Slaves” A and L Footsteps which gives an archaeological and historical view of slavery in colonial Williamsburg and at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Julius McAdoo, a colored coachman, tells the story to a white Yankee couple who have chose to settle in central North Carolina on an old plantation. One day the wife of the couple requested her husband to build a new kitchen. To save money the husband wanted to tear down the old schoolhouse nearby and use the lumber for the new project. Uncle Julius persuades them to abandon to construction by weaving a yarn about “Po’ Sandy.”
Sandy was a “good nigger” whose first slave wife was sold right from under him by an insensitive master while Sandy was away at work. His second wife Tenie, a conjure woman, told Sandy she had the powers to turn him into any animal to escape being sent off to work again. Instead of being turned into an animal, Sandy is turned into a big pine tree. Convinced that Sandy had escaped, Sandy’s cruel master accused other slaves and Tenie of assisting in the “crime.”
The plan to wait until the master gave up looking for Sandy backfired. While Tenie was distracted to nurse young Master Dunkin’s sick wife, Master Marabo needed lumber to build a new kitchen. The old pine tree, Sandy, became the source of that lumber. The new kitchen was of no use to the master for it was now haunted with the moanings and groanings of Sandy’s spirit. The master’s wife was afraid to go out in the yard after dark. The kitchen was dismantled and converted into an old schoolhouse building that the new Yankee owners are now considering to tear down.
Uncle Julius convinces the couple that the lumber is still haunted. New lumbar was purchased to build the kitchen. The couple learns later that Uncle Julius used the schoolhouse himself for church meetings.
Martin B. Duberman recounts in his play “In White America” that “slaves constantly tried to flee the plantation and head north to freedom. Efforts by their masters to trace them led, in a few rare cases, to an exchange of letters: (Duberman, 479)
Mrs. Sarah Logue: To Jarm: . . . I write you these lines to let you know the situation we are in,partly in consequence of your running away and stealing Old Rock, our fine mare. Though we got the mare back, she never was worth much after you took her. If you will send me one thousand dollars, and pay for the old mare, I will give up all claim I have to you. In consequence of your running away, we had to sell Abe and Ann and twelve acres of land; and I want you to send me the money, that I may be able to redeem the land. If you do not comply with my request, I will sell you to someone else, and you may rest assured that the time is not far distant when things will be changed with you. A word to the wise is sufficient . . . You know that we reared you as we reared our own children.Rebellion, revolt were alternatives to running away. Duberman tells of the slave Nat Turner, who in 1831 led other slaves in a bloody battle against their masters in Southhampton, Virginia:
Mrs. Sarah Logue
Jarm: Mrs. Sarah Logue: . . . Had you a woman’s heart, you never could have sold my only remaining brother and sister, because I put myself beyond your power to convert me into money.
You sold my brother and sister, Abe and Ann, and twelve acres of land . . . Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping post? Did you raise them to be driven off, bound to a coffle in chains? . . .
Did you think to terrify me by presenting the alternative to give my money to you, or give my body to slavery? Then let me say to you, that I meet the proposition with scorn and contempt. I will not bulge on hair’s breath. I will not breathe a shorter breath . . . I stand among free people. (Duberman, 480)
Nat Turner: I was thirty-five years of age the second of October last, and born the property of Benjamin Turner. In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind . . . Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother, overhearing, said has happened before I was born. I stuck to my story, however, and related some other things which went, in her opinion, to confirm it. Others being called on, were greatly astonished, and caused them to say, in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet . . .Above quoted passages reprinted by permission from “In White America” © 1964 by Houghton Mifflin.
I studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting my time to fasting and prayer. I obtained influence over the minds of my fellow servants . . . by the communion of the Spirit . . . they believe and said my wisdom came from God.
About this time I had a visionI saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkenedthe thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streamsand I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see; and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely hear it.” I communicated the great work laid out for me to do. It was quickly agreed, neither age nor sex was to be spared.
It was my object to carry terror and devastation wherever we went. We killed Mrs. Waller and ten children. Then we started for Mr. William Williams . . . Mrs. Williams fled, but she was pursued, overtaken, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead. The white men pursued and fired on us several times. Five or six of my men were wounded, but none left on the field . . . Finding myself defeated . . . I gave up all hope for the present . . . I was taken, a fortnight afterwards in a little hole I had dug out with my sword. I am here with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me. (Duberman, 480-81)
Many students will have difficulty reading “Po’ Sandy” because of the use of dialect. It is best to read the story in its entirety aloud. A good exercise is for the teacher to select a passage from the story and have students rewrite the section in standard English.
- 1. Discuss why Charles Chesnutt chose to have Uncle Julius tell his yarn to white Northerners.
- 2. Discuss whether the story’s meaning is at all hampered by the fact that magic plays a major role in the advancement of the plot.
- 3. What was Uncle Julius’ real motive in telling the story?
- 4. What evils of the institution of slavery are highlighted in this tale?
- 5. What effect, if any, does the ending have upon Miss Annie? Her husband? The class?
“In White America”
- 1. How would students characterize the relationship between Jarm, the escaped slave and Sarah Logue, his former owner?
- 2. What facts can be deduced or inferred from reading the exchange of letters?
- 3. Is Sarah Logue justified in rebuking Jarm for stealing the mare? Should Jarm repay her for the loss?
- 4. Write a final reply to Jarm’s letter from the point of view of Miss Logue.
- 5. What character traits are revealed about Nat Turner in his narration?
- 6. Does Nat Turner show any signs of remorse for the killing of women and children?
- 7. How might Nat Turner justify his deeds?
A middle-aged sergeant in that regiment relates:
I had been a-thinkin’ I was old man; for, on de plantation, I was put down wid de old hands, and I quinsicontly (sic) feeled myself dat I was a old man. But since I has come here to de Yankees, and been made a soldier for the United States, an’ got dese beautiful clothes on, I feels like one young man; and doesn’t call myself a old man nebber no more. An’ I feels dis ebenin’ dat, if de rebs came down here to dis old Fort Hudson, dat I could jus fight um as brave as any man what is in the Sebenth Regiment. Sometimes I has mighty feelings in dis ole heart of mine, when I considers how dese ere ossifers come all de way from the North to fight in de cause what we is fighten fur. How many ossifers has died, and how many white soldiers has died, in dis great and glorious war what we is in! And now I feels dat, fore I would turn coward away from dese ossifers, I feels dat I could drink my own blood, and be pierced through wid five thousand bullets. I feels sometimes as doe I ought to tank Massa Linkern for dis blessin’ what we has; but again I comes to de solemn conclusion dat I ought to tank de Lord, Massa Linkern, and all dese ossifers. “Fore I would be a slave ‘gain, I would fight till de last drop of blood was gone. I has ‘cluded to fight for my liberty, and for dis eddication what we is now to receive in dis beautiful new house what we has. Aldo I hasn’t got any eddication nor no book-learnin’, I has rose up dis blessed ebenin’ to do my best afore dis congregation. Dat’s all what I has to say now. (McPherson, 191-192.)Despite the fact the Negro soldiers had fought valiantly to help the North win the war, many northerners after the war wanted to see all Negroes repatriated to Africa. In response to this thinking, James F. Jones, a black soldier in the Fourteenth Rhode Island, wrote in June 1864:
I think, Mr. Editor, that, under God, this will yet be a pleasant land for the colored man to dwell in, the declarations of colonizationists to the contrary, notwithstanding. Step by step we are emerging from darkness into light. One by one the scales that have so long blinded our raceignorance and superstition are falling off; prejudice, with all its concomitant evils, is fast giving way; men begin to reason and think of us in a rational and religious way. As a people, we begin to think of our race as something more than vassals, and goods, and chattles; and with this increasing good opinion of ourselves, we make all people respect us. (McPherson, 315)Above quoted passages are reprinted by permission from The Negro’s Civil War © 1965 by Ballantine Books.
Assign students to write a fictionalized slave narrative fashioned after any of those covered in this unit. Students may wish to present their narratives as real life characters complete with costumes and properties.
TSBoth Teacher and Student Resource
Andrews, William L. (intro.) Six Women’s Slave Narratives. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Presents models of nineteenth and early twentieth century works. The narratives of Mary Prince, Mattie J. Jackson, Elizabeth, and others will be interpreted and evaluated for their authentic portrayal of black womanhood. (T)
Andrews, William L. (ed.) Three Classic African American Novels. New York: Penguin Books, Inc. 1990. Contains The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass, Clotel by William Wells Brown and Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. (S)
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969. Beautiful autobiography of a young black girl growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. (T)
Blassingame, John W. (ed.) Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. (T)
Botkin, B. A. (ed.) Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1945. (T)
Brawley, Benjamin. (ed.) Early Negro-American Writers. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970. (T)
Chesnutt, Charles. The Conjure Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969 (intro. Robert M. Farnsworth.) Fictionalized narratives written in humor and satire. (TS)
Davis, Charles T. and Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (eds.) The Slave’s Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Provides a wealth of material from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The first section features commentaries, mostly anonymous, on the stories told by identified slaves. These include the lives of: Job Ben Solomon, Gustavus Vassa, James Williams, Juan Manzano, Henry Bibb, Frederick Douglass and Linda. (T)
Duberman, Martin B. “In White America.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964. Historical play based on recorded testimony on the civil rights struggle. (T)
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (ed.) The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Mentor Book, 1987. Contains The Life of Olaudah Equiano, The History of Mary Prince, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (TS)
Lester, Julius. To Be A Slave. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1968. Collection of narratives from a variety of sources organized thematically. (TS)
McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965. Historical account of the role of Negro soldiers in the Civil War told from the point of view of whites as well as blacks. (TS)
Miller, Randall M. (ed.) Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1990. Allows us to gain intimate insight into the lives of former slaves as they write to their former masters. Focus is on the slaves once owned by Peyton Skipwith. (T)
Mossell, N. F. The Work of the Afro American Woman. Joanne Braxton (introduction). New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. (TS)
Washington, Mary Helen. Invented Lives:. Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960. New York: Anchor Press Book, 1987. (TS)
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