From 'Bondwoman's Narrative' to '12 Years a Slave': Slavery narratives in the midst of revival

It’s hard to put into words the significance of Winthrop University English professor Gregg Hecimovich’s revelation that one-time North Carolina slave Hannah Bond penned the recovered 1850s-era novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which became a bestseller when it was re-published in 2002 after being bought in auction and authenticated by Henry Louis Gates.

Novels by African-Americans during this period are extremely rare. In fact, the first acknowledged novel by an African-American is William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or The President’s Daughter inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s then-rumored relationship with Sally Hemings, published in 1853; the first one by a black female is Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig, originally published in 1859 and largely lost to the literary world until Gates rediscovered it as well in the 1980s.

So, while the revelation that Hannah Crafts, the author’s chosen pen name, is really Hannah Bond and the plans to publish details of her life, especially those correlating to the novel, is indeed exciting, it is doubtful many more will be uncovered.

This, however, does not mean that literary output by African-Americans from this period will be ignored. Slave narratives, by far, were the most dominating literary output by African-Americans during the antebellum period.

As the release date for the highly anticipated film 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s bestselling slave narrative, nears, there is plenty of reason to believe that today’s audiences will not only pick up Northup’s book but others also from the period, including The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which features many elements of the slave narrative.

First, Hannah, the lead character, is enslaved, and details her life during slavery, as well as how she learned to read and, most importantly, how she escaped, all typical to slave narratives, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845, just a few years prior to The Bondwoman’s Narrative. While many mainstream literary critics have been enamored by Bond’s (or Crafts’, rather) obvious knowledge of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which appeared just a few years before her own work, it’s hard to ignore that the most compelling aspects of the book are firmly rooted in the slave narrative.

And slave narratives were wildly popular, appealing greatly to many nonblack readers, who comprised the greater percentage of the literate population.  According to the PBS webpage Africans in America, “Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860, William Wells Brown’s Narrative went through four editions in its first year, and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave sold 27,000 copies during its first two years in print. Many narratives were translated into French, German, Dutch and Russian.”

The Cornell webpage “I Will Be Heard!”: Abolitionism in America, notes that “[a]pproximately 6,000 slave narratives were published in 250 years, but none were more popular than those published during the antebellum period.” The first acknowledged slave narrative is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustuvus Vassa published in London in 1789. England abolished slavery in 1833, presumably leading to the popularity of slave narratives from the U.S., where the anti-slavery movement, fueled by international pressures, gained tremendous steam during the decades preceding the Civil War or the antebellum period.

But anti-slavery sentiment and the growing momentum of the abolition movement worldwide weren’t the only reasons slave narratives, twelve percent of which were by women, were bestsellers. These men and women were and remain heroes and heroines.

Yes, the atrocity of slavery is front and center, with women such as Harriet Jacobs’s well-known Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, detailing the sexual exploitation female slaves regularly faced. Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley even touched upon this in her 1868 book, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, generally referred to as just Behind the Scenes.

Still, at the heart of the slave narrative, especially the enduring ones, is a protagonist who is brave, honest and good and overcomes the evil of enslavement. It is no coincidence that these books portray tremendous moral fortitude. Christianity infuses almost all of the tomes, often with a subtle indicator that the slave master’s God is a false one. In most, there is an energy that truly makes the reader believe that good will indeed triumph over evil.

It’s also important to note that these books, though tragic, were also exciting. How could plotting one’s escape and freedom not be? Bond escaped slavery by disguising herself as a man. Even without dramatic escape plans, there’s adventure in marching into the unknown, standing up for the core values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence. There was no guarantee that runaway slaves would find freedom, so they were truly stepping out on faith. Many also braved the elements of cold and rain, not to mention snakes and other animals. Even now, camping has its own level of unpredictability and, back then, venturing into uncharted terrain was accompanied by the risks of slave hunters and dogs.

In this age of navigation systems on phones, think about how harrowing a prospect it was for a person to set out for freedom with the vague instructions of following the North Star.

Right now it is unclear if the publishing industry plans to flood the market by reprinting slave narratives. Interestingly enough, the Internet is becoming a viable outlet for slave narratives, with many finding their way onto such free sites as Documenting the American South, also known as DocSouth, powered by the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under “North American Slave Narratives,” visitors to the site can find obscure works like the Narrative of James Curry, A Fugitive Slave, published in the pages of William Lloyd Garrison’s renowned abolitionist paper, The Liberator, in 1840.

With the early Oscar buzz of 12 Years a Slave, coupled with the tremendous success of Django Unchained, one thing is certain: slavery is no longer the taboo subject it once was and that has to bode extremely well for the slave narrative genre.

In an age where people are searching for heroes, and clamoring for some sense of truth, what better candidates than the men and women who endured the indignity of enslavement, captured their freedom and lived to tell about it?

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.