Fugitive Voices

Table of Contents

Fall/ Winter 03


Fugitive Voices, by Edlie Wong

The slave narrative is a unique genre of early black expression, bringing together elements of travelogue, spiritual autobiography, sentimental novels, captivity narratives, and political polemic to profoundly impact nineteenth-century literature and society. Because it was illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, the very existence of each narrative has significance in itself, requiring students to think both “inside” and “outside” the text. Students of early nineteenth-century black expression are trying to comprehend literature as a political practice that served to distinguish, for many readers at that time, the human from the non-human. It is a difficult mindset for us to reconstruct today.

For example, I taught The History of Mary Prince in both my undergraduate seminar and lecture courses this past semester. This book is the only known narrative by an enslaved West Indian woman, making it a significant historical document of Caribbean slavery as well as a fascinating literary text, though it has only recently begun to be taught. Prince was stranded in England, unable to return to her native home and remain free. She had repeatedly attempted to purchase her own manumission and was thwarted. “To be free is very sweet,” she declared, dictating her autobiography to journalist Susanna Strickland. Thomas Pringle, the secretary of the British Anti-Slavery Society, also tried and failed to secure her freedom, then edited the text and published it in London in 1831 so that readers “might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered,” even though Prince could neither read or write. A preface, supplements, footnotes, and appendices were all added to “authenticate” the narrative’s veracity, but still two libel cases emerged to dispute it. As an unavoidably collaborative and multiply mediated text, Prince’s History encourages students to think about questions of authorship and representation – issues central to all literary studies. Studying a narrative like Prince’s requires students to recreate a complicated historical context, and to consider how our understanding of that context always becomes an integral part of our literary interpretation of a text.

Teaching in this spirit, I try to accompany literary works with a diverse array of cultural materials, including advertisements, periodical accounts, book reviews, maps, and legal cases from the period. Although slave narratives are historically understood as a rhetorical attempt to “reach the hearts of men” and sway readers to political action, students today often question the limits of empathetic identification and the effectiveness of violent depictions. Taking a historical approach to such powerful narratives may seem incongruous at first, but eventually, connecting these texts to their contexts helps us see how they do more than simply describe a past injustice. Slave narratives address issues of violence and representation and human rights that continue to be relevant into the twenty-first century.

Related Links
The full text of The History of Mary Prince from the New York Public Library's online collection

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a national research library devoted to collecting, preserving and providing access to resources documenting the experiences of peoples of African descent.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.

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