Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

I couldn’t believe I was holding it, procured so easily from the public library: “The only known novel by a female African-American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere,” read the cover jacket of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. who laid hold of the original 300-page handwritten manuscript launched an extraordinary quest to unmask the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. Taking the clues he left, Professor Gregg Hecimovich from Winthrop University located the novelist in history at the end of an assiduous ten-year pursuit. Hannah Bond was the mulatto house slave who fled a North Carolina plantation disguised as a man and lived to tell her story cast in part fiction.

BondwomanI have always felt a pull toward the African-American odyssey of slavery. The female slave experienced double jeopardy not only for her race but also for her sexual vulnerability. I beckon to light the invisible greatness of a woman who made her way out of bondage pen in hand as she did by feet.

To authenticate and date the book, Dr. Gates consulted experts of historical documents. The characteristics of the paper, binding, handwriting, the iron-gall ink that had been popular until 1860, the style of the narrative were some of the elements they studied. A sedulous search among federal census records turned up the “Mr. Wheeler” whom Bond had served. In 1855 John Hill Wheeler enjoyed more fame than he had sought in government when word got out that his slave Jane Johnson had run away. Hannah describes how she found herself filling the vacancy. So the manuscript would have been drafted after 1855. I was captivated by the rigorous intricacy of the literary archeology.

Dr. Gates reports the observations of the keenest scholars in slave literature, the cause for their excitement over this particular self-authenticating text: “Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice that we have rarely, if ever, heard before…For Crafts, slaves are always, first, and last, human beings, ‘people’ as she frequently put it.” (Gates’ preface to the novel)

How did Hannah learn to read and write? She enjoyed her first secret reading lessons from an elderly white couple until the meetings were aborted. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical investigator, paid “close attention to Crafts’ level of diction, the scope of her vocabulary…the degree of familiarity with other texts, or literacy, that she reflects in word choice, metaphors, analogies, epigraphs, and allusions to other words, concluding that she had the [modern equivalent] of an eleventh-grade education.” She evidently had taken liberties with John Wheeler’s private eclectic library. The plantation also housed students from a neighborhood finishing school. In a news radio interview, Hecimovich said, “Bond would have been listening and waiting on the young ladies who were boarding at the Wheeler family plantation while they were practicing…and she would have intuited, like other slaves we have record of, when she came to write her own stories. She could tell her story in the way that she heard the other stories.” (What does this say, incidentally, about the impact of quality literature upon listening children?) She has a beautiful, bold hand in the word selection and painting of imagery: “The clear cold sunshine glancing down the long avenue of elms…” While Hannah’s multisyllabic words [magnanimity, obsequious] tell of a rich bibliodiet, the many misspellings [meloncholy, inseperable] reveal the struggles of one who was self-taught. The novel was printed with the spelling errors and revisions Hannah had made intact, offering a precious glimpse of the subnarrative where writers play out choices in the birthing of a tale. Scholars thrill to have broken new ground in the landscape of antebellum literature. Gates explains, “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

Hannah draws a distinction between house and field slave, one of class and levels of degradation. It is when she is forced to marry into the squalor behind the Wheeler home that she decides to flee. “Accused of a crime of which I was innocent…most horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror unspeakable…” (p. 205) The relative advantages she enjoyed as a house negro and very light mulatto distill the institution of slavery to its unrelenting truth. Hannah wasn’t whipped to work faster under the sun, didn’t have to mind the hogs in their sty. But no matter how light her skin, she was a thing with no license to go where she chose, wear what she wanted, say what she thought. The day she woke to was not hers. She got out of a bed she did not own to meet the needs and demands of another. Why would slavers think she had intellect, talent, feelings, a soul? Hannah was sold and bought, had no say under whose roof she ended up. “No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better.” (p. 6) And even house slaves were not immune to the prospect of torture, rape, or murder. Hannah recounts the tale of a beloved nurse of the master’s son who, after begging for mercy, chose to suffer rather than drown her dog. Woman and pet were gibbeted on iron loops for six days with no food or water, making it through a fierce storm that only revived them to agony. A drop of black blood — and you were no better off than a dog. The establishment of slavery ironically did not discriminate between the classes extant in the world of slaves. Hannah writes of a man who agreed to part with his young chattel for a handsome amount of money: “He reck[on]ed not that she was a woman of delicate sensibilities and fine perfections – she was a slave, and no more that was all to him.” (p.82)

The act of running away, of plunging into the harsh vicissitudes of threat and want, is obviously a bravery all its own. What impresses me as much are the battles Hannah won first in the deepest places of self. She was bold enough to envision not only her escape but well before, to have broken through the low, hard ceiling that kept slaves from the daylight of dreams. Taking the words that had come alive to her on paper, she would compose a novel that revealed truth. I find the vast verbal blueprint she was able to draw up in her mind astounding. It appears Hannah had not been “writing this for herself,” as “it was not an internal sort of story [in which she grows or changes] which makes me want to think of her imagining a public for it.” (Preface, lxiv) The pen at work was a soaring of the mind, a declaration of will. She did not heed the holes in her learning. A full imagination, insight, and instinct for the framing of words would do. Her sense of worth, not mollifiable, told her she was capable of attempting what no hand of woman had as of yet and that she could secure readers. This anchor is what impelled her escape, for “rebellion would be virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it, and that whatever accidents or misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse than what threatened my stay.” (p. 206) I love the duty to herself. Her body, her spirit, her dignity were worth protecting, and she would see to it.

Some things are not worth fighting for. “Marriage like many other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system…I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being.” (pp. 206-207) Hannah decides it the wiser course for slaves to forgo certain pleasures. The sweetest of them – creaturely comfort and family – promise in the grander scheme only to embitter their own existence, feed the very beast of their anguish. So how far do you go to protect your child? Hannah describes the response of a young black woman forced to sell her children by their father, the master of the house. “Her eyes had a wild phrenzied look, and with a motion so sudden that no one could prevent it, she snatched a sharp knife…and stabbing the infant threw it with one toss into the arms of its father. Before he had time to recover from his astonishment she had run the knife into her own body, and fell at his feet bathing them in her blood. She lived only long enough to say that she prayed God to forgive her for an act dictated by the wildest despair.” (pp.177-178) This despair was no drama out of a writer’s fancy. Hannah likely knew of the publicized infanticide of 1856. Margaret Garner was fleeing a Kentucky plantation with her husband, their baby and two-year-old daughter Mary, and his parents when she was pursued by her master. Margaret slit Mary’s throat with a knife to spare her the waiting travail. It was a doomed attempt to solve the lesser of two impossible evils, and Margaret’s act of desperation articulates Hannah’s own conviction to refuse helotry another generation of victims. So accustomed to the relative comforts of the wealthiest nation in the world, I can’t imagine what would compel me to extinguish my son’s breath.

To run away is to face the real possibility of torture and death, but the road before holds out the irresistible hope of autonomy and birthright of dignity. To stay or go back is to assure oneself of a living death. The Underground Railroad saw many, though not enough, lives to freedom. But literacy liberates the mind and creates opportunity of voice. The depths to which Bond pursued her art yielded a remarkable achievement. She reached for access to that forbidden code of the written word we call reading, and went on to add her own undimmed testimony of good, evil, and the true to the dark pages of the human heart we call history.

116 thoughts on “Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

  1. they say our lives are formed by those lives that came before us, this is certainly the case here, it reminds me of the great women of the world, the mothers of children, have a great day, amen

  2. It is almost impossible to imagine. I have never understood the rationalizations that slave owners used to justify their behavior, how they defined other human beings in such a way that their actions were somehow okay. My heroes are always the people who fight back against oppression, regardless of the form the oppression takes. As an aside, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, which was founded by freed slaves from America, who promptly recreated a system similar to the one they had been held under. I have always asked,” why?” when they knew the end results so well.

    Beautiful blog… well written and meaningful. Thanks. –Curt

    • You are just too much, Navigator. Again, I am grateful for the reward of my labors – support as you have given. It’s one thing to have a good number of subscribers. It’s another for many of them to be intelligent, talented writers in their own right.

      Just had an inkling that my response to Dancing Rider might interest you. Thanks – if you get to it.

      • Actually, HW, you are an eloquent writer with a penchant for writing lovely if not beautiful posts. I am almost tempted to call you offside for your “about,” as you seem to be finding your own voice with a graceful ease that betrays an inherent dignity of character.

        It is such a nice voice, which I say in the nicest possible way.

  3. What an undertaking. An inspirational book, and thoughtful entry. I can’t imagine those feelings, that bravery, and the perseverance it took to achieve freedom. Literacy, and subsequently education, played a huge role here. It’s mind-boggling, and I can only appreciate it intellectually…..I can’t truly understand it.

    • Very well said, Rider! Absolutely agree. I’ve been adding to my deep interest and decent knowledge of the African-American struggle for dignity by watching the recent films that came out on the topic. Gruesome, base, inhuman. I’ve seen the pictures, know of the abuse and rape…but to think it can really get so bad to the point where I decide it’s better for my son not to live is just wild. I continue to think on this. The depths of evil in the human heart, which really is what so much of history is about. Of course the power of goodness, beauty, grace rise to relieve our burden with hope and light. That is where the greatness comes in. But oh, how bad the story must get for it to end up so good.

  4. Thank You for your intriguing window into such a rare and priceless piece of history. Your presentation and summary are captivating, I wonder of the difficulty of the original read. Your take seems to indicate an almost contemporary feel – yet penned – what -, over 1 1/2 centuries ago?
    Thanks again for sharing this. Sincerely, M

    • Right about that time, MV. Rare, intriguing, priceless describe my view of and appreciation for this find. Not contemporary at all, her style (at least not postmodern). As the scholars have found, some parts Dickens, gothic…but all very eloquent, some parts incredibly beautiful. She was one insightful woman. I’d wanted to showcase more of her writing but knew I was hitting the “okay, Wayfarer…this post was long enough” quota. =) Thank you so much for your presence.

      • Your words providing enlightenment of : “The Bondwoman’s Narrative of Slavery,” is like a tease; a beckoning for the rest of the story. Obviously she was an extraordinary human, and fortunately able, against all odds, to allow us the privilege of a first hand glimpse of not only the historical aspects, but her wonderful ability to convey and share so well – and with such auspicious perception. I hope to read this.

      • Would love your response to it when you get to it. Actually, the preface by Professor Gates who first secured the manuscript enthralled me as much as the text. =) I wasn’t thrilled with the plot through and through – not to say I thought ill of it. I just wasn’t won over body and soul. But gladly finish it I did, and I quite took to the storyline in the second half. The opening is interesting, too. It is just such a precious book to get into. Thanks for your time again. And I look fwd to my visit — as the ogre of time allows.

  5. Excellent post, informative, well-written. I so want to read that book now. I can relate to many things you have said here, but from a personal perspective the thing that hit home was the lengths I went to learn to read and write – I was literally sneaking round corners, listening in and looking over people’s shoulders, stealing newspapers, reading receipts, legal documents, graffiti, secreting books in my bed and reading them when everyone else was asleep. I was always in so much trouble for reading all the time. By the time I attended school I had figured out how to read upside-down because I couldn’t get enough words. I did not know at the time how much I was going to need all those words, and although I was sorry I was such a pain to my parents because of that obsession, these days I am also secretly glad I was so defiant on that one thing I couldn’t let go of.

    • WOW. To hear this from someone I “know” is amazing. I love that you couldn’t get enough words. And I would say….although they are not entirely our salvation,they indeed have helped free you.

      Chk out my last reply to MV (comment just above yours) on my response to the novel itself.

  6. What a post and what a story! It is particularly poignant because I recently saw ’12 Years a Slave’ , which was based on a true story and added some gritty realism to the sanitized version of slavery which often appears in fictional accounts.

  7. Diana, thank you for telling us about Hannah. Wow– talk about the importance of authentic/raw voice in telling true stories to really illuminate the human condition. ANd how she took her power with the force of a pen and was unstoppable. It seems to me that she couldn’t not write. Beautiful laying out of her story through your evocative writing. I felt so much of what you touched upon and couldn’t stop reading. I needed to know… what next.. what next.. what next!!

    • *Smile* Glad to know your response, Diahann. She wrote nothing like a vigilante. It is just a full, lovely piece of art she produced. All the more poignant, I think. Even more than her work, all that I plausibly imagined that had to have taken place in her will and spirit as she set out to write blew me away -a long with the sleuthing the professors persisted in to authenticate that the novel in fact was autobiographical.

  8. I was fascinated by this post – it really whets the appetite to read the book and is a humbling reminder of how precious the literacy we often take for granted should be to us – apparently even today 775 million adults across the world are illiterate and 2/3 of those are women. Inspiration to keep writing!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the info, Maggie. I was thinking in the writing that the African-American saga speaks to a lot that we take for granted. How interesting that the majority of the illiterate are women, esp when we are gen’lly the more verbal gender.

    • If you are interested in getting the book as some of the commenters have been, Maggie, I’d love to know when you do (try the library first) and please read my reply to MVSh on the novel itself.

  9. Because of your powerful review of this book, I have just ordered it for my Kindle from Amazon. Being a child of the ’60s and witnessing severe racial tension and riots in my high school, I saw the anger, hatred and finally the defiant actions from my African-American schoolmates for the continued, prejudicial, societal limitations they still suffered. I look forward to reading this first-hand account of survival and ultimate achievement!

    • I hope you’re not disappointed. ^^ I encourage you to read my replies to MVSh who also planned to get the book. As I told another blogger, it’s not a vigilante work. Just art. Which is what makes it so fascinating and poignant – and subversively triumphant. I hope you see Gates’ preface in your Kindle. His report of his investigation into the original manuscript is as enthralling as the novel itself.

      I’ve also watched 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, which I highly recommend you for our shared interest on the topic, for a deeper and broader “thoughtscape” (as in landscape =) ) in the blogging. I won’t be reviewing the films per se but they will inform my next post in the series. Thank you for the ongoing generous support.

      • Thanks, I will check out your replies to MVSh. It sounds wonderful, as any work of art, interpretation comes from the observer’s soul. This just encourages me even more to start reading it! But, have to wait ’til next week to make time.

        I’m hoping to see The Butler when it comes to PayPerView (we never go to the movie theaters.) I never heard of the movie, 12 Years a Slave, I’ll have to look for that one.

      • Not yet, I’ve been side-tracked with some health issues but I’ve got it in my Kindle, plus the 12 Years a Slave – for Kindle. Hopefully this weekend I’ll catch up on some rest and dive into The Bondwoman’s Narrative.

      • I certainly didn’t “like” reading about your challenges but put it up as a show of support. Are you familiar with my blog on holistic nutrition? Not that food’s a panacea, but it is an integral part of our health.

      • I think it was “because” I found your holistic nutrition blog that I clicked “follow.” I need to make time to read through it while sipping on some nice herbal tea.

      • =) You know what? I remember the follow now. Thx. I feel so bad I can’t work on it…I have only 4 hands, as a homeschooling mom. And this blog keeps me very busy. That blog is more a reference for readers to go back to. Don’t drink the tea too cold. 😉

        Oh, macrobiotics folk don’t advise baked goods for back/muscle issues bc baked foods tighten the back.

      • Wow! Thanks for the tip on baked goods, I had no idea, but I’m trying very hard to stay away from anything baked, anyway. I need to lose at least 30 pounds and until I can start exercising/walking, I’m just trying to do my best with food intake – lots of veggies! After 2 weeks, the scale hasn’t moved yet, either way though. 😦

      • I highly recommend the bk by Pitchford I name on the site. THE BIBLE of integrative nutrition. You almost need nothing else. Your learning curve will skyrocket. I’m wondering if your thyroid needs support.

      • Probably, but, the doctors have tested it and the readings are right in the middle. I don’t think they’re testing is all conclusive though. I know someone whose thyroid switches from over to under-active. I forget how the determination was finally arrived at.

  10. Dear Diana – such a beautifully written and informative post. It has heart. I was not aware of this novel and now I will put it on my list of must reads. An incredible journey and I enjoyed my first escapade alongside your chronicle of when, where and how.
    Thank you.
    Warm regards,

    • BAH. I always want to save people money. You coulda tried the library first. =) Please chk out my replies to MVSchl on the preface as well as the novel itself so you have an even better idea of what to expect. And thank you for the kind feedback.


      • yes it is. i need to turn in now, but remind me to tell you an interesting story about an abandoned slave cemetery right behind (i mean, bordering) our property in louisiana. the story us unique. talk with you later. nice to meet you.

      • yes. it came in. i just haven’t had the time to start it yet, but hope to soon. i thumbed through it and thought it was interesting how the editor left the corrections he made obvious by simply lining through her words, but leaving them there.
        i’ve been out a number of times to the cemetery behind the house and spent new year’s day photographing it. i am depressed at the state of decline, and had i 8 more hours in a day and 4 more days in a week, i would investigate applying for a state historical grant and having the cemetery renovated and preserved. btw, i told you John Adger moved from N.C., when in fact it was S.C.

  11. This should be general knowledge and it is not. I find it discomforting that others know more about my historical past than I do.

    However, I am glad to see digital age is changing that and this information is becoming more available.

    Excellent article. Thank you. I will reblog


  12. Pingback: Greatness, Part 6: The Bondwoman’s Narrative of Slavery | Failure to Listen

  13. Diana, wonderful review of a fine book. Another favorite we might share is Harriet Jacob’s narrative ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’. A well-written heartache of Harriet’s tenacity as she escaped and hid +2 years under a porch. It reveals the psychological shame of slavery placed on Harriet with her Master. A treasure of a book illustrating the horrors of slavery and the might of the human soul to be free.

    • Yep. Totally had me when I caught the interview with the professor on NPR. I wrote him for an interview of my own for the post and back then, his publisher had tied his hands from such projects ’til he finished his book on his 10-yr research.

  14. Wonderful find. How is it that so many of us aren’t familiar with this one ?? Thanks for sharing. It has to be an amazing read. 💘 I grew up in a town that was known to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. There are interesting homes still standing that were used as shelter…12 or more bedrooms ! Their stories…must have been something to hear.

    • Wow, such large homes and right along the Railroad. Oh, how intriguing. I love that they were used like that and that whites helped so many make it to safety. The novel was pretty good but what gets me is its historicity and the woman behind it, that she dared dream and do.

  15. Diana, you have recounted a truly touching story. So many images are conjured in my brain.

    It has been pointed out to me that this is the very reason the UN and the “Big 8” agreed to give up their colonies in 1947. Those colonies were slaves to the nations that owned them. At least in modern times, most people agree that enslaving another human being is wrong. However, we still have what is known as “white slavery” (also known as human trafficking. What a tragedy to see children and women in bondage to the sex trade, but Thailand continues to sell its own young boys and girls to evil masters. When will it end?

    • It is incredible, both what slaves like her endured – the darker ones worse off – and that yes, in these civilized times when EVERYone knows better there is still trafficking, and of children. It is a serious form of business. Just unthinkable.

  16. Wow, what a fascinating piece of history, I appreciate you taking the time to research and write this up. You’ve inspired me to learn more about this amazing woman.

    • I wanted to interview the professor who unearthed the woman behind the pseudonym but his publisher wouldn’t let him do any more interviews ’til he finished his book. Thanks, T. I thought this was an amazing piece of history, and appreciated its pursuit.

  17. This was such a complete review and synopsis of a brave slave woman escaping her situation, Diana. Becoming a man was still a challenge and it is hard to imagine the dangers she went through!
    Although it was fiction, I recommend a book by Tara Conklin which has a slave girl who learns how to read and paint. This has a present day lawyer character, who is involved with the reparation act, to help pay back families of slavery. She is young, idealistic and goes back to historical place to find out the past story of a painting. A “mistress” claimed it was hers, while there was a possibility it was the work of “The House Girl.”
    In case someone doesn’t mind historical fiction it includes a love story, too. 🙂 hugs xo

  18. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is excellent. It’s an autobiography of a female slave who secured her freedom after hiding in a crawl space for years. She shares the unique plight of being a female slave which includes being the object of envy of her slave master’s wife, the inability for a slave woman to maintain her virtue in the face of forced acts, etc. Very powerful story.

    • I can’t imagine what it is to live day after day so powerless. I am reading a bk on perseverance by a psychologist who found we need to experience mastery over adversity (need both) to come out stronger for the next challenge, that we need to experience the ability to control our suffering in some way. The psychiatrist she interviewed worries about kids in poverty bc they sustain helpless experiences in childhood with no reprieve. Really unthinkable, the mass plight of slaves.

  19. Excellent review, Diana! I like the way you have structured your writing with the different sections and topics. It makes me want to read the book. Also, I like that you include your perspective as a woman with a son who live in a wealthy nation free from the slavery Margaret had to endure as a black woman. Only out of Margaret’s absolute desperation can we understand her wanting to put an end to her daughter’s life as an act of liberation, the lesser evil.

    It is so sad to see our world is still so full of power abuse we must constantly fight. Abuse affects all kinds of human relationships. Why cannot we spread our wings of love like birds instead? The issue of love is especially difficult when it comes to find a love partner. I am lucky with my husband, but for other people it is complex. For instance, what are the chances of a man attracted to a much younger woman? Huge age difference, like Lolita’s story, is a big issue. I recommend you to read my friend Mario Savioni’s last post on this (I think you are still one of his followers? I remember some very good advice you gave him after he had a heart attack)

  20. So how have I never heard of this book? It feels like there should have been a great noise around it, given its circumstances. Thanks for bringing it to our attention . . . deserves a wide readership.

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