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 with pen as she did with her feet.

TIMELINE
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 Gates consulted experts of historical documents.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)

LITERACY
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.”

DEPRECATION
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)

FREEDOM
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.

COST
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.

GREATNESS
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 its own 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.

Dear Mr. President-Elect

“Remember you can’t eat money…You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people…”

Green Life Blue Water

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Dear Mr. President Elect

My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)

What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and…

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Dear White People

Making America great again.

A Thomas Point of View

Can we talk?

Can we truly talk about the elephant in the room that you never want to talk about?

Race.

Let’s talk about race.

I’m black.

I’m a woman.

Two indisputable facts that you may have noticed.

I’m a mother.

To a son.

He’s the light of my life.

He’s my Munch.

He’s also black.

Why do I keep mentioning color? Because I need you to see and acknowledge the rich hues in my skin tone. I need you to see my melanin and know that I am black. Can you see the warm coffee colored hues of my skin tone just radiating? Yes?

Good.

Let’s talk.

I’m black. A beautiful black woman who shares a rich history in this country. My ancestors were kings and queens, slaves and sharecroppers. I know this. Many of you know this. But, I need you to stop acting like I’m supposed to forget…

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Why I Run

You might run for the thrill. You sail into the zone, keep on like you’re under a spell. I wish it came so naturally to me, wish these limbs would move with knowing.

I run because I was terrible at it. And I’m less terrible the more I do it. I run to silence the aspiration for what’s easy. To teach my body to endure, hold on just a little longer. I run to meet my weaker self head on – conquer her on strong legs Treadmill2so I limp less under my load. I sprint for the fullness of being alive because I often forget how to live. I remember the power of simplicity. I jog to find my pace and cadence. I run to take ownership of myself and to stretch my reserve. I run to claim every day that is mine.

I run because good enough isn’t good enough.

 

See me wrestle? Why I Sweat

 

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Race. The colour of my skin, the flare of my nostrils, the texture of my hair, the S of my backside. I am none of these; I am all of these. Race. My mother is caramel, my father pure chocolate, and I am hazelnut. They taught me that education and excellence would open any door. I believed it; still believe it. Race. Raised in Nigeria, I live in The Netherlands. I temper the directness of the Dutch with the verbosity I think Nigerians inherited from the British. Race. When I look in the mirror, I see a girl, a woman, a lover, a wife, a mother, a friend, a sister, a mentor, a coach, a writer, a warrior — all I have been, all I now am, all I will one day be. When I look in the mirror, I see me. What if my father were Australian and my mother Chinese? Would I still be me?

Timi at Livelytwist

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clker.com

 

I hate being judged. Who doesn’t? But we still do it, all the time. Where I come from, Pakistan, many of us live in constant fear of what people say or think of us with someone always breathing down your neck.  It’s difficult to break away. And the sad part is, I was no different. I labeled people based on how they looked, talked, walked, on their work, race, and beliefs. But now my heart can’t take the burden anymore. I want out of the vicious cycle. Standing in front of this mirror, I rejoice at my diversity as a woman, Muslim, Ghilzai-Punjabi-Pathan, Pakistani, Canadian. I celebrate my many faces. And I keep on against the urge to judge because I’ve been on the other side. The reflection in my mirror is no longer blurry. I can finally see.

Nida On the Road to Inkrichment

 

As a girl, I wished these Korean eyes were bigger. It hit me that I never wished for blue eyes or brown with long Caucasian lashes. Only that mine were rounder. And there’s this nose, the most displeasing part of my face that I grew to forget as my sense of self took shape around deeper things: my gifts, faith, values. These lines, a chronicle of the choices I have made in self-neglect. Always too busy to primp, to nurture Self. And the lines that also tell of things outside my control, Mom’s enviable genes that passed me over. The woman in the mirror is the youngest she will ever be. I see naked imperfection. It is what my boy looks upon everyday. My breath catches. To him, I am the clearest face of God.

Wayfarer on A Holistic Journey

 

What do you see in the mirror?