Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery

By B. A. Botkin | Go to book overview
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Everything I tells you am the truth, but they's plenty I can't tell you.

From the memories and the lips of former slaves have come the answers which only they can give to questions which Americans still ask: What does it mean to be a slave? What does it mean to be free? And, even more, how does it feel? The writing and recording of slave autobiographies goes back to the latter part of the eighteenth century, which produced the narratives of Briton Hammon, John Marrant, and Gustavus Vassa. During the antislavery movement, fugitive slaves not only joined in the struggle for freedom but also supplied it with an effective weapon in the form of narratives of their "Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance." Slavery itself, as experienced and reported by the slave, was the best argument against slavery. This autobiographical propaganda, a kind of nonviolent slave revolt, represents the first attempts of Negroes to write their own history and their earliest literature of self-portraiture and social protest. As contemporary social history, from the bottom up, it completes the picture of slavery which we get, on the one hand, from planters' and overseers' records, diaries, and letters and, on the other hand, from the journals of travelers like Harriet Martineau, Fanny Kemble, and Frederick Law Olmsted.

Both during and since slavery times the experiences of ex-slaves have been recorded and used in several different ways. First and perhaps best of all is the method of taking down the informant's own words as he speaks or as soon after as convenient. This method was employed by Benjamin Drew, of Boston, in The Refugee: or The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Related by Themselves ( 1856), a collection of over a hundred graphic sketches in the first person. Another method is that of the editorialized interview, used by James Redpath in The Roving Editor: or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States ( 1859), which weaves conversations into a narrative and descriptive commentary, sprinkled with dialect and exhortation. A variation of the moralizing approach is seen in Octavia V. Rogers Albert's The House of Bondage, or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves ( 1890), with its sentimental and retrospective pen pictures and narratives of old slaves. Finally, there are collections of biographical sketches and anecdotes in the third person, from Isaac T. Hopper's "Tales of Oppression" (originally published in Northern newspapers and revised and reprinted in Lydia Maria Child's life of the Quaker abolitionist in


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Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery


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