I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives - Vol. 2

I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives - Vol. 2

I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives - Vol. 2

I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives - Vol. 2


Between 1760 and 1902, more than 200 book-length autobiographies of ex-slaves were published; together they form the basis for all subsequent African American literature. I Was Born a Slave collects the 20 most significant "slave narratives." They describe whippings, torture, starvation, resistance, and hairbreadth escapes; slave auctions, kidnappings, and murders; sexual abuse, religious confusion, the struggle of learning to read and write; and the triumphs and difficulties of life as free men and women. Many of the narratives--such as those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs--have achieved reputations as masterpieces; but some of the lesser-known narratives are equally brilliant. This unprecedented anthology presents them unabridged, providing each one with helpful introductions and annotations, to form the most comprehensive volume ever assembled on the lives and writings of the slaves. Volume Two (1849-1866) includes the narratives of Henry Bibb, James W. C. Pennington, Solomon Northup, John Brown, John Thompson, William and Ellen Craft, Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent), Jacob D. Green, James Mars, and William Parker.


Is slavery America’s original sìn?

Despite the end of legal bondage 135 years ago, we are reminded of this national tragedy, and rightly, nearly every day through President Clinton’s oft-stated feelings of shame about slavery, or black demands for reparations (or at least an apology), or countless books and magazine and newspaper articles that ground their interpretation of every aspect of contemporary black American life on the complexities of the Peculiar Institution. Adjoa Aiyetoro, director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, reminds us of its lingering effects in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article (June 29, 1997) when he says, “One of the issues we deal with every day is the vestiges of our enslavement, and our post-enslavement treatment in this country has been such that it has beat us down as a people in so many ways.”

Perhaps those “vestiges” might have disappeared if Congress had passed after the Civil War a famous bit of legislation known as Senate Bill No. 60, which not only would have provided emergency relief for black freemen, but also “three million acres of good land” in Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas for their settlement. in a January 18, 1866, edition of the Congressional Globe, senator Lyman Trumball, a Republican from Connecticut, argued that “A homestead is worth more to these people than almost anything else…. I think that if it were in our power to secure a homestead to every family that has been made free by the constitutional amendment, we would do more for the colored race than by any other act we could do.” This “forty acres and a mule” bill put America’s racial future, one might say, squarely at a crossroads. If approved, it might have done much to heal the devastating wounds of slavery and assist an impoverished, landless people in their transition from bondage to a fuller participation in American life, particularly in the area of economic development. But the bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who argued that “it was never intended that they [ex-slaves] should thenceforth be fed, clothed, educated and sheltered by the United States. the idea on which the slaves were assisted to freedom was that, on becoming free, they would be a self-sustaining population. Any legislation that shall imply that they are not expected to attain a self-sustaining condition must have a tendency injurious alike to their character and their prospects.”

With that veto an opportunity was forever lost for both newly freed bondsmen, many of whom would feel slavery was restored after the end of Reconstruction, and for whites, who for the next hundred years were able to sweep under the rug the question of racial justice. Not until the 1960s does the Peculiar Institution become the major premise, the algorithm, the single governing principle for any and all discussions about white dominance and the condition of blacks in this country. This monistic shift that made slavery the primary causal explanation behind everything black people are and are not, do and don’t do . . .

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