Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

By Katherine Clay Bassard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
hannah's craft
BIBLICAL PASSING IN
THE BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE

The 2003 edition of Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative opens with editor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s story of literary intrigue, detailing the discovery, acquisition, and authentication of the text. Much of the evidence of the writer's identity, however, derives from Gates's gleaning of internal evidence that links Crafts's story and narrative with actual historical personages, places, and events, as well as with much of what we already know about pre-Emancipation African American writing and textual practices. The debate about the racial identity of Crafts continues. While some reviewers surmise that Crafts is a white woman writing an “ethnic impersonator” narrative, others maintain that she is black. Adebayo Williams says, for example, “This novel could not have been conceived and written by a white person, except by a ventriloquist and sadomasochist of impossible genius” (10).1

Not only is authorship problematic in The Bondwoman's Narrative, but genre is difficult as well. Like Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912 and later published as a novel by James Weldon Johnson, with The Bondwoman's Narrative we may be dealing with a text that is passing on several levels.2 Indeed, Hannah's craft as a writer is evident in the demands her narrative places on the reader to attend to the interweaving of the historical, tropological, and hermeneutical registers of its intertextuality. Crafts's novel clearly functions outside the usual abolitionist formula for slave narratives or antislavery novels, as John Stauffer points out. As Adebayo Williams suggests, “There was no way the manuscript could have found accommodation in the literary politics of antebellum America” (3). Williams concludes:

the black community and the abolitionists would have been scandalized by
the brutal and frank portrayal of slave life and the social condescensions of the
author…. At the other extreme of the political spectrum, the proslave lobby
would have been taken aback by the shrill ferocity of the book's denunciation of

-67-

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