Early African American Print Culture

By Lara Langer Cohen; Jordan Alexander Stein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Slavery, Imprinted: The Life
and Narrative of William Grimes

SUSANNA ASHTON

In 1824, in a fury over the injustices of slavery, racism in the North, and exploitation of the workingman, William Grimes wrote the story of his life. The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (1825) ends with a visceral and violent image of literary sacrifice: Grimes offers to skin himself in order to authorize the national story of the United States:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while
I was a slave, I would in my will leave my skin as a legacy to the
gover[n]ment, desiring that it might be taken off and made into
parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious, happy, and
free America. Let the skin of an American slave bind the charter of
American liberty!1

Grimes’s memoir, the first detailed autobiography written by a fugitive slave in the United States, rendered visible the contradictions of a national ideology that could marry freedom and slavery; his status as “bound” also “bound” the legal freedoms enshrined in the United States’ founding documents. And that he made this claim by invoking the imaginative language of print was no coincidence. Not only had Grimes worked as a hired slave to a prominent printer in Savannah, and was thus conversant in both the practice and language of print culture, but he was challenging the sacred status of print in Western culture. I see this passage as not only an opportunity for him to

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