Nubian Circle Book Club

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Bondswoman's Narrative Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

The Bondwoman's Narrative is a literary buried treasure. This manuscript, recently re-discovered by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is believed to the oldest novel written by an African American slave. Its very existence and survival through 150 years is clearly a miraculous feat!It is an autobiographical account of Hannah Crafts, a young, mulatto, self-educated slave girl who eventually "passes" for white in her quest for freedom.  Along the journey, her life is intertwined with her house mistress who is harboring a secret that could destroy her life.

The narrative, written in 19th century Victorian style, it is often highly descriptive and in many respects reminiscent of the resounding tale of the tragic mulatto. The novel itself does not really reveal anything new about life during those times; even her flight to freedom is very vague (perhaps intentional not to allow slave catchers to learn her route and methods). 

One will agree that Hannah was highly educated and understood her station in life.  In fact, I found it quite amusing that Hannah (a light skinned house servant) hated the idea of being mated with a dark-skinned, ignorant field slave which would require her to live in slave quarters as opposed to the masters house.  She was so repulsed with this proposed arrangement that she felt compelled to run for freedom rather than live out her existence under those horrific conditions.  In other words to use a modern term, Hannah was "stuck-up" and proved that even then the stereotype of light-skin being better than dark-skin was prevalent.

Surprisingly, it was not the manuscript itself, but Professor Gates' introduction and supplemental background to the text that I found most interesting and helpful.  In the first 50 pages of the novel, he painstakingly details his discovery of the manuscript, and the efforts he has gone through to substantiate its authenticity.  We learn the ink, the binding, and paper is consistent with those used during that timeframe.  Gates confirms through census records, court documents, and personal papers that the people and places she mentions are valid and real.  However, the real mystery is the on-going search for Hannah Crafts (if that is her real name) and the true facts of her life.  The supplemental explanations were instrumental in understanding Hannahs world.  Gates expounded the meaning of 19th century phrases, clichés, slave superstitions, commonly held beliefs, and other nuances so that a modern reader would understand all that Hannah was offering in her body of work. The experience of slavery was important in shaping the character of America and, because of this importance; Hannah Crafts' voice is a voice that should be heard. I don't think anyone who reads this masterpiece will ever regret it.

The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for The Bondwoman's Narrative a 3.5.