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
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.