In honor of the end of black history month and the beginning of women’s history month, I’d like to talk about a book that is significant for both. Noted historian Henry Louis Gates helped to get this slave narrative published. Written by a woman identified as Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative details Hannah’s flight to freedom. It is believed to be the only book written by and enslaved woman. You may not have heard about this book before (it has been out for a while), but the name of Henry Louis Gates may sound familiar. He is the Harvard professor and historian who was arrested in his own home, as a suspected thief, in Cambridge, MA. What resulted was known as the “beer summit”, in which President Obama invited Mr Gates to sit down with his arresting officer. This sparked an important discussion on race and racial profiling, something incredibly important to Mr Obama.
Gates, an important academic and writer in the field of African-American history, came across an important manuscript in 2001. After a long process of authentication, dating and identification of the author, he began the process of publishing the manuscript. The Narrative was first published in 2003, which included a long forward written by Mr Gates, detailing exactly what went into the research and publication of the book. He also published a scholarly companion to the book, In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative.
So, who did write the book? A young woman named Hannah Crafts, who escaped from a North Carolina plantation. Identifying her became the focus of Mr Gate’s research. He searched numerous census records to prove that she was a real person, and that she had indeed written the book. In his research, he became focused on finding out how old she was (to possibly predict when she had written the book, and how she old she was at the time), and also what was her level of education. She had been working as a house slave, serving as a lady’s maid to the mistress of the plantation. Like many other young female slaves, her situation is precarious, her privacy and body are not her own: “Hannah decides to run away to protect herself from rape by a black man she finds loathsome and reprehensible, uneducated, uncouth, and unwashed and, as she freely admits, to avoid the squalor of life in the slave quarters”.
The story itself is relatively short. The forward written by Gates is quite long, yet is just as interesting as the story. Hannah had escaped the plantation with her mistress, who had recently been discovered as a mulatto (mixed race), and had been passing as a white woman by a lawyer who was threatening to expose her. She and Hannah remain in hiding for quite some time and are eventually captured. Her mistress passes away, after much emotional distress about their situation, and Hannah is re-enslaved. After spending most of her life as a house slave, after an incident with her new mistress, she is forced to work the field. It is then that she runs away again, and is more successful this time, and is able to make her way up north.
This is an important story, and relevant to this celebration of black history and women’s history. Female slaves sometimes suffered the most, women often were the subject of sexual violence, and something Hannah also talks about. What an incredible story, and thanks to Mr Gates we can learn about what life was like for female slaves first hand.