Sunday, September 10, 2017

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1772)

Slave narratives seem to vary quite a bit by size. This one is relatively short, less than 40 printed pages, but some can run to hundreds of pages. They also date all the way back to the 18th century (or further?), and North America is only one part of the picture in the larger slave trade. James Albert (as he is usually called in this narrative, a first-person memoir dictated orally) finishes his days in England, the land he dreamed of all his life, or at least after his life changed radically with his kidnapping. A couple of points are hard to miss. First, the condescension of even the kindest white people and the acceptance of blacks only in the lowest social positions. We know now that these are matters of social psychology, self-reinforcing belief systems and so forth, but still it's striking how deeply accepted it is. The good old days! Make America great again! And then, second, all the risk African Americans lived with, day to day. James Albert is carried away from his home in Africa at about the age of 15, and frequently robbed and swindled by shady unscrupulous people from that point on. But he meets many good people as well. This narrative reads as if it were intended chiefly, or at least partly, to carry the word of Jesus. James Albert claims he rejected the faith by which he was raised (in "the sun, moon and stars") even then, before he was kidnapped, choosing instead to believe in a single superior entity. Thus Christianity was a natural fit for him, goes the narrative, and really that's fine. It seems generous on his part—he knows the Bible and has obviously meditated on it and drawn strength from it. I am instinctively averse to the language of redemption through Jesus the Christ and only Jesus the Christ, even from such an unimpeachable source as this, and I had to fight that in myself a little while reading this. His time in North America was spent in the North, so no scenes of antebellum South, for which honestly I was grateful at this early point. Though this slave narrative is cluttered up too much with religion, it's a lucid and interesting story. James Albert is perfectly likable—sunny and optimistic in spite of his many setbacks. He is grateful for and remembers the good that people have done him, and he has been good to others too. It's hard not to like that. He's also sympathetic for the way he is taken advantage of and bounces back. The slave narratives and related pieces I've been reading are mostly in chronological order, so this is the earliest—but it also seems like a nice way to ease into this.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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