Sunday, March 25, 2018

Narrative of William W. Brown (1847)

This is another of the shorter slave narratives, just over 50 pages with all the hoopla of prefaces, acknowledgments, and introductions. As always, the stamp of some white person or organization is necessary to see the thing into print and generally stand up for its veracity. As the publication dates of these narratives move deeper into the century the sponsoring white is more and more often formally Abolitionist. What a terrible portrait of 19th-century America these narratives give us. In fact, both William Brown, and Frederick Douglass in his narrative, express nothing but contempt for Christianity, at least in its American version. Brown is more willing to toss away the whole thing as evil, quoting Bible passages that are approving of slavery. The Christian hypocrisy is still one of the greatest shames of slavery, after the corruption into sadism. Brown's narrative often focuses on how families were separated and torn apart, sometimes deliberately to control behavior. He reports on how many owners with limited resources would invest in a young woman to breed them for additional property. It's often, though not always, the master providing the seed, of course. So we also come down to this horrific language of slavery: breeding, training, striping. "Striping" is a term I'd never heard before, for whipping and scarring, and now I also know it's in the Bible. One more reason I'm comfortable with the wholesale rejection of American Christianity by these later narratives. Obviously Brown and Douglass are aware of the Christian roots in the Abolitionist movement itself and temper their tones somewhat to accommodate that. But their feelings are unmistakable. William Brown's story is another one of escape—two attempts, actually, as the first one fails when he is incautious in the North. He suffers terribly for this attempt, as it leads to the final break-up of his family when his mother and sister are sold separately into the Deep South, a certain doom. This narrative is set in Missouri, a more recent slavery state than the rest of the South. Brown shows how the geographical position of Missouri enabled it to be a staging area for kidnapping African-Americans from the North into slavery. Brown had good experiences and bad with whites. He took the name of one who was kind to him in Ohio. Before that he was only William, and even that was taken from him by an owner whose nephew of that name came to live with the family who owned him. Of all his indignities and suffering, this is the one that most seems to rankle Brown. It's strange to us only because most of us have never had to face that treatment in such cut-and-dried fashion—the total obliteration of identity at will.

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

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