Sunday, April 29, 2018

Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849)

Above and beyond being mere chronicles, many of the slave narratives in the collection I've been reading also seem to have greater points, or lessons. I'm sure that has as much to do with why they were published in the 18th and 19th centuries as with being picked for a collection. The earlier narratives, for example, often seemed to go out of their way to lavish praise on Christianity, an attitude that notably soured with the march of time. Henry Bibb, unlike William Brown and Frederick Douglass, considers himself a Christian and has no great problem with it. His problem is with how difficult slavery makes it to live a moral life. All Bibb wants is freedom for himself and his family. He runs away repeatedly and then is captured when he returns for his wife and daughter. It reads, in fact, much more like an adventure story. Bibb is athletic, cunning, and smart. He escapes, survives on the road and in the woods, and plots to recover his family. Once he makes it all the way to Canada. The brutal split-up of families is another common theme in these narratives. It was done for practical reasons, because families could not always be sold as a unit, but also for vengeful and punitive reasons too. Perhaps the slave owner wants a woman for himself and it is easier with the husband out of the way ("sold down the river"). Bibb is delicate on the matter, but clear. He also has contempt for the whole system—if anything, he has even more experience than we've seen yet so far with slave traders, bounty hunters, and such. I will now issue a mild spoiler alert because the ultimate fate of his wife surprised me. First there is a scene, a final parting, after which, he tells us, he never sees her again. This was the principal shock for me. I had too easily slipped into the rhythms of the adventure story, where things like a primary relationship usually turn out. In that way, Bibb is something of a cunning writer too, able to set up expectations and switch on them. That scene wasn't the end of his efforts to rescue or reunite with her, but those efforts never proved successful. After several years he drifts into abolitionist work, and a few years on from there he finally marries again. There is more on the first wife—no more on the daughter—but it is unbearable. On a certain level it's depressing to see the incrementalism at work so long ago—approaching two centuries in this case. Yes, we're getting there. But even today it feels like we have so far to go. These narratives help us see how far we've come, but it's not far enough.

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

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