The novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative recounts the journey of a fugitive slave woman named Hannah, from enslavement in North Carolina to freedom in New Jersey. She struggles through a life filled with cruel masters, lost-and-found-again friendships, and basic physical survival. Readers will find her positive outlook inspiring, but the amount of coincidental good fortune Hannah encounters sometimes makes the novel less than plausible. Of particular interest is the novel’s representation of Mammy. The Bondwoman’s Narrative has many illustrations of this cultural icon, particularly the main character Hannah. Careful examination reveals however, that the people who stand in Hannah’s path to freedom or who contribute to her oppression frequently become victims of misfortune themselves.
The novel proliferates the myth of Mammy: the loyal, devoted, constant, and faithful servant. Behind many examples of Mammy exists the novelist’s true intent: to create a screen behind the idolization of Mammy where supporters of slavery can be punished for their oppression of people of colour. The examples of Hannah as Mammy begin with the new bride who comes to Hannah’s master. She quickly takes Hannah into her confidence and she generously shares intimate secrets (45). Hannah says that, “in her great goodness and kindness of heart [her mistress] treated us rather as companions than servants” (35). The secret that her mother was actually a slave (i.e. not white) would mean the end of the mistress’s privileged existence. It is part of the mythology that Mammy would never betray her mistress, which leaves Hannah’s trustworthiness unquestioned. At Hannah’s suggestion, they flee home by night in hopes of escaping detection (49). Hannah’s own position in the home is not at risk and she is aware that there are many much worse situations for slaves. Hannah’s faithfulness to her mistress inspires her to sacrifice her own comfort and she accompanies her mistress on a dangerous journey, which they hope will end with freedom for both. Mammy, as the myth goes, always puts thoughts of herself aside and considers what is best for the white slaveholder family that owns her.
When their escape grows more difficult and less probable, Hannah does not consider leaving behind her weakening mistress (74). Her mistress’s previous lack of physical exercise has left her ill prepared for the physical exertion of escape on foot. This lack of conditioning contributes to their failure to escape. After capture, as her mistress is being carried, Hannah is guarded to prevent her escape. She relates that even her “strong desire for freedom, …could not have induced me to abandon her [mistress]” (74). Mammy would never abandon her family even if facing imminent serious consequences likely to include physical punishment.
Hannah also shows great commitment to Mrs. Henry. As she pleads with Mrs. Henry to keep her on in their home, she begs her to “accept the service of one who would be so faithful devoted, and zealous to serve [her] every day” (130). Hannah shows a greater loyalty to Mrs. Henry than to Charlotte, another slave, when she decides to share her suspicions of the whereabouts of Charlotte’s missing husband (139). Out of allegiance, Mammy forsakes other slaves to serve her mistress. Her duty to the white family is her primary obligation.
Hannah describes the relationship between slaveholder and slave as she arranges Mrs. Wheeler’s hair. She says, “Those who suppose that southern ladies keep their attendants at a distance, scarcely speaking to them, or only to give commands have a very erroneous impression. Between the mistress and her slave a freedom exists probably not to be found elsewhere” (154). Mrs. Wheeler is a talkative woman and gossips at length with Hannah (201-203). Mrs. Wheeler is unaware that Hannah does not care for her post as waiting maid and Hannah becomes Mammy once again.
Once the mask of Mammy is created, the author begins to unfold her true purpose: to restore power to the slaves by causing the downfalls of the oppressors. She begins with Hannah’s first mistress.
Apart from the basic master/slave foundation of their relationship, Hannah’s mistress was not particularly cruel. For this behaviour, the mistress’s punishment is an anguishing psychological illness, and “sofa pillows tinged with blood that bubbled from her lips” as she dies from a ruptured blood vessel (103). This is the first major punishment in the novel and where the author found her first opportunity to avenge the larger issue of the treatment of slaves.
Mrs. Wheeler’s punishment is public when she applies a face powder that causes her face to turn black when exposed to perfume (171). Mrs. Wheeler is humiliated and becomes the subject of popular gossip. The novelist gives Mrs. Wheeler the black skin of a slave, which a white slaveholder would consider an awful punishment.
Mr. Trappe is the chief adversary of the novel. He threatens to betray the secret of Hannah’s first mistress and makes threats to sell her into slavery (41). He stalks the two escaped women, captures them, and proceeds with his plan to sell both (64, 90, 103). He admits that he has done this with others many times (101). The punishment created for him is the perfect example of the author balancing the villain’s crime with their punishment. After two gentlemen speakers describe him as “hard and unfeeling,” “a man of no principle” with “neither feeling, nor sympathy” they tell of how Mr. Trappe lived his final days in fear of his life as he believed he was in danger from a group of brothers whose mother and sisters he had purchased (239). A bullet through his brain kills Mr. Trappe and the women escape (242). It is suggested that these acts were the result of actions by the team of brothers. Attempting to explain the violent death, one of the speakers further recounts, “he that sows the wind, must reap the whirlwind” (243). This is exactly the author’s point: those who seek to oppress others will come to harsh judgment and eventual retribution.
It must have given the novelist a sense of twisted pleasure to devise these tortures for the antagonists in her novel. Slaves had little recourse with which they could cause hardship to their masters. Outside of working more slowly than necessary or fouling resources, they had no power and even these methods of sabotage were used sparingly for fear of physical punishment. It is not difficult to suppose that many slaves dreamed of reversing roles with their masters or that many wished harm upon their masters. Hannah states it accurately when she reflects that “the mere accident of birth and what persons were the least capable of changing or modifying was made a reason for punishing and imprisoning them” (79). The author is reclaiming some power when she creates such retribution for the white people punished.
Gates returns more power to the novelist through his research into the origins of the novel. If Hannah Crafts authored the novel based on her life experience, it is distressing that it has taken over one hundred years for her voice to finally be heard. It is irrelevant who has finally given her that voice, even if some people would have preferred this liberator to be a female historian. Arguing over who formally introduced the work misses the point: the story of the main character Hannah has finally reached the public. The voice that was silent, because of slavery, patriarchy, and racism can now be heard. The story of Hannah opens wider the door into the realm of women’s experience of slavery and escape. This novel is surely authentic: Gates’ research is exhaustive. That a female slave could have written this novel shows the resourcefulness possessed by some slaves. That the author had the desire and ability to learn to read, write, and create at such a scholarly level and under such difficult circumstances is testimony to the industry of enslaved women. This is further proof that intelligence is more greatly linked to opportunity and desire than to race. Thanks to the research of Gates who has shown the likelihood that the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative was a black slave woman, there is no reason to question the intelligence of black people. There is no longer any space for prejudice linking race, superiority, and inferiority. This novel is a great asset to the study of women’s history, regardless of who discovered it.
Studying fiction like The Bondwoman’s Narrative offers a valuable investigation into history. History textbooks filled with battle inventories and casualty lists contain significant information, but neglect the histories of people and times apart from the battlefront as well as information about life during peacetime. By the nature of what has been included, historical narratives often leave out women’s experiences. This omission creates a sense that women’s history is less significant when indeed there is much here to learn. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a story that would likely not be found in a history, but it has much to offer about particular times and places and people. By reading this story from Hannah’s perspective, the reader can truly sense her thoughts and feelings, and gain a glimpse into her experience.
Fiction makes history accessible to nontraditional audiences. People often presume that the academic study of history is dusty and dull. Novels offer an alternative that can make history alive and entertaining. Novels are about people, relationships, geography, lifestyles, fashions, and politics. A novel pools this data into one location so that the reader can access the particulars without having to seek out information detail by detail from old maps, newspapers, and photographs. Reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative teaches about the geography of North Carolina and its surrounding escape possibilities toward New Jersey; we learn about expected roles of women and men, both slave and free. Inherent in the telling of Hannah’s story is information about differences between the North and South, attitudes about abolition, and the lifestyles of upper and lower classes. The novelist’s words carry her own experience and consequently give the reader an expressive unfolding of the life of a fugitive slave – not just cold fact. Because of the degree to which a reader can become absorbed into a piece of literature, there is greater potential for the material to make a lasting impression. Because of its personal nature there is greater potential that the information will be retained. When this material is applied to situations in the present it creates a practical application for the study of history.
Studying history does not have to be the pursuit of academics in the great libraries of the world or need we investigate history by combing the back rooms of antique shops or in standing-room-only crowds at auction houses. History can be for the general population when a book like The Bondwoman’s Narrative is considered. As fictional reading material, this novel provides interesting, accessible material. The style is easy to follow although the graphic descriptions of torture and suffering might be too extreme for some readers (23-25). The historical significance makes it even more interesting.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative offers a fictitious experience of a black woman living in North America in the 19th century. As such, it fulfills several goals: to compare diverse experiences of women of various descents, to look at how women’s experiences shape their existence, and in particular, an investigation of the academic study of women’s history. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a valuable component of the syllabus.