One day, a friend and I were shopping after brunch. We paused to look at a work of art where a woman was walking down a street with the eyes of every person in the painting fixed on her—some smirking, some laughing, some lustful, some indifferent. My friend, a woman of color in the South, said, “That’s how I feel every day of my life.”
I realized in that moment that my friend’s experience of life was vastly different from mine even if we lived, worked, and walked in the exact same places. Her comment offered a small window into a parallel America that I had never experienced. But even though I listened, I did not have the context to grasp what she was telling me. Years later, I discovered that in order to move forward in understanding, I needed to look backward.
Whether you are building interracial friendships, have a passion for equality and standing in solidarity with African Americans, or are simply always looking for ways to continue to learn and to grow, here is a recommendation that has helped me: Read the narratives of people who were enslaved.
Frederick Douglass. Harriet Jacobs. Solomon Northup.
Compelling, thoughtful, and revealing, these narratives form the first distinctively black genre of literature in America, and they are well worth reading for six important reasons:
1. Hear It Firsthand
The United States has lost much of our interior history of slavery because many slave narratives were never written down or published. When abolitionists like William Wilberforce and his friends began their work, they realized that there was a dearth of accurate information about slavery. Thomas Clarkson was sent on a two-year investigation, the findings of which were used by anti-slavery preachers like Jonathan Edwards Jr.
However, even better and more potent material came from the former slaves themselves. During the mid-1800s, the people who escaped from slavery began to write and began to speak for themselves. Their personal accounts are invaluable for understanding the experience of the enslaved, not by cold statistics or distant observations, but in their own words. Scholar William Nash notes that it is not incidental that the rise in black literacy paralleled the rise of the abolitionist movement.
2. Go Beyond the Basics
Perhaps because of my cultural background growing up as a white woman in the United States, I always assumed I knew about slavery because I paid attention during history class, and I got good grades on my tests. When I began to read the narratives of people who were enslaved, I realized my ignorance was vast. I realized that my history book had been the CliffsNotes, G-rated version; it only hinted at the deeper, more difficult truths.
For example, I knew that people who were enslaved were considered property with no rights, but I did not understand the full extent of injustice. They were unable to report any illegal, immoral, or deadly treatment to the law or get protection for any reason. Reading slave narratives that are written in their own words provides greater understanding not only of history but also of what is happening in the United States today.
3. Discover the Roots
Slavery was justified as a way to gain free farm labor, but it was sustained by something much darker: lies. The psychological aspects of slavery were even more pernicious and damaging than the physical aspects. Frederick Douglass records watching a lame girl tied up for four to five hours at a time and whipped, while the slave driver quoted the Bible as “proof” of her misconduct and sin that deserved a lashing.
Douglass writes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
In other words, lies, including misreadings of Scripture, were consistently spoken that denied the personhood, rights, and image of God in people who were enslaved. Reading these firsthand accounts reveals these lies spoken over the lives of the slaves and helps one realize with shock that many of these lies still persist in one form or another today.
4. Hear Voices That Fought for Truth
Although they were brilliant, moral, and talented, Douglass, Jacobs, and many others like them struggled to publish their stories of slavery. They knew that the truth had to be told in order to end slavery, so they fought to write and to publish. Since blacks were not considered trustworthy enough to speak in court and testify for themselves, many of these writers had to have the most famous Christians of their time “vouch” for their character in order to be published. These forewords still exist in their books today, a stunning reminder of how hard it was for blacks simply to share their life stories. Voices that fought so hard for truth deserve to be heard, yesterday and today.
5. Grow in Compassion
Reading novels has long been linked to greater interpersonal intelligence and empathy. Albert Wendland, who directs a master’s program in writing fiction at Seton Hill University, says, “Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position.” A study published in the journal Science found that after reading literary fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.
Reading the non-fiction, narrative autobiographies of people who escaped slavery might have a similar, if not greater, effect due to the narrative arc and real-life content. Stories allow us to enter into the world of the writer and learn compassion. We see, hear, and experience another culture and life that would otherwise be inaccessible and unimaginable to us. Our God is a God of compassion, and thus, as children of God, we should seek to grow in compassion as well.
6. The Story of Enslaved Christians Is the Story of the Church
Even through the years, the voices of these people who were enslaved speak prophetically as they recount their experiences with slaveholders who were Christians. They struggled deeply to reconcile what they knew about God and Christianity with their daily lives. In 1860, Harriet Jacobs wrote, “My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.’ But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.”
Jacobs’s insight is so simple yet so profound. She recognizes a deep disconnect between faith and practice that left her on the outside as less than a human being made in the image of God. Yet, she knew herself to be created by a loving God and fully human. She understood and claimed her place as a neighbor. This disconnect is the history of the American church—our church—that calls for repentance and change.
Reading the firsthand accounts of people who suffered and escaped slavery offers crucial insights into the history of race relationships in America, and it provides a basic background narrative of the black experience in America. Even more, we should see the narratives of people who were enslaved as an outstretched hand, inviting us into some of their most painful personal life experiences; they offer us the opportunity to grow in knowledge, compassion, and repentance and to perhaps not make the same mistakes as those who have gone before us.
This history is our history, but our future is yet unwritten. When Douglass was questioned about the veracity of his stories from slavery, he took off his shirt and turned around; like Paul, the stripes on his back authenticated his life story. We all know the reason for Paul’s stripes. Perhaps, if you have never looked at the reasons for the stripes on Douglass’ back, it is time to do so.
Joy Craun has worked as children’s minister and English teacher. She received her MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and she recently completed her MA in English with a research specialization in anti-slavery and abolitionist literature at Middlebury College.
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