Book Review: The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ed.)

Don’t be thrown off by the title. What is contained in this book is not merely four “slave narratives,” a phrase that implies the contents would only be of interest to those who want to learn more about African American history or literature. On the contrary, what is herein contained are four of the best pieces of literature in the English language that I have ever had the great privilege of reading. Each of them is an exhibition of excellent writing, skillful storytelling, and the resiliency of the human desires for respect and freedom. This is particularly true of the last two narratives in this collection, those of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent.

Douglass’s narrative is the most well-known and widely read of slave narratives. In addition to being a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains a number of the most memorable and interesting stories of any of the slave narratives. Douglass’s insights and observations, in addition to his story, are brilliant and place Douglass among the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries.

Brent’s narrative has only been rediscovered as the excellent work it is in the last few decades and restored to its proper place as a masterwork of English literature. For her narrative, she recounts her story in the manner of a romance, which culminates not in a marriage, as most romances do, but rather in the moment at which her freedom and the freedom of her children is at least ascertained. Like Douglass, the depth of her insight into the mind of the slave and the depraved psychology of the slave owner are always fascinating and illuminating.

One one gains by reading these narratives is not merely historical knowledge about the institution of slavery nor is it merely background for the later, fuller blossoming of the African American literary tradition. It is, instead, an insider’s look at one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and the effect it had on both sides, on slave and on slave owner as the former was treated as a beast and the latter behaved in a manner fit for one. To paraphrase one of Douglass’s many stirring sentences, you will see how a man becomes an animal and how an animal becomes a man.

What is a human being?

One of the most basic and important questions that must be answered by any philosophy is “what is a human being?” It is only once this question has been answered that one can proceed to venture answers to the other central questions of philosophy, such as what are the value and meaning of human life. One of the earliest attempts to offer a full answer to this question is found in the work of Aristotle, and the answer he gives is one that most moderns would find both shocking and distasteful.

According to Aristotle, the defining characteristic of a human being is his reasoning faculty. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “reason more than anything else is man” (Book X, Chapter 7). This assertion leads him to explicitly exclude slaves, women, children, and barbarians from fully humanity. In his Politics, Aristotle says that “the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature” (Book I, Chapter 13).

Throughout his writings, Aristotle enlarges upon the lack of humanity of those in each of these categories. On slaves, Aristotle alleges in his Politics that they along with “brute animals … have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice” (Book III, Chapter 9). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle comes close to a recognition of the humanity of the slave, but equivocates in the end. In Book VIII, Chapter 11 he says that it is possible for one to be friends with a slave “in so far as he is a man.” Later, in Book X, Chapter 6 of the same text, he says that “no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness — unless he assigns to him also a share in human life.” Aristotle’s ambiguity on the humanity of a slave, though, serves only to strengthen his more frequent assertion that full humanity requires freedom. On women, Aristotle is exceedingly clear; in his On the Generation of Animals, for example, he asserts that “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book II, Chapter 3). Similarly, Aristotle’s opinion on the humanity of barbarians is also clear; in his Politics Book I, Chapter 2 he identifies all non-Greeks as “a community of slaves” fit only to be ruled over by the Greeks.

Even the lower classes of Greek society are excluded by Aristotle from a full share in humanity. In his Politics Book VII, Chapter 9, Aristotle says that the “life of mechanics or tradesmen … is ignoble and inimical to virtue.” In his Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter 7, Aristotle identifies “human good” with the “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” If the mechanic and the tradesmen cannot attain virtue, they cannot attain to the full realization of their own humanity. Similarly, Aristotle excludes the poor from full humanity in his assertion later in the same book (Chapter 8) that “external goods” are necessary to the same fully human life.

The biblical tradition presents a starkly different description of the humanity of all of these various classes. The full humanity of women, for example, is clearly stated at the outset in the story of the creation of humankind; Genesis 5:1-2 (ESV) states that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” Slavery, in the biblical narrative, arises as an accident of history and as a result of human sinfulness. The humanity of the various ethnicities and of the poorest is never questioned, but instead assumed and celebrated.

It is, of course, this biblical understanding of man that has become the predominant understanding today, having overturned and replaced the Greco-Roman vision seen in the ideas of Aristotle. From such a perch, it is difficult to sympathize with the misogynistic and ethnocentric views of Aristotle which would exclude the greater portion of the human species from participation in full humanity. In spite of Aristotle’s bias for the status quo, however, a bias that is shared nearly universally by all but a small and great minority of remarkable thinkers, Aristotle’s efforts in setting out a definition of humanity are a worthy, even if tentative, first step in the direction that would finally culminate in a complete and universal vision of humanity. This vision is perhaps better expressed nowhere than in the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, which states, in a manner borrowed from the Greek philosophy of which Aristotle is one of the most outstanding examples, that it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This is the vision of man, a synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the biblical, that has become the basic modern assumption about the definition of humanity in the modern day.

Letter of Jourdon Anderson

Today is the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the military turning point of the American Civil War. In commemoration of that momentous battle and that war which still defines so much of American political and cultural life, I have reproduced in this post one remarkable letter by a former slave to his former master, written in 1865, shortly after the close of the war. I believe this letter, in addition to being humorous, is an outstanding testament to the human spirit and its will to freedom and dignity. It also raises some important points for consideration in regard to wounds from the period of American slavery which have yet to be healed entirely.

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.

To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

Enuma Elish vs. Genesis

By far the best supplementary readings I can recommend in the wake of my most recent entry in our History of Christianity series are the Enuma Elish and (at a minimum) the first three chapters of Genesis. The Enuma Elish is a text, only (re)discovered in the late nineteenth century, which contains the Babylonian myth of creation. Almost from the point of its recent discovery it was recognized that this story was clearly in the same vein as and probably a source for the creation story in Genesis. The similarities are notable, to say the least. Even more notable, however, are the ways in which Genesis departs from the Enuma Elish in its vision of God, man, and world. Genesis, in a sense, de-mythologizes the story of the Enuma Elish, for example eliminating the idea of a cosmic battle between the gods. Perhaps the most remarkable way in which Genesis deviates from the Enuma Elish is in its vision of God’s relationship to man. In the Enuma Elish (Table VI) man is created to serve the gods by completing their labor for them; in other words, man is, in the vision of the Enuma Elish, created from the very first as a slave. The vision of man, his creation, and his purpose offered in Genesis is strikingly different. I’ll let you make the rest of the comparisons and contrasts for yourself.

The Enuma Elish is not especially lengthy and you can read the whole thing online at the Ancient Encyclopedia of History. They also offer a concise introduction and summary of the work.

The text of Genesis is, of course, widely available online and off. I recommend reading it at Blue Letter Bible as they offer several English translations and their language and interpretation tools are a great resource for further inquiry.

Those who want to go even deeper might enjoy taking a look at the Septuagint (Greek/Christian) text of Genesis in side-by-side comparison with the Masoretic (Hebrew/Jewish) version which is used in most English translations of the Bible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts of how these texts compare and contrast with each other in their ideas.

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates: whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment, it is, in any case, not ‘to think of man in society; it is to create an unnatural, useless and dangerous existence’; the prison should educate its inmates, but can a system of education addressed to man reasonably have as its object to act against the wishes of nature? The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply the law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of administration: ‘The feeling of injustice that a prisoner has is one of the causes that may make his character untamable. When he sees himself exposed in this way to suffering, which the law has neither ordered nor envisaged, he becomes habitually angry against everything around him; he sees every agent of authority as an executioner; he no longer thinks that he was guilty; he accuses justice itself’ (Bigot Préameneu). Corruption, fear and the inefficiency of the warders: ‘Between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts live under the surveillance of between thirty and forty supervisors, who can preserve some kind of security only by depending on informers, that is to say, on the corruption that they carefully sow themselves. Who are these warders? Retired soldiers, men uninstructed in their task, making a trade of guarding malefactors’ (La Fraternité, March 1842). Exploitation by penal labour, which can in these conditions have no educational character: ‘One inveighs against the slave-trade. But are not our prisoners sold, like the slaves, by entrepreneurs and bought by manufacturers. … Is this how we teach our prisoners honesty? Are they not still more demoralized by these examples of abominable exploitation?’

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, pp. 266-67