Researcher Explores Slave Narratives in Forthcoming Book

As a graduate student, Keith Green became well-versed in the more than 6,000 surviving slave narratives. However, as he researched these stories, he realized that the word “slavery” insufficiently explained the various forms of suffering that people of African descent were enduring in the New World.

“There were instances of imprisonment, indentured servitude, and captivity that more fully explain what blacks were experiencing,” says Green, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden. “I wanted to break out of ‘slavery’ as that one word, that one category, which encapsulates all of that.”

Green’s comprehensive focus has now culminated in his forthcoming book, Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Imprisonment, Servitude and Captivity, 1816 to 1861. Examining firsthand and dictated accounts, the text explores distinct forms of black bondage and confinement in the 19th century, such as enslavement by Native Americans, Barbary captivity, state imprisonment, and child indentured servitude. More than half the book includes previously undocumented research, contributing to a more thorough understanding of what blacks, both enslaved and free, endured.

“It’s eye-opening to realize the full scope of what was happening at that time,” says Green, a Lindenwold resident. “It’s like walking past a building that you’ve seen before, but then you go inside and see it in a whole different light.”

While the book isn’t due out until early 2015, Green is already garnering literary praise. His manuscript has been awarded the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature from the editorial board of the University of Alabama Press. According to the publisher, the award recognizes a manuscript that, in the opinion of the board, “represents outstanding scholarship in the field of American literary studies, and which has been accepted for publication in the given calendar year.”

Bound to Respect begins with the narrative of Briton Hammon, regarded by many scholars as the oldest slave narrative in existence, and a critical case study for Green’s analysis. As the Rutgers–Camden researcher explains, Hammon was a “bondsman” living in New England. In December 1747, he was sent by his master to Jamaica and the Bay of Campeche as part of an expedition to collect logwood. What followed was a 13-year odyssey of servility as Hammon is held captive by Native Americans and later the Spanish, forced to work as a house slave for the governor of Cuba, ordered to serve on a Spanish ship, jailed for nearly five years in a dungeon, and then forced to join an expedition escorting a Spanish bishop throughout Cuba.

According to Green, although Hammon’s account is regarded as the first slave narrative, and a model for all others to follow, it illustrates the inadequacy of classifying such distinct forms of oppression under one umbrella. “How could this man go through all of these different types of captivity, and we call his narrative a ‘slave narrative’?” asks Green. “It doesn’t even begin to account for everything that he’s been through. One word has to do so much work.”

With Hammon’s narrative written in 1760, the book segues into a discussion of slave narratives and other accounts of black bondage from the antebellum era. Green notes that the selected texts introduce readers to various forms of confinement and servitude that aren’t commonly known or discussed. For instance, Henry Bibb, a former slave who later became an abolitionist and author, wrote about being held in what his text calls a “slave prison” in Louisville, Ky. However, the prison was also used to hold people who had committed misdemeanors, including whites, and was part of a wide-reaching system of prisons, workhouses, and penitentiaries in the 19th century.

“When we think about slavery, we don’t typically think about prisons, about actual structures and cells,” says Green. “It would seem that this slave prison was just another aspect of slavery, but it points to other mechanisms that were at work in the antebellum era.”

In another chapter, Green examines Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. According to the Rutgers–Camden scholar, the account is significant for being the first sustained depiction of black child indentured servitude.

Tom McLaughlin
Rutgers University–Camden
Editorial/Media Specialist
(856) 225-6545
thomas.mclaughlin@camden.rutgers.edu

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