History Hits Home
In this collection of first-person accounts of black life in America, each story is a thread in a quilt still being sewn. Spanning the centuries, Autobiography of a People is more than just another literary anthology. Though familiar entrants can be found (Nat Turner, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston), the otherwise everyday black men and women whose life stories fill these pages are the stars. In their words, history comes alive.
The accounts vary, and that is the book's beauty and strength. So many facets of the black experience in America are illuminatedsome raw, some flavorful, all authentic. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African prince, taken from his home and sold into bondage. Jennie Proctor's plainspoken slave narrative: "I's hear tell of them good slave days, but I ain't never seen no good times then." John Parker on life along the Underground Railroad. Booker T. Washington, breaking bread with the poor sharecroppers of Alabama.
Each story is unique, fresh, and carries a punch. For instance, Frederick Douglass had assumed the North to be worse off than the South, owing to its lack of slaves, but his first trip there shattered those preconceptions: "From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland."
The early entries are particularly impressive in their eloquence, more so because some of these writers learned English as a second language, gleaned in snatches from their captors, and that most children born into slavery were forbidden to study reading or writing. The slave narratives are harrowingnot only because of the cruel whippings or the lack of food, warm clothing, and comfortable bedsbut also because of the enforced ignorance of the slaves, yet another control technique of the white masters. Thus, simple objects like clocks could seem magical and dangerous.
As the book progresses (chronologically and thematically), the African-American experience grows ever more varied. From Hurston's days as a struggling writer to Clarence Atkins's and Max Roach's immersion in the New York jazz scene, the energy and emotion are palpable. More poignant still, activist Paulí Murray recounts her early attempts to find a job during the Depression (when almost no opportunity awaited colored women, as might be imagined). And in a revealing admission, Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon tells what happened to her when schoolmates discovered that her father was a Richard Nixon supporter.
Always immediate, sometimes intimate, Autobiography of a People reveals the conflicted relationship that African Americans have had with a nation that enslaved them (or their forefathers). Passionate advocates like Jupiter Hammon and Benjamin Banneker underscore the ironies and hypocrisies of white leaders in a country devoted to freedoma country just liberated from the shackles of British rulebut one where basic human rights are still denied to part of the population. The failure of "emigration" programs, in which blacks elected to repatriate to places like Panama and Haiti, generates multiple indignities. Whether they are in the North or the South, these authors know acutely the injustices of living in a segregated society, of enduring a second-class life. And yet they still believe in the ideal of freedom and equality enough to think that someday, somehow, such will be theirs.
The false promises of Reconstruction cut deep, especially for the men and women who had never been allowed to carry money or travel beyond their masters' plantations, who now had to fend for themselves in a world where sudden freedom seemed more terrifying than slavery. Is it any wonder that so many freed slaves decided to remain as domestic servants on their former masters' estates? Such jobs were at least available, their requirements known; those people who ventured to the big cities had less certain prospects.
Charles Denby recalls a factory in Detroit where Negro workersall supposedly protected by the unionwere given only the most miserable, dangerous jobs, forced to stand for much of the day in a room filled with the fumes of noxious chemicals. Meanwhile, their white coworkers were promoted regularly to safer, more comfortable positions. Today, the same disquieting news would be greeted with anger but little surprise. Then, it shocked African Americans, who mistakenly believed that the end of slavery would mean the end of their troubles.
Autobiography of a People is filled with dozens of such stories, each as unique as the teller. One primary theme for the authors is their skin color, and the reaction others have to it. Thanks to editor Herb Boyd's skillful research and judicious selections, another unifying, more universal theme carries through the book: hope and endurance in the face of hardship. And because people speak in the first person, their voices rise from this book in glorious harmony and strength.
Gail Jaitin is a writer and teacher living in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Read an Excerpt
African captives, ruthlessly torn from their homeland, registered their complaint in a number of ways, most violently in countless mutinies aboard the slave ships that plied the Atlantic during the brutal Middle Passage. Much of what we know of these bloody episodes has been distilled from the logs and journals of the slave captains, particularly such notorious slavers as Captain Canot, John Hawkins, and John Newton.
These records, however, provide scarcely any information about African tribal life or the circumstances of the captives before they were marched off to the coastal fortresses and subsequently crammed into the fetid holds of the ships. It is from a few priceless slave narratives that we gather some notion of what village life was like in certain regions of West Africa in the latter part of the eighteenth century. James Albert (Ukawsaw Gronniosaw) was the rambunctious grandson of the King of Bornu. From his narrative we are afforded a brief glimpse of African life and the events that led to his captivity. A restless and inquisitive young man, Gronniosaw's preoccupation with the existence of a Supreme Being will follow and sustain him throughout his ordeal. As we will see in many of the selections in this book, God and religion are common topics for an oppressed people seeking liberation.
Olaudah Equiano also credits the Creator for helping him survive the hellish experience of being sold into slavery. Equiano, who also went by the name Gustavus Vassa, wrote perhaps the most anthologized slave narrative. His vivid reminiscence of village life in his native Guinea is hardly exhaustive but does give the reader an excellent idea of the African life so many were forced to leave behind. Among his most remarkable and painful stories is the one included here, which tells of the horrors he witnessed aboard the slave ship that carried him from his homeland.
Although Phillis Wheatley was also born in Africa, she never wrote a slave narrative. Her two most famous poems signify a complex but conflicted writer who was ambiguous about her African heritage. While it is not certain why she began to write poetry, it may have been to emulate Alexander Pope and other favorites from the neoclassical tradition. Her critics contend she failed to express a stronger concern for the plight of her people; her supporters that it is necessary to read between the lines to detect her subversive intentions. Whatever the case, we cannot ignore the role she played as a literary pioneer.
Noted for being America's first black preacher to an all-white congregation, Lemuel Haynes wrote the "ballad" that follows in a burst of patriotic pride. Though he did not participate in the Battle of Lexington, he hurried to the scene shortly after it occurred. Unwavering in his critique of slavery, he often noted the hypocrisy of slaveholders protesting British oppression. Even now, 225 years later, the defiant message of Haynes's poem (shortened for this book) still resonates with power and conviction.
More than five thousand African Americans fought in the Revolutionary War, and a good number of them--Peter Salem, Salem Poor, Barzillai Lew, and Pomp Blackman--did so with great honor. Unfortunately, distinguishing themselves on the battlefield did not automatically confer citizenship to the veterans and their families. Many petitions were launched by African Americans such as John and Paul Cuffe and others in 1780, asserting "no taxation without representation." By 1815, the latter Cuffe, a prosperous ship owner, had given up on the States and become an ardent colonizationist and at his own expense transported thirty-eight African Americans to Sierra Leone, many of whom worked as missionaries.
James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw
From A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince, Written by Himself
AFRICA AND NEW YORK, 1720-1730
I WAS BORN IN THE CITY OF BAURNOU, my mother was the eldest daughter of the reigning King there. I was the youngest of six children, and particularly loved by my mother, and my grand-father almost doated on me.
I had, from my infancy, a curious turn of mind; was more grave and reserved, in my disposition, than either of my brothers and sisters, I often teazed them with questions they could not answer; for which reason they disliked me, as they supposed that I was either foolish or insane. 'Twas certain that I was, at times, very unhappy in myself: It being strongly impressed on my mind that there was some GREAT MAN of power which resided above the sun, moon and stars, the objects of our worship.--My dear, indulgent mother would bear more with me than any of my friends beside.--I often raised my hand to heaven, and asked her who lived there? Was much dissatisfied when she told me the sun, moon and stars, being persuaded, in my own mind, that there must be some Superior Power.--I was frequently lost in wonder at the works of the creation: Was afraid, and uneasy, and restless, but could not tell for what. I wanted to be informed of things that no person could tell me; and was always dissatisfied.--These wonderful impressions began in my childhood, and followed me continuously till I left my parents, which affords me matter of admiration and thankfulness.
To this moment I grew more and more uneasy every day, insomuch that one Saturday (which is the day on which we kept our sabbath) I laboured under anxieties and fears that cannot be expressed; and, what is more extraordinary, I could not give a reason for it.----I rose, as our custom is, about three o'clock (as we are obliged to be at our place of worship an hour before the sun rise) we say nothing in our worship, but continue on our knees with our hands held up, observing a strict silence till the sun is at a certain height, which I suppose to be about 10 or 11 o'clock in England: When, at a certain sign made by the Priest, we get up (our duty being over) and disperse to our different houses.--Our place of meeting is under a large palm tree; we divide ourselves into many congregations; as it is impossible for the same tree to cover the inhabitants of the whole city, though they are extremely large, high and majestic; the beauty and usefulness of them are not to be described; they supply the inhabitants of the country with meat, drink and clothes; the body of the palm tree is very large; at a certain season of the year they tap it, and bring vessels to receive the wine, of which they draw great quantities, the quality of which is very delicious: The leaves of this tree are of a silky nature; they are large and soft; when they are dried and pulled to pieces, it has much the same appearance as the English flax, and the inhabitants of Bournou manufacture it for clothing, &c. This tree likewise produces a plant, or substance, which has the appearance of a cabbage, and very like it, in taste almost the same: It grows between the branches. Also the palm tree produces a nut, something like a cocoa, which contains a kernel, in which is a large quantity of milk, very pleasant to the taste: The shell is of a hard substance, and of a very beautiful appearance, and serves for basons, bowls, &c. . . .
About this time there came a merchant from the Gold Coast (the third city in Guinea) he traded with the inhabitants of our country in ivory, &c. he took great notice of my unhappy situation, and inquired into the cause; he expressed vast concern for me, and said, if my parents would part with me for a little while, and let him take me home with him, it would be of more service to me than any thing they could do for me.--He told me that if I would go with him I should see houses with wings to them walk upon the water, and should also see the white folks; and that he had many sons of my age, which should be my companions; and he added to all this that he would bring me safe back again soon.--I was highly pleased with the account of this strange place, and was very desirous of going. . . .
From the Hardcover edition.