The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives

The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives

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by Devon W. Carbado, Donald Weise
     
 

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In this groundbreaking compilation of first-person accounts of the runaway slave phenomenon, editors Devon Carbado and Donald Weise have recovered twelve narratives spanning eight decades—more than half of which have been long out of print. Told in the voices of the runaway slaves themselves, these narratives reveal the extraordinary and often innovative ways… See more details below

Overview

In this groundbreaking compilation of first-person accounts of the runaway slave phenomenon, editors Devon Carbado and Donald Weise have recovered twelve narratives spanning eight decades—more than half of which have been long out of print. Told in the voices of the runaway slaves themselves, these narratives reveal the extraordinary and often innovative ways that these men and women sought freedom and demanded citizenship.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The intensity of the desire for freedom drives these narratives by fugitive slaves. The dozen excerpts from published accounts mostly unfamiliar to general readers are organized into thematic areas—yearning for freedom, family situations, religious inspiration, and extreme measures taken to liberate themselves—editors Carbado, UCLA professor of law and African-American studies, and Weise, editor-in-chief of Magnus Books, underline the commonalities of the American slave experience yet allow each fugitive his own voice. Villains in the form of owners, traders, bounty hunters, and treacherous blacks abound; gruesome descriptions of whippings and other tortures punctuate many of the tales. Heroes and heroics also emerge: Quakers and other antislavery activists assisted runaways; fugitives walked for days without food, fought off dogs and wolves, and even after capture managed to escape again. Most of the fugitives note that the slaveholders were “professing Christians,” though one fugitive cites the Bible’s prohibition against returning escaped slaves. Stevenson’s afterword places the narratives in historical context, where a white man could sell his own children by a slave to escape “social ostracism.” It may give readers nightmares, but this book needs to be read. Illus. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the historical reality of the slave experiences. Carbado and Weise have diligently selected narratives that will challenge readers' presumptions and cut against the mythology that slaves were passive, that mostly men (and not women) ran away, that slaves typically ran North (not South), and that gender and racial passing were rare occurrences. A landmark achievement, The Long Walk to Freedom allows fugitive slaves to speak for themselves—on their own terms and in their own voices."—Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania

 
“The editors step aside and let these remarkable men and women tell their own stories.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Readers will learn more about slavery in the American South from these autobiographical accounts than they could from any textbook."–Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
This collection contains excerpts from 12 narratives by former slaves, who escaped to freedom. Some of them are classics, such as those by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Craft. Others have not been in print for approximately 100 years (although all are available on the Internet in various forms). Carbado (law & African American studies, Univ. of California, Los Angeles) and Weise (publisher, Magnus Books) provide an introduction that covers the history of slave resistance and how slave narratives became the foundation of African American literature. However, the editors gloss over the influence of white abolitionists in the editing and publishing process and the general popularity of melodramatic literature in the early to mid-19th century. The excerpts are organized by theme: "Running To Be Free," "Running Because of Family," "Running Inspired by Religion," and "Running by Any Means Necessary." These categories help to contextualize each within the larger framework of the history of slavery and abolitionism. VERDICT Although the narratives are available online, this book will provide a succinct collection for high school or beginning undergraduates studying the history of slavery in America.—Kathryn Stewart, American Folklife Ctr., Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
Excerpts from the narratives of runaway slaves organized by the principal reason for the flight to freedom. In some ways, this is an unnecessary volume, as the narratives are widely available elsewhere, in print and online. But editors Carbado (Law and African American Studies/UCLA) and Magnus Books editor in chief Weise have sharpened and particularized the focus, allowing readers a chance to experience the stories from a fresh perspective. After a brief introduction--where we learn that most runaways didn't head north but instead to southern cities, hoping to disappear into anonymity--the editors step aside and let these remarkable men and women tell their own stories. Carbado and Weise arrange the escapes by motive (recognizing that no such radical act has a single reason): runs for freedom, family, religion and "by any means necessary," a sort of catchall category. Included are the stories of Moses Roper, who found his mother years later (she didn't initially recognize him); James Curry, who writes about brutal floggings; Bethany Veney, who relates how she never again saw her husband; Isaac Williams, who battled wolves during his escape; and William and Ellen Craft, whose bold escape featured cross-dressing and passing as white on public transportation. Among these perhaps lesser-known stories are also selections from the famous narratives of Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Harriet Jacobs. Many of the cruelties remain horrifying to read. Emerging as true humanitarian heroes are the Quakers, who invariably helped when others would not. A useful one-volume selection featuring grim but inspiring tales.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807069134
Publisher:
Beacon Press
Publication date:
08/21/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction: “I Will Run Away”
 
“God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?
I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear,
I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing.”
—Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
 
A decade ago, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger published Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. The book was part of a much broader literature that challenged the idea that slaves were generally pliant and resigned to their roles as human chattel. While W. E. B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction in America, had argued vociferously against the idea of slaves as docile and pliant, Franklin and Schweninger’s book, among other works, helped to solidify the idea. Far from passively acquiescing to what was euphemistically referred to as “the South’s peculiar institution,” slaves rebelled against their masters and ran away whenever they could. That they risked life and limb to do so was itself an indication of the brutality of slavery.

Runaway Slaves
was successful—both in commercial terms and with respect to the critical acclaim the book received. But despite its success, since then only a few texts focusing solely on runaway slaves have been published. To be sure, dozens of books of slave narratives are already on the market; the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, for example, can be found readily. Indeed, slave narratives remain one of the most enduring genres of African American literature.

The Long Walk to Freedom
contains the first-ever collection of fugitive slave narratives, presented as a unique genre, not simply as slave narratives more generally. The twelve narratives collectively span approximately seventy-six years. Excerpts from the best-known booklength narratives—including those by Douglass, Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, William and Ellen Craft—stand alongside narratives that haven’t been published in more than a hundred years.

Although most slave narratives were written or recorded after Abolition, the most widely read—even today—are antebellum fugitive accounts. Unlike the narratives of ex-slaves who had purchased their freedom prior to the Civil War or were emancipated afterward, fugitives’ stories offer dramatic exploits that overcome staid polemics. Here, one finds patrols of slave catchers and their hounds in relentless pursuit of runaways, wild animals on the attack, intrigue on the Underground Railroad, slaves dangerously masquerading as freed people—sometimes disguised as the opposite sex—in order to pass. The runaway narrative of William Craft, for example, describes how he and his wife, neither of whom was literate, employed public transportation to make their way from Georgia to Pennsylvania. To do so, Ellen Craft disguised herself as a white man traveling with her slave companion.

One finds in these narratives romantic elements as well—slaves running hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to be reunited at all costs with a loved one—that help establish emotional connections between the author and reader, much as if one were reading a novel.

But these are not works of fiction. Cumulatively, these narratives are a useful window on a specific form of black resistance to slavery. The existence of these narratives makes clear that the limited number of large-scale slave revolts does not mean that slaves acquiesced in or were content with their status as slaves. Far from being passive objects of property, slaves resisted—often in incremental and pragmatic ways.
For example, Isaac D. Williams’s story conveys the strong, rebellious, and persistent spirit that many slaves possessed in order to run away. In his flight north, Williams was initially pursued by bloodhounds, which he was able to kill. But he was eventually caught and shot, his body riddled with bullets. Nevertheless, Williams survived, managed to escape jail, and fled north again, continuing to defy the dangers of nature and the numerous police and slave owners he encountered along the way.

Slaves ran away for various reasons, among them brutal treatment; confrontations with an owner or overseer; the opportunity to escape; the fear of being sold or transferred, particularly away from one’s family; and the fundamental desire to be free. Moses Roper’s narrative documents the severe floggings he received from several different slave owners, five hundred lashes at the worst. His repeated attempts to escape, at the risk of again being flogged, no doubt were spurred by these acts of violence, which over time quite literally broke slaves down. “My natural elasticity was crushed,” wrote Frederick Douglass in his narrative on the impact of being repeatedly beaten. “[M]y intellect languished, the disposition to read departed . . . the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”
 
 
According to most historians, “the dark night of slavery” traces back to the first African people brought to British America in August 1619 and sold to English colonizers in Jamestown, Virginia. Some of the relatively small number of Africans in the colonies during this period likely worked as indentured servants side-by-side with white indentured servants who had fled the economic hardships of Europe. Others worked as slaves. As slaves did, white indentured servants often ran away and were punished harshly upon return. Thus, it was not uncommon to see advertisements in local newspapers for both black and white fugitives. For example, the September 26, 1751, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal sought the return of “an Irish Servant Man, Named Christopher Cooney, of Short Stature, pale Complexion, short brown Hair.” But because whiteness carried with it the presumption of freedom and blackness the presumption of slavery, indentured whites had an easier time escaping their servitude than did blacks.

In 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, slavery in the thirteen Colonies was more than 150 years old and had become part of the legal and racial caste system. But the revolutionary fervor of the time made the institution of slavery more vulnerable than it had ever been. The ideals of the colonists—freedom from English oppression, and selfdetermination—were at least somewhat, if not thoroughly, inconsistent with the idea of slavery.

Other factors also helped to delegitimize the institution. One was economic: the tobacco market had crashed, and the wheat crops that replaced tobacco did not require the same kind of labor-intensive work, reducing the demand for slave workers. Compounding matters was a general recession, which found many slave owners unable to feed and support their unpaid labor force.

Religion also generated abolitionist ideas. The Great Awakening— a movement that reinvigorated Christianity by encouraging an emotional engagement with religion, a sense of personal spiritual commitment, and feelings of guilt for one’s moral transgressions— particularly motivated Baptists and Methodists to save the souls of black folks.

Moreover, Lord Dunmore, the dethroned governor of Virginia, to cite one example, “issued a proclamation of freedom to all slaves who would fight for the king.” This invitation also undermined slavery, and many slaves ran away in search of that promised freedom.

Finally, the Revolutionary War itself weakened the institution of slavery by creating runaway opportunities through general upheaval (for example, slave masters fled war-torn territories along with their slaves) and because the significant number of white men who left their plantations to join the Patriot Army created an absence that the slaves could and did exploit. More than twenty thousand slaves, many runaways, ended up under the authority of the British military during this time.

Even for the blacks who remained in slavery during the Revolutionary War period, change seemed to be on the way. Because the war had further diminished the already dwindling tobacco economy, reducing the demand for slave labor, slaves had greater freedom to pursue more skilled occupations. Indeed, slave owners permitted their more trusted slaves to lease themselves out to other owners. This transaction was risky for both the slave owner and the slave. The owner never knew whether his “property” would be returned “intact,” and the slave never knew the conditions under which he (and it was mostly men who could lease themselves out) could be forced to work in a new setting. Nevertheless, the practice of leasing enabled slaves to visit relatives and friends, and to forge relationships with whites outside of the plantation economy. Leasing also provided a means by which slaves could run away. It is unclear how many slaves exploited that limited opportunity, though, since free blacks could still be captured and re-enslaved, as Robert the Hermit’s runaway narrative attests. Robert Voorhis persuaded “a friend” to pay his master 50 pounds for his freedom. Voorhis rejoiced in the promise of his future when the payment occurred, but then quickly learned that his status as a slave would not be shed so easily. His friend, James Bevens or Bivens, sold him into the Southern market, and Voorhis was taken onto a schooner and chained there. He was subsequently sold at a public auction in South Carolina.

Still, other anti-slavery currents flowed from the federal government. The Continental Congress passed a resolution opposing slavery as well as the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in what is today Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota. There was reason to be at least cautiously optimistic about the dismantling of slavery as the Revolutionary War came to an end.

But there were early signs that slavery might have a postwar life. In the heady rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and a successful resolution to war, the fledgling United States of America embarked

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the historical reality of the slave experiences. Carbado and Weise have diligently selected narratives that will challenge readers' presumptions and cut against the mythology that slaves were passive, that mostly men (and not women) ran away, that slaves typically ran North (not South), and that gender and racial passing were rare occurrences. A landmark achievement, The Long Walk to Freedom allows fugitive slaves to speak for themselves—on their own terms and in their own voices."—Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania

 
“The editors step aside and let these remarkable men and women tell their own stories.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Readers will learn more about slavery in the American South from these autobiographical accounts than they could from any textbook."–Wall Street Journal

Read More

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