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Friday, May 25, 2007

North Carolina Slave Narratives

I stumbled across North Carolina Slave Narratives - The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grady & Thomas H. Jones by accident in the JFKI library. Just saw the North Carolina in the title while walking past a shelf and decided to grab it as some kind of an early introduction into where I am actually going to be living starting in August. It turned out to be a really good read. I skipped most of the lengthy introductions, just because I was interested in just the primary source content and none of the supplementary comments and explanations, but I thoroughly enjoyed the narratives.

Four former slaves autobiographically recount their lives' experiences and how they managed to escape the slave system and settle in the British colonies and England (for the most part). All four of them were written earlier than Frederick Douglass' famed account during the 1830s, also unlike him they testify on exactly the way they escaped (Douglass, in order to protect the people that helped him, skips over this part in his narrative) which makes for a very exciting read. The experiences of all four were immensely different.

Moses Roper continuously tried to run away, being caught, whipped and put in chains countless times, yet never giving up and finally succeeding in getting to the Northern states where abolitionists financed his continued flight to England (according to federal laws at the time any slave that had fled the South had to be deported back into slavery when being caught in the slavery-outlawing Northern states).

Lunsford Lane on the other hand had a lenient owner who rented him out to himself (a rather bizarre practise where the slave would pay the owner a fixed sum every year, which he had to accumulate himself by whatever enterprise he chose to enroll in, everything above that sum he could keep for himself). After a couple of years he had amassed enough savings to buy himself from his owner and thus liberate himself. He then proceeded to save up money to buy his wife and children as well and being of an industrious nature succeeded financially with this as well. Yet, a self-liberated entrepreneuring black man like him posed a threat to the system as it caricatured the image of the lazy, child-like, incompetent slave that without the slave owner would degrade and finally die because of his incapability to nourish himself. Thus, he was chased out of North Carolina by use of the law (there were no free blacks allowed to enter the state of North Carolina and since he had gone to New York for a while this law was used against him) and the threat of mob violence.

Moses Grady like Lane toiled for himself in order to pay his master out. Unlike Lane though his masters cheated him out of his money twice by simply accepting the money for his liberty after having made an oral contract for the same, yet then not granting this liberty to him. While this was morally condemned even by most white people, legally he stood on safe grounds simply because as an owner you could not cheat your property as everything he earned or did belonged to you anyway. The third time he paid money to his - then - master, that white man tried again to cheat him out of his liberty, yet in the end succumbed to moral pressure on the part of the white community.

Thomas H. Jones was the last and least interestingly written account. He fled to the North and later Canada after having had a friend bought his wife and children. His flight went uneventful (luckily for him) and smooth. His narrative was in my opinion the worst, because he, a preacher, wrote in a sermon style with constant and very repetitive references to God. His writing simply did not suit me and his Christianity of forgiving even the worst slave holder in the name of Jesus I found hard to believe and even harder to relate to.

All in all, I would recommend this to virtually every one as the accounts detail and make one aware better of important aspects of the Southern slave system. The way families, husbands and wives were split up for example and how people dealt with that. How common corporal punishment was, yet how blacks and whites lived together. Thomas H. Jones' sermons in rural North Carolina are visited by blacks and whites alike. Also, how older slaves were left in the woods own their own, because their masters considered it economically unsound to feed and clothe them any longer. Lastly, as a more positive aspect I guess, how many slaves seem to have worked for themselves, rented themselves out and thus enjoyed a relatively high amount of freedom. Again, read something like this if you care about the American South, history or simply human beings.

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