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Assignment America: Literary blackface?

By JOHN BLOOM   |   June 24, 2002 at 1:20 PM
NEW YORK, June 24 (UPI) -- Was Hannah Crafts really a black woman? Was she really a slave? How do we know she wasn't a tea-sipping housewife in Morristown who wanted to help abolish slavery? I'm just not as convinced as everyone else seems to be that this "new" slave novel is authentic.

Sixteen months ago an obscure 301-page handwritten manuscript was offered for auction at the Swann Galleries in New York. The title page read "The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina."

The catalog said the manuscript appeared to be from the 1850s and that it was "uncertain that this work is written by a 'negro,'" but that there was textual evidence to suggest that it was written by a slave -- for example, "her escape route is one sometimes used by runaways."

Only in these fast-moving sensation-starved times of ours could an ignored 150-year-old manuscript of questionable provenance become, in a single year, a major literary event. "The Bondwoman's Narrative" was touted on the front page of The New York Times in November, excerpted in The New Yorker in February, and by March it was already on the shelves of bookstores, described as a major discovery by a slew of past Pulitzer Prize winners.

The book was designed to exude authenticity. The cover is made to look like someone's idea of a yellowed, frayed-edge manuscript tied with twine, and the text itself is reprinted with all the spelling and syntax mistakes and numerous cross-outs left intact. (I'm not sure why, because they're distracting, and none of them reveal anything about the author or the story.) More important, it was being promoted without apology by Warner Books as "the first known novel written by an African American woman who had been a slave."

Now. I'm willing to believe that you could buy a previously unknown manuscript and, by diligent investigation, eventually prove that it was written by a certain real person on a certain real date. But in this case we went from "uncertain that this work is written by a 'negro'" to "first known novel written by an African American woman" in less than a year, and that includes the time the book was at the printer.

Surely there had to be some major breakthrough. Did a descendant of the pre-Civil War author come forward and positively identify her? Did a reference to the book turn up in memoirs or letters or diaries from the period? Did the records of the Underground Railroad or the Freedmen's Bureau identify Hannah Crafts or make reference to her novel?

Not only did none of these things happen, but no one ever found Hannah Crafts in the census records or genealogy libraries. So what exactly is going on here?

You get a clue from the cover of the book, where the name "HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR." is in a bigger type size than the name of the author! Gates is, of course, the chairman of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department and probably the most famous scholar of black history and literature in America. And it was Gates, in fact, who purchased "The Bondwoman's Narrative" from Swann Galleries last year. So obviously, as a literary event, this has as much to do with Gates as it does with the quality of the lost novel.

Gates even tells us in his introduction that he felt a thrill when he found the manuscript in the auction catalog. "If the author was black," he says, "then this 'fictionalized slave narrative' -- an autobiographical novel apparently based upon a female fugitive slave's life in bondage in North Carolina and her escape to freedom in the North -- would be a major discovery, possibly the first novel written by a black woman and definitely the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave."

He buys the manuscript even before reading it -- he was the only bidder -- and then sets out to find out who Hannah Crafts was and authenticate her race. When you think about it, this alone is a strange thing to do -- as if proving she was black is more important than finding out what her thoughts, dreams and aspirations were, or, more to the point, whether she wrote anything of lasting value.

At any rate, Gates sets out on his quest, and here's what he finds:

The ownership of the manuscript can't be traced prior to 1948, when it was sold for $85 by Emily Driscoll, a manuscript and autograph dealer on Fifth Avenue. The buyer was Dorothy Porter Wesley, a librarian and historian at Howard University, who asked Driscoll where she got it and was told it came from "a scout in the trade" -- a free-lance peddler of literary material. All the scout could remember is that he picked it up somewhere in New Jersey. Porter Wesley died in 1995, so presumably it was sold at auction by the heirs to her estate.

This means that, from the 1850s until 1948, the unpublished manuscript was in someone's attic, or perhaps a succession of attics, but whoever preserved it didn't care enough about it to even attach a note to it, and the last non-academic owner thought it was worth less than $85. So obviously either the original author had no living descendants or else at some point the old musty manuscript had ceased to be a family keepsake, indicating that the people who ended up with it thought it had flea-market value at best. When it finally got into the hands of a respected bibliophile, she held it for 47 years without attempting to publish it.

Nevertheless, it was a very old manuscript. Authenticating the date turned out to be fairly easy. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical document examiner in Amherst, N.Y., was hired by Warner Books, and he confirmed that the paper, the ink, the method of binding and the style of handwriting all put it in the 1850s. Then, there was internal evidence. The author refers to the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., that was erected in 1853, so it had to be written after that date. And even though it's a novel about slavery, there's no reference to the Civil War, so obviously it was prior to 1861.

Nickell even went so far as to say it was written by a woman. He found evidence that a thimble had been used to make some corrections, and by analyzing the eccentric punctuation, spelling and vocabulary, he was able to estimate that the writer had the equivalent of a modern 11th-grade education.

That's all well and good, but it was up to Gates to continue the research and prove that Hannah Crafts was really a fugitive slave. The reason the question has to be asked is that at least 10 novels were published before the war by white authors pretending to be black slaves.

But Gates dismisses this idea out of hand. He cites the example of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, relates how much money it made in multiple editions, and wonders why a white author would pretend to be black when you could make a killing without doing that. "There was no commercial advantage to be gained by a white author writing as a black one ... " he writes. " ... My fundamental operating principle when engaged in this sort of historical research is that if someone claimed to have been black, then they most probably were, since there was very little incentive (financial or otherwise) for doing so."

At this point, if I were enrolled in Gates' graduate seminar, I would be vigorously waving my hand so that I could say, "Doctor Gates, I myself am a writer who has used fictitious authorship, written in styles that aren't my own, and imagined myself to be living in other times and places, all without considering how much money it would make me. And if I might add, professor, most authors don't have the slightest idea what will or will not make money."

In other words, the "Why would someone do this?" theory just doesn't seem academically sound to me, especially since we know at least 10 people DID do it. And the reasons for pretending to be black aren't hard to find at all. What better argument for abolishing slavery could there be than having a young attractive articulate spunky black heroine who soldiers on against cruel fate and the inhumanity of man with the help of God and her own gritty fortitude?

How do we know that "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is any different from, say, "Autobiography of a Female Slave," the 1856 novel that was written by Mattie Griffith, later exposed as a white abolitionist?

The answer is that we don't. As much as you want Gates to succeed in his historical quest -- you're rooting for him to find the faded yellow document that proves the existence of Hannah Crafts -- he never really comes up with any convincing proof.

The novel itself is highly enjoyable, by the way, although I think part of its charm is its quaintness. We're not used to reading 19th-century sentimental novels anymore, and so there's an exoticism about it that wouldn't exist for readers who were already steeped in, say, the Brontes or George Eliot. (George Eliot, come to think of it, is an excellent example of somebody who quite successfully used literary ventriloquism in 19th-century fiction -- a woman pretending to be a man.)

"The Bondwoman's Narrative" includes an excellent ghost story, a scarily villainous lawyer named Mr. Trappe, a comic relief sequence in which the mistress of the slave girl uses an experimental skin ointment that turns her black, an interlude in a rat-infested dungeon, many stories-within-the-story, and quite a few Gothic adventures and chilling death scenes as the heroine is batted from place to place before eventually dressing as a man, passing for white, and escaping to New Jersey. It's also full of amazing coincidences, as novels of the time tended to be.

Unfortunately, there's nothing in the book that couldn't have been researched, imagined or observed by a white author.

Normally I would say it doesn't matter -- in some ways it's actually a BETTER Americana story if it's an abolitionist woman writing it -- but since the whole sales campaign is based on this "first black woman" premise, we should at least be honest enough to say it's unproven.

Gates searched through the census indexes in an effort to find all people named Hannah Crafts -- there weren't any --as well as the names of all the other characters in the book. He only found two real people who appear to be beyond dispute modeled after people in the story. They are John Hill Wheeler, owner of a slave plantation in Lincolnton, N.C., and the U.S. minister to Nicaragua at the time of the book's action, and Wheeler's wife, Ellen.

A large section of the book takes place at an estate very much like that of Wheeler, and at a Washington residence that also matches what we know of Wheeler. When the author first wrote the book, she called her heroine's master "Mr. W------." At some later time she went back and wrote in the name Wheeler, as though there was no longer any reason to protect the man's identity. (Wheeler died in 1882, so perhaps the emendation was made then.)

Wheeler was a diehard defender of the institution of slavery, an author, and, fortunately for us, a man who wrote in a diary every day of his life. That diary ended up in the Library of Congress, so Gates is able to track where Wheeler was and what he was doing for most of his life.

Wheeler was notorious for a couple of things. He was minister to Nicaragua when it was conquered by the American William Walker. Walker re-established slavery in that nation, and Wheeler was so supportive of the man that he went ahead and recognized the Walker government without getting permission from the State Department first. As a result he was recalled to Washington in 1857 and relieved of duty.

More to the point, Wheeler was the plaintiff in a famous fugitive-slave trial called the "Case of Passmore Williamson."

The facts of the case were these. Wheeler was traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York, where he was to take a ship to Nicaragua, when he stopped in Philadelphia on July 18, 1855. Traveling with him were a slave named Jane Johnson and her two young sons. In Philadelphia he had to wait a few hours for the boat to New York, so he went to Bloodgood's Hotel for dinner. Separated from her master, Jane Johnson spoke to whatever black people she could find and told them that she was a slave and wished to be free.

Very quickly the black workers in the hotel got word to William Still, chairman of the Acting Vigilant Committee of the Philadelphia Branch of the Underground Railroad, and he ran to the office of a man named Passmore Williamson, who was secretary of "The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, and for improving the condition of the African Race."

Both men, Still and Williamson, hurried to the hotel, but Wheeler had already departed for the boat. They got a description, ran to the boat, found Wheeler and his slaves, and implored Jane Johnson to come with them. Wheeler tried to interfere, of course. There was some shoving and threatening that got pretty serious, but the result was that Jane Johnson and her sons were taken away, and Wheeler never saw them again.

What the men had done was a violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, so the following day Wheeler swore out a warrant against Williamson and the other men. Eventually Williamson served three and a half months in jail, two black men served a week for assault and battery, and Still was acquitted. Jane Johnson actually testified at the trial, but her appearance was somehow arranged so that she couldn't be seized or arrested -- and by that time Wheeler was in Nicaragua anyway.

The importance of this story is that, in Chapter 12, the fictional character Mrs. Wheeler makes reference to a runaway slave named Jane, indicating that "Hannah Crafts" was purchased as a replacement for Jane. Gates uses this textual evidence to further narrow down the date of the novel; it had to have been written after 1855.

But I think that the "Case of Passmore Williamson" is also what proves that the action of the novel is NOT based on real events. Here's why:

We know from Wheeler's diary that he never gave up trying to get Jane Johnson back. He keeps the legal case alive even while he's serving in Nicaragua, and as late as January 10, 1860 -- four and a half years later -- he's petitioning the Pennsylvania Legislature for either restitution or the return of "my Negroes."

And yet, throughout this whole period, he never refers in his diary to a runaway slave corresponding to "Hannah Crafts," much less the loss of a runaway slave who is the personal servant to his wife. Gates notes that part of Wheeler's diary is missing -- the latter half of 1856 -- and that much of the year 1858 is damaged or illegible. But even so, are we to believe that the man would doggedly pursue three runaways for five years -- referring to them not once but several times -- while ignoring the loss of another slave entirely? If "Hannah Crafts" ran away from John Hill Wheeler, why is she never mentioned by any name in this meticulous and detailed diary? Even if she ran away during the latter half of 1856, it's hard to believe he would not continue his efforts to get her back, just as he did with Jane Johnson.

All we know, then, is that the writer of "A Bondwoman's Narrative" was familiar with the Wheelers -- and, by her description of them, thought they were silly, selfish and cruel buffoons (especially the wife). Gates bolsters the opinion of "Hannah Crafts" by going out of his way to quote all the racist comments he can find in Wheeler's diary -- and yet none of them prove the existence of Crafts as a household slave. Based on what he knows of the movements of Wheeler, Gates dates Hannah's "escape" from the Wheelers as occurring between March 21 and May 4, 1857.

Ultimately Gates' belief that the author was a slave comes down to a close interpretation of the text itself. He says her writing shows an intimate knowledge of estate life in Virginia and North Carolina. (A white person could have the same knowledge.) He says that "her approach to other Negroes is that they are people first of all" -- showing, by example, that she sometimes introduces black characters without saying that they're black, and only confirming their blackness later. This argument borders on the obscurantist. Anyone who had imaginatively entered into the life of a black woman would write in the same manner.

Then there's the issue of her education. Gates would have us believe that a woman in her 20s, escaping in 1857 from a slave state that forbids the education of blacks, would complete a 301-page novel before 1861, and that this novel would show an intimate familiarity with, among other things, the conventions of sentimental novels, Gothic novels, "the law of the Medes and Persians," the "lip of Heraclitus," and words like "magnanimity," "obsequious," "vicissitudes," "hieroglyphical" and "diffidence."

Gates' explanation? She was a house slave who had access to Wheeler's library. Gates even includes an appendix listing some of the 1,200 titles in that library, since Wheeler was as meticulous about cataloguing his collection as he was about keeping his diary.

Are we really to believe that a man like Wheeler -- one of the most diehard pro-slavery proponents in the country -- allowed his slaves to have free run of his library, or that "Hannah Crafts" was so resourceful that she could sneak in there so often that she got the equivalent of a modern 11th-grade education by teaching herself? Even allowing for three years of freedom before she wrote the novel, she would have to be one of the quickest studies in the history of literacy. At the very least, this strains credulity.

In the novel, Hannah is taught to read and write by an elderly couple in a nearby cottage who teach her in secret -- a not too likely scenario that, among other things, would allow precious little time for study while she was at the beck and call of an entire household.

But the most telling thing, to me, about Hannah Crafts' story is the nature of her heroine. She has an unshakeable Christian faith. She believes strongly that literacy will set her free. She has such strength of character that she never gets truly angry about the bigotry all around her. Her decision to flee is caused, in fact, not by the horrid treatment by her white owners, but by her being forced to marry a field slave. She considers it legalized rape and won't sacrifice her virtue.

What do all these qualities convey? Exactly what the right-thinking white middle class of the North valued most dearly -- faith, character, virtue. Everything about her is designed to be attractive to a concerned matron in Scranton or a progressive lawmaker in Boston.

And why did this "Hannah Crafts" never publish the novel? Perhaps because she did finish it around 1860 or 1861, and by that time there was no more need for moralizing about slavery. If she were black, it would still be a good story in 1866. If she were a do-gooder white woman pretending to be black, there wouldn't be much of a point anymore, would there? It would be the kind of thing you tie with twine and place in the attic.


(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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