Friday, 27 September 2013

An Enslaved Woman's narrative - the mystery may be solved

In the last few days of my Southern trip I bought an edited version of 'A Bondwoman's Narrative', said to be the only novel written by an enslaved person. Professor Henry Louis Gates, the most famous historian of African American history and literature, purchased the manuscript for $8,500 in 2001 and published an edited version the following year. The author used a nom de plum (Hannah Crafts). Funnily enough, I came across the article below the other day, in which a historian claims he has discovered her identity. HUGE NEWS!!

Hannah Bowen was enslaved on a North Carolina plantation, owned by a man named John Hill Wheeler. In 1857, she escaped dressed as a man, much in the style of Ellen Craft, and settled in New York where she became a school teacher. Her novel is semi-autobiographical, and focuses on life on a plantation and eventual escape. Interestingly, her novel borrows from nineteenth century stories at the time, notably 'Jane Eyre' and 'Bleak House'. But this raises a question: how was a slave able to write such a book, when it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write? Historian Gregg Hecimovich claims to have some idea. He believes Bowen would have known 'Bleak House' well for example, as a nearby girls school were required to learn passages from memory. Bowen could have listened to students reciting it, or may have stolen a copy.


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