Sunday Book Review: A Slave No More

A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation by David W. Blight.
A Slave No More is many books in one. The heart and soul of the work are the never-before-published emancipation narratives written by Wallace Turnage and John Washington. Blight provides historical context by matching their individual stories to the Civil War time line and compares them to other emancipation narratives. In essence, Blight provides the historical skeleton upon which the Turnage and Washington stories are overlayed.
In the first two chapters, Blight provides the historical context and his analysis of Washington and Turnage narratives, respectively. His discussion of the different nature, tone and goals of antebellum and post-bellum emancipation narratives is important.

Antebellum slave narratives tended to conform to certain structures and conventions. Given the depth of racism in the era, rooted in assumptions of black illiteracy and deviance, pre-1860 ex-slave autobiographers had to demonstrate their humanity and veracity. They had to prove their identity and their reliability as first-person witnesses among a people so often defined outside the human family of letters….Most narratives were cast as contests between good and evil, moving through countless examples of cruelty toward slaves and ending in a story of escape. Many are essentially spiritual autobiographies, journeys from sinfulness and ignorance to righteousness and knowledge. On one level, antebellum slave narratives were effective abolitionist propaganda, condemnations of slavery in story form.
Post-emancipation slave narratives, however, changed in content and form. They still tend to be spiritual autobiographies, often by former bondsmen turned clergymen, and they were written in the mode of “from slave cabin to the pulpit.” But postslavery narratives are more practical and less romantic, more about a rise to success for the individual and progress for the race as a whole….It is not so much the memory of slavery that matters in the bulk of the postwar genre, but how slavery was overcome by a narrator who competed and won his place in an ever-evolving and more hopeful present. Slavery is now a useable past in the age of Progress and Capital….Antebellum narratives are saturated with the oppressive nature of slavery and a world shadowed by the past. Postbellum narratives reflect backward only enough to cast off the past, exalt the present and forge a future.

According to Blight, the Washington and Turnage narratives are unique because they exhibit qualities of both ante- and postbellum types.
In the third chapter, Blight describes how he used various resources to rediscover Washington and Turnage’s past. It is a good object lesson to future historians as to the twists and turns—some frustrating, some unexpected–that research can take. In chapter four, Blight tackles the larger historiographical question of emancipation and whether it was bottom-up or top-down. It was both:

Emancipation in America was a revolution from the bottom up that required power and authority from the top down to give it public gravity and make it secure. Freedom, as Lincoln said, was something given and preserved, but it also, as he himself well understood had to be taken and endured. And it ultimately was fostered by war and engineered by armies.

In this chapter, he also charts the origin of the “faithful slave” myth and the important part it played in the “Lost Cause” narrative that arose in the postbellum south.
The final two chapters are the emancipation narratives themselves. Both writers apologized for their poor writing skills, yet, while they did write simply, they also wrote engaging and sometimes eloquent prose. In addition to having a talent for description, both were skilled at using humor (sometimes dry) and irony to make their point. For instance, Turnage, in explaining–upon overhearing that he was due a whipping from an overseer–decided not to wait around, so he “got over the fence to see what would be the result.” That’s one way of explaining that he ran away!
In sum, whereas Blight–as he describes–may believe that he was simply in the right place at the right time to have had these works fall into his lap, he has done a magnificent job of presenting the Turnage and Washington stories within their proper historical context. This is a valuable work of history.
A version of this review was originally posted at Spinning Clio on 1/13/2008.

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