In order to better understand and analyze the narratives of different fugitive slaves and the impact their stories had on American society and the abolition movement, one must first gain a basic overview of the history of slavery in America. Slavery in America was a controversial issue from the very beginning, as it became a major topic of debate when drafting the constitution. Concessions were made on both sides and through the use of language such as “all other persons”, the drafters of the constitution actually never directly use the term “slavery” once throughout the whole document. Slavery had already existed in the colonies prior to the American Revolution, and it became a major way of life, engrained into the culture of the southern states whose main economy was based upon agriculture and free labor. Following the revolution and the Declaration of Independence, most Northern States began the process of abolishing slavery, and by 1805, all Northern States had abolished the practice in some way. However, southern states were still depending on slavery in their everyday life, and the abolition movement began to stall as the North and South reached an impasse.
It is the purpose of this paper to give a detailed look at some fugitive slave narratives, and analyze the extent to which they were able to effect public sentiment and awareness of slavery, as well as the abolition movement. The argument being made is that through the use of these narratives, fugitive slaves were able to have a largely significant impact on the abolition movement by disproving stereotypes, spreading awareness on the severity of slavery, and creating a sympathetic sentiment both domestically, and even internationally.
One of the main narratives that we will use to support this argument is the Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box Three Feet Long and Two Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery, by Charles Stearns and Henry Box Brown. The narrative itself is the captivating and heart wrenching story of Henry Box Brown and his escape from slavery. The narratives are told by Brown himself, while some prefacing and commentary is done by Stearns. Henry Box Brown was an African-American man, born into slavery in Virginia, 1816, and remarkably escaped by shipping himself in a box to Philadelphia, allowing millions around the world to hear his story. When looking at the details of this narrative, we must continue to ask what the purpose of this document was, what effect it had on the public, and how Brown’s experiences in slavery, as a fugitive, and as a free man compare to that of others during his time.
Interestingly enough, Brown begins his narrative by explaining to the reader that his intention is in fact not to discuss the “untold horrors of that fearful system of oppression, which for thirty-three long years entwined its snaky folds about” his soul (Brown 11). He explains that other fugitives have already done that far better than he ever could, and continues to explain that he will attempt to convey, if possible, the “beautiful” side of slavery from a slave’s point of view. Brown’s character and credibility can immediately be discussed based on how he chose to go about the opening of his story. With the use of such poetic language, he successfully communicates his mastery of the English language, an important element that will be discussed in a later section. He also takes an alternate approach, and shows his humility as a human being, by acknowledging the differences between his experience as a slave, with that of many others. He explains that he was never whipped once in his life, and that “if no blows are inflicted upon the slave’s body, and plenty of ‘bread and bacon’ is dealed out to him, he is therefore no sufferer” (Brown 12). This immediately has an effect on any reader, as it makes Brown seem even more trustworthy as a source, and makes the reader more emotionally invested in Brown and his story. As a result, the recounting of his story will have a larger and more impactful effect on those who read it.
Now the question that arises after reading the opening of Brown’s narrative is that if he does not consider himself to have suffered, at least relative to the suffering of other slaves, what was it that caused him to flee. He promptly addresses this question and explains “Far beyond, in terrible suffering, all outward cruelties of the foul system, are those inner pangs which rend the heart of fond affection, when the ‘bone of your bone, and the flesh of your flesh’ is separated from your embrace, by the ruthless hand of the merciless tyrant… and more fearful by far than all the blows of the bloody lash, or the pangs of cruel hunger are those lashings of the heart” (Brown 13). In this passage, Brown is referring to the cruel act of separating babies from their parents at birth to be sold back into the evil system of slavery. He eloquently describes this act as a far worse form of suffering than any amount of blows by a whip, or any degree of hunger. Despite the lack of physical harm, he paints a picture for the reader, attempting to illustrate the mental and emotional torture of having to experience your own flesh and blood being torn away from you and being forced into such a cruel and painful world. He continues to explain that there is no such thing as a kind slave master in such an evil system. Despite the fact that his owner was one of the most distinguished for his lack of cruelty and physical punishment, he did not hesitate to tear Brown’s wife and children from his embrace. It is the emotional damage that slavery inflicted upon Brown that propelled him to flee to Philadelphia in a three feet by two box for 27 hours. Therefore, Brown identifies this often overlooked aspect of the system of slavery as one of the most horrific and painful, and the main motivation behind his daring escape to freedom.
It is interesting to note that Brown continuously makes reference to other fugitive slave narratives which contain many of the horrific truths that he himself was not subject to. By doing so, he is constantly setting himself apart and in many ways downplaying his own insufferable experiences. Based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, American Slave. Written by Himself, it is clear to see that Brown was very much correct, and his experience as a slave was in many ways starkly different to that of others. In his narrative, Douglas recounts that his slaveholder “would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest” (Douglas 6). Similar to Brown, Douglas’ mastery of the English language forces the reader to experience a painfully detailed and horrific illustration of the reality that is slavery. While these differences in their experiences are different, the general sentiment remains consistent. The collective efforts of these amazing men who fled to freedom were the main sources used to spread awareness about the evils taking place down south.
After traveling in a box for 27 hours, with no access to fresh air, and is thrown from steamboat to wagon, Henry Brown makes it to Philadelphia. He moves around in different cities after his arrival in the North, and it is in Boston where he first accounts the story of his sufferings in front of thousands. This was the beginning of Brown’s activism in the abolition movement. Toward the end of Brown’s narrative, he makes his intentions quite clear with a direct call to action for his intended audience- the North. Brown says, “I call upon you, Sons of the North, if your blood has not lost its bright color of liberty, and is not turned to the blackened gore which surrounds the slaveholder’s polluted, to arise in your might, and demand the liberation of the slaves. If you do not…I shall bear witness against you, as well as the slaveholders themselves” (Brown 54). This is an extremely powerful passage in the narrative because it is a direct message to the people of the North who are reading it, and it says that if they do not fight to end the evil that is slavery after knowing what they now know, then Brown, other slaves, and god himself would bear the same judgment upon them as he would the slaveowners.
One of the major effects of Henry Brown’s narrative and the narratives of other fugitive slaves was the disproving of widely held stereotypes, intended to create a perceived gap in intelligence and equality between whites and blacks. One of these stereotypes was that African Americans were unable to learn how to read and write because of their inherent lack of intelligence. The widely published, eloquently written narratives by these same African Americans who were enslaved their entire lives disproved that notion and opened the eyes of many who were previously ignorant. By doing so, right away it is clear to see how the narratives written by fugitive slaves bolstered the abolition movement. It humanized slaves and showed the white public that they are capable of thinking, reading, and writing at an equal if not superior level to that of whites when given the chance. Inequality still existed of course and worsened with time. In “How to Read a Slave Narrative” by William L. Andrews, he highlights many critical pieces of historical context, as well as guiding questions such as “what is the significance of the prefaces and introductions found in many slave narratives” (Andrews 1). The prefaces of the narratives being referred to were often written and co-authored by whites. The main reason for doing this was to increase the narrative perceived credibility, and to attract the more closed-minded white readers. Surely this could be interpreted as a sign of things to come.
These various narratives at the time were being mass produced and read by most of the nation, and even overseas. People were finally learning the true horror of slavery at an intimate level, and were evidently moved by it based on the push from Northern states to abolish slavery entirely in the time leading up to the civil war. However, during this same period of time between the 1790s and 1860s, as more slaves fled to the north, segregation steadily increased and was quickly normalized. Based on the writings of Elizabeth Pryor in, Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War, it is observed that “public vehicles were ripe settings for this contest over race, space and mobility…northern whites deemed it aggressive and dangerous for free people of color to enter public vehicles as equals” (Pryor 45). Arguably as a result of these rapidly expanding trends of segregation in the North, the Jim Crow laws were introduced as a solution to the eventual ratification of the 13th amendment which abolished slavery. These laws legitimized segregation in the United States and made it illegal for African Americans to have many of the same basic equal rights as whites. “Separate but equal” became the mindset of most of the country, as the slaves who were just given their freedom were thrust into yet another form of systematic oppression.
In conclusion, it is clear that through the use of narrative, fugitive slaves were able to have their voices heard around the world and are still discussed today. These narratives had a tremendous impact on the abolition movement. They disproved the ignorantly held notion that African Americans were incapable of learning to read and write. By selling more copies in some cases than classics such as Moby Dick, awareness of the extent of the evils of slavery was finally being realized and the sentiment of the public quickly began to shift. And finally through the use of direct calls to action such as that by Henry Brown towards the end of his story, the intent of these fugitives were clear, and those who read could not help but feel horrified and sympathetic, as well as shame should they continue to overlook it. The experiences of these freed men once they arrived in the North was far from equal, as segregation increased along with the number of fugitives escaping. However, the matter of the fight for equal rights and the end of segregation is an entirely separate, and equally significant topic. The fight for the abolishment of slavery became quickly catalyzed during this time, largely due to the many narratives coming out by fugitive slaves, and finally led to the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.