Conversation: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

July 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The book is called “The Bondwoman’s Narrative.” It is described as an autobiographical novel written in the 1850s by a female slave who called herself and her main character Hannah Crafts. It could very well be the first novel by an African American slave, and the first written by a black woman anywhere. The manuscript was found at an auction of African American artifacts by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s Afro American Studies Department. Welcome, Professor Gates.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Thanks for having me on your program.

GWEN IFILL: The book seems to be divided, basically, in two sections: One about your mission to authenticate this manuscript; and the other, her story, the story that she told. First, tell us a little bit about the journey to finding out that this manuscript that you discovered at an auction house was real.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Well, I was suffering from an infected hip replacement. I had had hip replacement surgery two years ago, in May, and three months later, I was rushed to the hospital one morning with a raging fever. And they had to take my hip out. So I was stuck at home for three months with no hip, and bored out of my mind, particularly when the Supreme Court took away the chad count, and I didn’t have anything to do.

So I started reading all those antiquarian catalogues that I receive, and I’m sure you do, on Afro Americana and Africana. And there it was, item number 30, in the Swan Gallery Auction catalogue. Every year they do a Black History Month auction. And it said, “a 301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by a female fugitive slave.” And, Gwen, what’s so interesting about that is that handwritten manuscripts, or holograph manuscripts, are exceedingly rare even for white canonical authors, white male authors in the 19th century, because a printer would buy your manuscript, print the book, and then throw your manuscript in the trash. Why does he need your manuscript?

So, I decided… I talked to my wife and my family, and I decided that I would go for it. And then to my astonishment– remember, I had no hip at the time, I couldn’t travel– a man on my staff, Richard Newman, who happens to be white, went to the auction, and no one knew who he was, and probably that saved a lot of money because if I had walked in there, someone would have said, you know, “That guy must know something,” and it would have would have bid the price up. And he was the only person who bid, and we got it for $8,500. I said he went “incog-negro.” (Laughter)

GWEN IFILL: So, now you have it in your hand, the manuscript, and what you have to do is prove that this was actually as represented, written by a black fugitive slave.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Right, and because I couldn’t travel, I was dependent upon librarians. My first ambition, when I was a kid, was to be a librarian because I loved books so much. And the only way I could imagine a life surrounded by books was to be a librarian. And I love librarians. And so, I called my favorite librarians, or at least the researchers in genealogy, and those are the staff members at the Mormon Family Library in Salt Lake City. And they were kind enough to help me once I told them I was an invalid, basically.

And I would call them and I would say, “Could you look up the Vincent Family in Virginia.” And they would go to the census, and they would Xerox it, and then they mailed it to me back at Harvard Square. And so, you have to imagine my desk when I started this quest in February, February 15 a year ago, I had a computer and a big empty desk. And six months later, I had the same computer surrounded by thousands of pieces of Xerox from archival records, and particularly the federal census. And I found, to my astonishment, almost everybody in the Virginia section of the book whom she claimed to live around a very tiny town called Milton, Virginia, I found all those people there, except for the Dickensian named characters, like Mr. Trapp, who obviously was named…

GWEN IFILL: Who was the evil villain in the piece.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: He’s the Simon Legree.

GWEN IFILL: Exactly.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: You know, he exists to trap; to bring back the escaped slaves, or those who were passing for white, like our protagonist at one point in the novel, and like her mistress on the big plantation where the novel begins.

GWEN IFILL: The tragic mulatto character.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Yeah, and it was highly unlikely because, as you know, since you’ve read the book, Hannah Crafts only uses surnames for most of the characters. There’s Mr. Wheeler, and Mr. Vincent, Mr. Roberts, et cetera, et cetera. But because I had a locale– Milton, Virginia– I was able to draw a circle about 50 kilometers in radius around Milton, Virginia, and I found people with those surnames. And that’s… the odds against that are one in a zillion, really.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that’s fascinating, aside from the lengthy introduction in which you tell the story about how you authenticated this book, is her writing itself, which is this kind of gothic, romantic, sentimental combination… with a slave narrative. I would like for you to read a little bit of her writing where she writes about her views about slaves being married.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: This is from Chapter 17, called “The Escape.”

“Marriage, like many other blessings, I considered to be especially designed for the free and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system. Hence, to all overtures of that kind from whatever quarter they might come, I had invariably turned a deaf ear. I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being. And now, when I had voluntarily renounced the society of those I might have learned to love, should I be compelled to accept one whose person and speech and manner could not fail to be ever regarded by me with loathing and disgust? Then to be driven into the fields beneath the iron lash of the brutal overseer, and those miserable huts with their promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene, and degraded objects. For my home, I could not, I would not bear it.”

GWEN IFILL: That should be noted that those “dirty, obscene, and degraded objects” are other black people she’s talking about.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Other black people. This is the birth of what E. Franklin Fraser would call the black bourgeoisie, or what the great W.E.B. Dubois, at the turn of the century, would call “the talented tenth.” She is the prototype of the tragic mulatto. And, you know, you haven’t been black as long as I have, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. (Laughter)

GWEN IFILL: The house slave, as opposed to the field slave.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: The light complected house slave: Well educated, clean, refined, literate. She demonstrates her literacy, throughout, by showing how she wrote letters for the mistress of the plantation, and how she’s taught literacy by a friendly abolitionist couple.

GWEN IFILL: And able to pass for white when she eventually escapes.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That’s right. And she adopts the manner of escape that Ellen Craft used in real life, in 1848, dressing not only as a white person, but as a white male.

GWEN IFILL: Now, one of the interesting questions had been raised about this book, and you addressed it a little bit in some of appendixes at the end, is the fact that so much of it echoes other writers.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Yes, that’s right,

GWEN IFILL: I think what you say is that there are 15 texts by 13 writers, including “Bleak House,” by Dickens.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: How did you… I mean, did it sound like she was just lifting it, and does that make it less credible?

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: No, it’s… she was an untutored, untrained slave. And she obviously loved literature. So, whereas we would put the borrowings and the illusions in quotation marks, she just lifted passages from time to time. But the only passages that she lifted were from “Bleak House”. And what a brilliant graduate student at Princeton, a woman named Hollis Robins recently found out, is that Frederick Douglass serialized “Bleak House” in “Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper.” And there were many letters to the editor using pastiches, or parodies, of “Bleak House” without quotation marks. And we think that that’s why she decided to do it. But essentially, she used allusions, or quotations, like other writers did.

GWEN IFILL: Now when all is said and done, you still haven’t actually nailed who Hannah Craft was and where she comes from.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: No, that’s right. We have some good candidates. We… there’s a woman named Hannah Vincent, who lived in Burlington, New Jersey, who fits the bill. And remember, the first family in the… for whom Hannah Craft worked was the Vincent Family. And the reason I’m called Gates is because my… Jane Gates was a slave on the plantation of Horatio Gates, near Berkley Springs…

GWEN IFILL: That’s the reason I’m called Ifill, too, I believe.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Yeah, that’s right. And the other person, or course, is Jane Johnson. And Jane Johnson was the most famous escaped slave in 1855. She was the woman who escaped from John Hill Wheeler. And that’s the Wheeler character is in the book. And an independent genealogist named Kathy Flynn has just proven that Jane Johnson, in the 1860 census– she disappeared until a month ago, until this woman found her– that Jane Johnson is listed as literate. So, Jane Johnson, who worked for the Wheelers, could be the author of this book.

GWEN IFILL: One last question which is, do we think that there are other narratives, other autobiographies out there like this?

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Oh, absolutely. 20 years ago, when I authenticated the ethnic identity of Harriet Wilson, the author of “Our Nig,” no one could believe that that existed. And then we couldn’t imagine that an actual manuscript would surface. I think in trunks and attics, and in basements and closets, so much of the African American tradition is still buried. Ralph Ellison said, “There was much more free-floating literacy among the slave community than any of us ever dreamed.” And I think Hannah Crafts is a sign of that.

GWEN IFILL: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Thank you very much for joining us.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Thank you for having me.