I told him I was ready to die

Suzanne Scafe

  • Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley
    Oxford, 371 pp, £15.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 505259 5
  • The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke by Brenda Stevenson
    Oxford, 609 pp, £22.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 505238 2
  • The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Secole in Many Lands by Mary Secole
    Oxford, 371 pp, £15.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 505249 8

These three titles are the first of what will eventually be a 30-volume set of writing by black American women in the 19th century. They are being published in an attempt by the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture to make more widely available some of their 100,000 bound volumes of writing by black Americans since the 16th century. Despite the legal constraints on reading and writing among slaves, there was a considerable body of work by black people – slaves as well as freemen – even before Emancipation.

Behind the Scenes begins with the author’s experience of slavery, and to the extent that it is autobiographical, and inevitably details the horrors of the experience, it has features in common with the slave narrative. The style of these early chapters, however, is reminiscent of the sentimental novel, and is familiar from the work of other black writers of that period, such as Harriet Wilson, the author of Our Nig. In the sections which describe her life at the White House the stance changes to that of a discreet observer, but even there occasional touches of gentle melodrama still remain. The three chapters (there are 15 in all) devoted to her 30 years as a slave consist of carefully selected incidents, which, as she writes, ‘influenced the moulding of my character’. Her own family life was completely wrecked by slavery; she saw her father only twice a year during the early years and thereafter never again. The sons and daughters of her master became her and her mother’s family. Elizabeth grew to cherish the bond between them and returned to see them after she had gained her freedom and become a successful dressmaker at the White House. Characteristically, she describes these strange loyalties as both reciprocal and unreserved. Despite, or perhaps because of, the brutality she experienced during her early years, she developed a complete confidence in her own strength. As she grew up, she fought against the continual beatings. She records, for example, an incident involving her second master, to whom she had been sent at 14. His wife had urged him to quell Elizabeth’s ‘stubborn pride’; in the ensuing battle of wills, however, hers proved the stronger: ‘I went, but with the determination to offer resistance should he attempt to flog me again. On entering the room I found him prepared with a new rope and cowhide. I told him that I was ready to die but that he could not conquer me.’ Having beaten her until he was exhausted, her master broke down in tears and apologised, while she, though bleeding, remained standing.

Elizabeth does not shirk from describing such incidents, but it is clear that in writing these chapters, she made a conscious attempt to avoid both self-pity and recrimination. Occasionally, the lengths to which she goes to be positive and even-handed are startling. ‘Slavery had its dark side as well as its bright side,’ for example, is a rather incongruous remark. She describes her own master, who sent her father away, having promised to unite him with her mother, as ‘kind’; and as an instance of his kindness, she explains that he informed her parents ‘as gently as possible’ that they were to be parted. It is almost as if, having come out of slavery, she is at pains to insist she has also risen above it.

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