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.

A kind of feminine modesty and restraint, very much in keeping with the tradition of women’s writing at that time, characterises much of the description of Behind the Scenes. It is, however, interestingly at odds with the writer’s own character and the part she played in the incidents and events she recounts. The language she uses to describe her rape, for example, would be better suited to an account of the seduction of a sheltered young girl: ‘Suffice it to say that he persecuted me for four years, and I became a mother.’ Such coyness hardly seems consistent with the courage and formidable endurance which she displayed throughout her life.

Having worked to purchase her freedom for $1200, Elizabeth travelled to Washington, and after a short period of sewing for well-positioned ladies determined to work at the White House. Though she did not live there, she became a close friend and confidante of the President’s wife. Mrs Lincoln’s lasting affection for ‘Lizzie’ is well-documented in her letters to Mrs Keckley, her dearest and, it would seem, only friend, and while Lizzie’s admiration for the petulant, indulged and emotionally frail Southern belle is less than whole-hearted, her affection and respect for President Lincoln remained boundless.

Judging, perhaps rightly, that contemporary audiences would be more interested in a little tasteful gossip about the Lincolns than in the thoughts and perceptions of the black woman, however well-respected, who sewed for the President’s wife, Mrs Keckley devotes the greater part of her autobiography to the public life to which she was a witness. Much is sacrificed as a result. The death of young Willie Lincoln, for example, is described at length and there are constant references to the grief of his mother. In contrast, she awards her own son’s death just one paragraph and his life even less. It is disparities of this kind which leave one wondering whether, despite her evident pride in her successes, she wasn’t rather lonely and unhappy. Although she founded and was president of the Relief Society, and carried out extensive fund-raising on its behalf, there is scant reference to the lives of black people in Washington. An encounter with Frederick Douglass is noted as an example of Lincoln’s generosity: the President allowed him into the White House after his Inauguration despite an order banning all ‘people of colour’.

The feelings, thoughts and responses of Charlotte Forten Grimke are very much to the fore in her journals, and the confidence with which she chronicles her personal life reflects an assurance of her own social importance. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Charlotte and her two half-brothers were the fourth generation of Fortens to have been born free. Morally, socially and intellectually, they were considered an exemplary black family and were renowned, both nationally and internationally, for their commitment to Abolition.

The journals begin in 1854, when the activities of the anti-slavery movement were at their height. Though just 16, Charlotte could not but have been conscious of the historical significance of the period in which she lived and of her own role as well as her family’s and friends’ in changing the lives of the majority of America’s blacks. In this, the first unabridged edition of her journals, we are given a fascinating insight into the close circle of active abolitionists: middle-class blacks such as the Remonds and the Purvises, celebrated ex-slaves such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, and white men and women, some of whom were well-known women’s rights activists as well as abolitionists.

Her desire for an end to slavery and discrimination and her concern for all oppressed people – native Americans, English paupers – punctuate all her thoughts and every formal and informal encounter. She is suspicious of those ‘patriots’ who celebrate the liberty won since Independence without regard for the persistence of slavery, and passionately denounces them on more than one occasion. She feels isolated from her white companions because of their lack of sympathy for things which are of ‘vital importance to her’, and her frequent loneliness must have been due, in part to the anomalous social position in which, as a middle-class black intellectual, she found herself. She never fails to comment if there is no reference to slavery in the many sermons and lectures she attended in Salem. Of a lecture on ‘Unconscious Tuition’, she remarks: ‘But I felt a want for among the many true and beautiful sentiments which he uttered not the faintest indication that he was even aware of the existence of that cruel and disgraceful system which refuses all teachings.’

Despite her unremitting concern for what is ‘good’ and ‘right’, her writing is remarkably free of false sentiment or pretension. Like all personal accounts of this kind, her journals are both public and private. Many of her entries outline ideas which she might later have organised into an article, while her expressive, almost layrical descriptions indicate that she used her diary as a private rehearsal space for her more public works. Some of the entries are intensely personal. She chastises herself frequently for perceived inadequacy and there are many expressions of self-doubt and unworthiness. In these sections we witness the contradictory feelings of a woman who, despite the strength of her convictions, her fearlessness in the face of opposition or indifference, still never totally believes in herself and willingly interprets anything less than perfection as weakness. Though still just 17, she bemoans her lack of achievement:

My birthday – How much I feel today my own insignificance! It is true the years of my life are but few. But have I improved them as I should have? No! I feel grieved and ashamed to think how very little I should know of what is really good and useful.

A sense of her own unworthiness continued to haunt her even when she eventually became a teacher, committed to translating her ideals into practice. Having determined from quite early in her life to become an anti-slavery lecturer, she grew less and less convinced of her capacity to do it as her shyness and fear of public platforms increased. It is not surprising that she became a missionary among the poor, newly-freed blacks of Jacksonville; and as the wife of the eloquent preacher and lecturer, Frank Grimke, a former slave, preferred to stand in his shadow rather than take on a public role of her own.

Inevitably, there was a huge cultural gap between herself and those on whose behalf she campaigned. Although the third journal, which describes her life as a teacher of contraband ex-slaves in St Helena, one of the South Carolina Sea Islands, is extremely interesting and lively, it also reveals the extent of her unconscious prejudice against the culture of non-assimilated black America.

Six couples were married today – Only one had the slightest claim to good looks, and she was a demure little thing with a neat plain dress on. ‘Twas amusing to see some of the headdresses ... But no matter of that. I am truly glad that the poor creatures are trying to live right and virtuous lives.

She had a deep respect for the bravery and resistance of the contraband community; and despite her occasional loneliness and the lack of intellectual activity to which she had grown accustomed, she writes: ‘I have never felt more hopeful, more cheerful than I do now.’

First published in 1857, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Mary Secole in Many Lands went into its second printing within 12 months. When it was reissued in Britain in 1984 by the Falling Wall Press it was again greeted with enthusiasm. In part, this has to do with Mrs Secole’s significance, as a (half-Scottish) Jamaican, for people in this country of Caribbean descent, especially given the absence in Britain and the Caribbean of centres of information equivalent to the Schomburg. That said, the book’s popularity also owes a great deal to its author’s vibrant style, her humour and keen sense of the dramatic.

Mrs Secole’s accounts are interesting for their confirmation of prevailing stereotypes. She shows profound disdain for the inhabitants of Panama, New Granada and the other Central American cities she visited. She mistrusts their Catholicism and finds them idle, dirty and compliant in their poverty and misery. In her descriptions of black people she is no more generous. About white Americans she is scathing. As she was leaving her hotel in Cruces, a group of Americans drank a toast to the kindness of ‘Aunty Secole ... the best yaller woman He ever made’. To their flattery, she replied that if her skin ‘had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been as happy and as useful.’ And in response to their invitation to her to bleach her skin and come to America, she continued: ‘judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it.’

In addition to her pioneering work in the treatment of cholera and yellow fever, Mrs Secole fulfilled her ambition of travelling to the Crimea, where she nursed wounded soldiers despite the reluctance of the authorities in London to accommodate any women in battle areas, and their inevitable surprise that a request of this kind should come from a black woman. Physical strength, determination, enterprise – she set up business wherever she went and even tried her hand at gold prospecting – are the characteristics which she emphasises in her account of herself. The touches of female modesty which sprinkle her autobiography are mere gestures towards social convention: her pride in her achievements as a woman alone in the most crude and arduous situations is unabashed, and rightly so.

The one disappointment of Mrs Secole’s book, as of Mrs Keckley’s, is that it provides little insight into the contradictions of being a black woman occupying a position of some prominence in a deeply racist, often openly hostile society. For Mrs Secole, England is a cultural and spiritual home and as such deserves her full allegiance, which she demonstrates with her lavish praise of the efforts of the British soldiers and their allies. The discretion surrounding Mrs Keckley’s account is perhaps an indication that thirty years of slavery can destroy the energy or appetite for constant analysis – even of one’s successes.