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The secret writing of American slaves

Through rare diaries and letters, a portrait of ordinary life in captivity

Detail of a letter written by Maria Perkins to her husband while she was a slave.

LEFT: MANUSCRIPT FROM THE JOHN WASHINGTON PAPERS, COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA LIBRARY; RIGHT, LETTER FROM MARIA PERKINS, COURTESY YALE UNIVERSITY.

A page from John Washington’s diary in 1858. (left) and a letter written by Maria Perkins to her husband while she was a slave. (right).

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Adam Plummer kept a simple diary. In a small, leather-bound book, the Maryland resident noted major life events, such as his marriage to Emily Plummer in 1841 and the births of their nine children; recorded his payments and receipts; and listed the things he owned, like a mirror and a “blue flowered suger bole.”

But Adam Plummer was a slave, and so he also wrote about events that, to a modern reader, seem far less mundane. Again and again in his diary, he struggled to detail how his family had been torn apart. On one page, he managed to write only the following in a shaky hand: “November 25 Day 1851 Emily Plummer and five Childrens who whous sold publick.”

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On the next page, Plummer tried again, this time with a more even script: “Emily plummer and four Childrens on November 28, 1851 Sold at public sale. The said woman was bought by Mrs M A Thomson in the Washington City.” Since Plummer still lived on a plantation in Maryland, his wife and children were now “banished form me Eyes.”

Plummer’s diary, in short, is both a modest record of a life and something far more stark and horrifying, the notes of an American owned by someone else. It belongs to an exceptionally small body of writing: documents written by slaves while they were still enslaved. Most writing about American slavery came from freed slaves living in the North, like Frederick Douglass, or from sympathetic white authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe. But in a few cases, actual slaves wrote letters, diaries, and other private snippets for themselves—often at great personal risk.

Now, in a new book, “Word by Word: Emancipation and the Art of Writing,” Christopher Hager has undertaken the first full-length study of these writings. Hager, who specializes in 19th-century American literature at Trinity College in Hartford, spent years reading—and, in some cases, discovering—more than 200 documents written by slaves. By analyzing them closely and thinking about their cultural contexts, he argues, we can uncover “an intellectual history of a group that by most accounts had no intellectual history.”

Historians have done a lot of archival digging to understand slavery, of course, but Hager believes they’ve missed an opportunity to think specifically about the individuals behind the scraps of paper—to study what, how, and why some slaves learned to read and write. That takes some effort—Hager has found that most slave writers were, like Plummer, only “marginally literate”—but it also offers us a chance to hear these writers speak in their own voices, to their own audiences. And while sometimes those voices can be hard to make out, in many ways that’s the point. “What’s hard to read about these documents isn’t an obstacle,” Hager says. “It’s the most interesting thing about them.”

***

The experience of slaveryhas long fascinated the American public, whether it’s in listening to the music of old slave spirituals or in watching new blockbusters like “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.” There’s also shelf after shelf of books that claim to show, one way or another, what slavery was really like. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is perhaps the most famous example, but during the 19th century former slaves were themselves prolific authors. In fact, there was a popular genre known as slave narratives.

In a classic slave narrative, a former slave recounts the story of his or her bondage and escape. Since religious groups and antislavery societies often commissioned (and paid for) these narratives, they tended to follow a “born again” script, in which the narrator experienced a series of life-changing epiphanies. One of the more common of these involved learning to read or write. In his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which may be the most famous slave narrative today and was a bestseller when it appeared in 1845, Douglass remembers trading pieces of bread to poor white children in exchange for reading lessons. “The more I read,” he writes, “the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.”

The potential for revelations like that worried slave owners, and many Southern states passed laws making it a crime to teach African-Americans to read or write. (In some cases, slave owners threatened to cut the fingers off any slave caught writing.) The best estimates suggest only 5 or 10 percent of slaves became even marginally literate. Most of what they wrote while still enslaved has not survived, and what has survived can be difficult to read.

That difficulty is what first caught Hager’s attention. As a graduate student in English at Northwestern University, he wrote a dissertation on how the debate over slavery influenced American novelists. Near the end of that project, he decided to include a tangent on black soldiers. Before long he found himself sitting on the floor of Northwestern’s library, unable to stop reading a copy of a short handwritten document signed by “A Colored man.”

The author, a Louisiana slave writing in 1863, begins by simply transcribing sections of the US Constitution. Soon, however, he starts going on tangents of his own: “it is retten that a man can not Serve two masters,” he writes at one point. “But it seems that the Collored population has got two a reble master and a union master the both want our Servises.”

The unruly text captivated Hager, both for its startling originality and for the way it seemed to exist outside the literary canon. “There I was, four months away from getting my Ph.D.,” Hager says, “and I had no idea how to interpret this.”

So Hager began searching for more documents. He took trips to the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project and to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. While doing this research, Hager realized that the historians who studied the written records of slavery were often far more interested in the raw data than in the writings or authors themselves. Several times, he says, he discovered multiple letters written by the same slave—but filed in different places. “They weren’t paying attention to authorship,” he says. “They were saying, ‘This is a letter about religion, this is a letter about marriage.’”

For an English professor, though, authorship was key. Hager wanted to study the content of the writing—along with the process of composition and the reasons it sounded like it did. “You’re seeing an actual historical event right there in front of you,” he says. “Someone sat down and tried to write this letter.”

Take a letter Maria Perkins wrote in 1852 to her husband, who worked on another plantation 40 miles away: “Dear Husband I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader onmonday court day and myself and other child is for sale also.”

It’s a letter that, like much slave writing, mixes poor spelling with clunky rhetorical formulas (“I write you a letter to let you know…”). But Hager says there are reasons for that. The first, and most obvious, was the terrible conditions under which slaves learned to read and write. Another was the period’s explosion in epistolary writing. Between 1840 and 1860, the flow of letters in America increased nearly fourfold. There were even popular manuals that explained how to write the perfect missive, and an inexperienced writer like Maria Perkins would have relied on their conventions more than most.

Hager also shows how slaves could be self-conscious about their writing. In his book, he quotes another letter from 1865: “Pleass to Excuse bad writing & also mistakes.” Nineteenth-century reformers like Noah Webster pushed for more standardized spelling and punctuation, and slave writers did the best they could to navigate this world. Hager describes one slave who kept adding –ing suffixes to words that didn’t need them—no doubt because someone at some point told him he had to. “He wasn’t exactly sure why or how to do this,” Hager says, “but he wasn’t going to go against that advice.”

Stories like this make clear how hard a person living in slavery would have had to work simply to be able to write at all. But the most exciting thing in Hager’s book is the writings themselves. One of his most significant discoveries occurred in Boston. Another academic tipped him off that the Massachusetts Historical Society held a box of autobiographical writings by John M. Washington, a Virginia slave who eventually escaped in 1862.

When Hager arrived at the society’s reading room, he set up near a window so he could take pictures of the documents with his digital camera. Flipping through folders, he found a brief and little-known memoir Washington had attempted a few months before he became free.

Washington was born in 1838, and his mother spent an hour or two each night teaching him how to read. When he was 12, however, his mother was sent to another owner 100 miles away. Washington decided he had to learn to write, as well. It was hard to find supplies, but one slave had a job hanging wallpaper and saved any scraps. On a piece of wallpaper, Washington’s uncle copied out one of those letter manual openings: “My Dear Mother, I Take this opporteunity to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well.” Washington practiced it over and over, until he could start writing his mother.

But the Historical Society had more to offer. In the back of that box, Hager found something no other scholar had previously seen: an unlabeled folder containing 20 sheets of paper. It was a diary Washington had kept years earlier, in the late 1850s. Like Adam Plummer’s diary, it included a lot of everyday material. But Washington also described his courtship of a woman named Annie Gordon. When Gordon rejected his proposal, Washington was heartbroken: “If She intended this from the first. She was wrong to encourage my visits,” he wrote. Then he added: “though I do not regret any thing. I ever told her in confidence.”

John Washington eventually married Annie Gordon. In 1873, he returned to writing, composing a long slave narrative of his own. He titled it “Memorys of the Past,” and while it was not published in his lifetime, Hager points out that it—along with Washington’s earlier writings, when the “past” was the present—make him the only known individual to write his life story while he was enslaved and while he was free.

Christopher Hager

Alison Ehrmann Hager

Christopher Hager

***

The comparisons between Washington’s slave narrative and his pre-emancipation memoir and diary are fascinating. Like most slave narratives, “Memorys of the Past” depends on epiphanies. Perhaps the biggest comes on the night Union soldiers finally freed Washington: “Before Morning,” he writes, “I had began to fee like I had truley Escaped from the hands of the slaves master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more.”

In his writing as a slave, however, Washington avoids such polished revelations. In fact, he mentions the word “slave” only once in more than 10,000 words of material—and then only as a romantic metaphor, in regard to his pursuit of Gordon: “why should I still press on and be her slave. any longer. in a word.”

It might seem strange for a slave to avoid the topic of slavery. But where published slave narratives specialized in transformative moments and sculpted life stories, many of the writings discussed in “Word by Word” describe people simply living their lives. “I did not see Douglass-like meditations on the meaning of freedom,” Hager says of his research. “I did see a lot of anxiety and concern about the fate of people’s spouses and friends. The writing we do in our daily lives is much more about communicating with a network of people.”

That writing, properly understood, can give us a very different, very human glimpse at what life as a slave was like—and with it, a new sense of connection to the people who had to live it. Like Adam Plummer and John Washington, we all worry about our families, reflect on our daily experiences, send notes, and keep journals. These narratives help us understand their authors as individuals. “We generally try to understand American slaves as a group,” Hager says. “And while that’s certainly important, they’re as diverse as any other group of Americans. Any group of 4 million people is going to have 4 million different experiences and perspectives.”

But these narratives can also remind us of the enormous disconnect between their experiences and ours. It’s a disconnect that comes home to us not in the carefully scripted drama of traditional slave narratives, but in the devastating shock of how those everyday lives could be interrupted.

For his next project, Hager plans to assemble an anthology packed with more of the slave writings he’s uncovered. Like “Word by Word,” it will remind us that for these Americans, the mere ability to write was both precious and potentially costly. “To know that you’re not supposed to have this skill, but to have it”—Hager pauses. “I can’t begin to say what I think that might have been like.”

Craig Fehrman is working on a book about
presidents and their books. E-mail
craig.fehrman@gmail.com
.
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