The 25th anniversary of the mini-series Roots prompted Stanley Crouch to devote a recent New York Daily News column to the hushed Roots hoax. Alex Haley’s book would have been a viable commercial novel, but its publisher had chosen not to market it that way. The 1976 book and the mini-series that followed a year later presented Haley’s story as fact, but a 1978 lawsuit exposed it not only as fiction, but as plagiarized fiction. Though Federal Judge Robert Ward ruled against Haley, he helped sustain Roots‘ sacred-cow status, urging Harold Courlander–author of the plagiarized novel, 1967’s The African–to keep quiet about his $650,000 settlement.
Crouch has called the suppression of this truth “pater at its very worst: Treat them [African-Americans] like children; they can’t handle the truth.” Whether blaxploitation or not, the Roots franchise magnifies the problematic relationship between fact and fiction in African-American letters, from the very first major works of African-American literature, slave narratives–many of which were written or edited by white abolitionists–through The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall’s attempted corrective to Gone With the Wind.
Though they offer some of the most authentic voices of 18th- and 19th-century African-American life, the slave narratives conform to a particular type of authenticity–one that abolitionist editors believed a mostly white readership would see as real. The result was that slave narratives were less autobiographies of particular people–with human idiosyncrasies and atypical experiences–than politically motivated narratives based on accepted truths about slaves as a group.
When Frederick Douglass toured as speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, William Lloyd Garrison, afraid that the audience wouldn’t believe Douglass was ever a slave, urged him not to sound too “learned.” Though Douglass denied Garrison’s request, his Narrative belies the conformity he resisted in his speeches. In Chapter 5, Douglass wrote, “My feet have been so cracked with frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” With that one sentence alone, Douglass manages to assert his facility with the written word–writing the pen, itself, into the story–while also meeting two of the objectives of the slave-narrative blueprint: to depict suffering, and to persuade the reader that he, the former slave, experienced that suffering and is writing about it (or relating it) himself. It was felt that if a slave narrative met the first two objectives, it would likely succeed in a third: to persuade the reader that the institution of slavery should be abolished.
Looking closely at Douglass’ Narrative and the other nine accounts in the Library of America’s recent collection of slave narratives reveals their conformity, even from the very beginning. The words “I was born” appear as the first in four of the accounts. (A fifth by William and Ellen Craft begins, “My wife and myself were born.”) Those similarities and others that follow result not from any blueprint for autobiography, history or literature–labels we attach now to the narratives–but the blueprint for abolitionist polemic. Ironically, the abolitionists’ editing in pursuit of authenticity led to an unintended effect: debate over the narratives’ legitimacy. Only the 1981 discovery of Harriet Jacobs’ correspondence with abolitionist Maria Child convinced some critics that Jacobs, not Child, had written 1861’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Verifying the authenticity of a newly discovered slave narrative has been the focus of Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, whose study of Hannah Crafts’ The Bondswoman’s Narrative is the subject of his essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker. If the Bondswoman manuscript, which Gates bought at auction for $8,500, is based on actual experience, it may be, in the words of Gates, “our first pristine encounter with the unadulterated ‘voice’ of a fugitive slave, exactly as she wrote and edited it.” Gates goes on to say that Hannah Crafts may have been the first black female novelist, a distinction that currently belongs to Harriet E. Wilson, author of 1859’s Our Nig. The age of Crafts’ manuscript has been verified: The investigator and historical-document examiner–famous for debunking the alleged Jack-the-Ripper diary–deduced that Crafts had worked with a goose quill, a writing implement rarely used after the Civil War. More importantly, one of the four types of paper she used bore an embossment that dates to the second half of the 1850s.
But who was Hannah Crafts? Her narrative just happens to be similar to William and Ellen Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in 1860. Of the 10 narratives in the Library of America volume, the couple’s is one of the most engaging, in part for the sheer inventiveness of their disguises: Dark-skinned William and Ellen, a mulatto, escaped from Macon, Ga., with Ellen dressed as an invalid white man traveling with “his” slave valet, William. If the name Hannah Crafts is a pseudonym, Gates suggests that she may have adopted it as homage to Ellen Craft. If so, Hannah Crafts’ narrative could be fact or fiction modeled on a narrative whose own truth is limited by its conformity.
Whether fact or fiction, The Bondswoman’s Narrative may be the only extant handwritten manuscript, or holograph, of a 19th-century African-American novel or slave narrative. As much as her narrative and those of her contemporaries reveal to us, they remain only a fragment of the literary output of 19th-century African-Americans; only an estimated 10 percent is known or has been unearthed, making the debate over their authenticity all the more fraught.
With so much work yet to be done in the field of African-American letters, some readers may question the equity of studying what are now known to be fakes: narratives written by abolitionists posing as slaves. In focusing our energy on such psuedo-slave narratives as historian Richard Hilldreth’s The Slave, or Memoirs of Archie Moore, and Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, are scholars guilty of another instance of racial privileging, of favoring the words of white over black?
In Joe Lockard’s afterword to Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave, he emphasizes the importance of studying the psuedo-slave narrative as an aid to understanding the “cultural construction of race.” Laura Browder takes Lockard’s argument a step further in Slippery Characters. The book examines a variety of ethnic impersonator biographies, including perhaps the most famous, The Education of Little Tree, Asa Carter’s fake Cherokee autobiography, which became required reading in some high school and college classrooms. Formerly a speech writer for George Wallace, Carter was the secret author of Wallace’s 1963 speech “Segregation now … Segregation tomorrow … Segregation forever.” With an example of ethnic impersonation as stark and complicated as this available to us, it’s no wonder that debate over the sources of our understanding of the institution of slavery–from which so many other cultural debates flow–has become increasingly heated.
Of Mattie Griffith’s psuedo-slave narrative, Browder notes that in a letter to the Boston Traveler, one reader referred to Griffith as “one of those sufferers from childhood; an Eva [of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] who has grown up.” The fact that a reader would look to the fictional Eva St. Clare as a means of validating the real-life Griffith’s writing further complicates the relationship between fact and fiction.
Unlike the racial cross-dressing of Griffith’s autobiography, the discrepancy between appearance and reality in some genuine slave narratives remains less apparent. This is the case with the efforts of the Federal Writers Project to document the voices of the South’s oldest living former slaves. Many of their stories–the transcripts of which remain in the Library of Congress–comprise the African-American oral history collections published by John F. Blair, including My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery, containing interviews with 21 former North Carolina slaves, and Prayin’ to Be Set Free, the newest of the volumes, containing interviews with 28 former Mississippi slaves. As illuminating as the voices are, when centenarian Charlie Davenport recalls the day 85 years earlier when he saw Abraham Lincoln “just a rantin’ and preachin’ ’bout us being his black brothers,” it’s more likely that the speaker was John Brown or one of his emissaries. And the credibility of Sam McAllum’s compelling account of a murder is diminished after the victim’s name changes. Such inconsistencies diminish the credibility of those oral narratives that would otherwise seem to be some of our most authentic histories.
On the other side of the blurry glass that separates fact from its fictional image is last year’s controversial The Wind Done Gone, marketed as “the unauthorized parody of Gone With the Wind,” in which author Alice Randall sets out to provide a corrective to the antebellum myth.
Presented as the recovered journal of Scarlett O’Hara’s mulatto half-sister, Randall’s pseudo-diary/novel received the support of Henry Louis Gates Jr. while he was pursuing the real-life Hannah Crafts. In April, after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing Randall’s publisher from advertising or distributing the novel, Gates, Toni Morrison and Pat Conroy all filed affidavits in support of the publisher’s position. The judge’s injunction may have violated Randall’s First Amendment rights, but one of his pronouncements was sound: The novel is more sequel than parody. No book should be immune to the criticism of parody; for that reason, law protects parodies, but not unauthorized sequels. That fact more than any other may explain why Houghton-Mifflin marketed The Wind Done Gone as “the unauthorized parody,” rather than “the unauthorized sequel.”
In contrast to the often dense prose of her 19th-century contemporaries, the diary entries of Scarlett’s half-sister Cynara may seem particularly spare, telegraphic even, especially when considering that Randall’s aim was to tell the other story, the one not told in Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling narrative with its limited omniscient point of view. One of Randall’s criticisms of Gone With the Wind is its lack of “credible black characters living credible, believable lives,” but she falls short of creating fully realized characters herself, instead simply eliminating the blatant stereotypes–as if that were all that character development required. Cynara writes that Miss Priss (Prissy) “possessed a keen and labyrinthine intelligence,” but Randall produces no rival to challenge the dim-witted Prissy of page and screen.
As an antidote to the mythologized South, The Wind Done Gone offers less than Blake or the Huts of America, Martin R. Delany’s rejoinder to Harriet Beecher Stowe. In retrospect, Delany’s motivation may seem to foreshadow Randall’s: In Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson’s study of Civil War writing, he cited Gone With the Wind as the 20th-century counterpart to Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in terms of the pervasiveness of the novel’s mythology in our culture.
At first Delany’s Blake follows the abolitionist blueprint, but the novel doesn’t sustain the stock plot of separation of family, escape, and the long trek north. Instead, Blake becomes the general of a black insurrection force. But the result of his rebellion is unknown; the last six or so chapters of the novel, serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine in 1859 and The Weekly Anglo-African from 1861 to 1862, remain lost, and with it Delany’s ultimate response to Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
The increasing desire to recover those lost chapters of Blake, to uncover examples of the unadulterated voices of slaves, and to respond to romanticized versions of Southern history in popular novels prime us to welcome what appear to be new, more illuminating pages of history. Alex Haley’s tracing of his ancestors to Gambia invigorated readers, but the source of the narrative’s strength was all a myth–a myth that will live on as long as exposing Roots remains taboo. Alice Randall has aptly noted that Gone With the Wind “is more powerful than history because it is better known than history.” Her words are true of Roots as well, and may some day apply to her own novel. Readers may be reminded of Randall’s words in the future as they continue to face the challenge of telling fact from fiction in popular representations of the “black experience.”
Some of the works discussed in this essay: Slave Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Library of America, 2000, 1025 pp., $40); Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, by Laura Browder (UNC Press, 2000, 328 pp., $18.95 pb); Blake or the Huts of America, by Martin R. Delany, introduction by Floyd J. Miller (Beacon Press, 1989, 352 pp., $20); “The Fugitive,” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., The New Yorker, Feb. 18 and 25, 2002; Autobiography of a Female Slave, by Mattie Griffith (University of Mississippi/Jackson: Banner Books, 1998, 418 pp., $18); My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery, edited by Belinda Hurmence (John F. Blair, 1984, 103 pp., $6.95); Prayin’ To Be Set Free, edited by Andrew Waters (John F. Blair, 2002, 193 pp., $7.95); The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall (Houghton Mifflin, 2001, 224 pp., $22)