My fingers trembled slightly as I turned the page. Sure, my eyes saw the glossy jacket cover, saw that it opened to reveal crisp white sheets of paper bound within. Yet my mind still envisioned crumbling yellow pages, musty and age-worn, full of faded secrets dimmed but undaunted by decades of dust. And so I turned the pages gingerly at first, careful not to destroy them before their contents could reach out across time to enthrall and perplex another reader.
Recollections of My Slavery Days, the autobiography of William Henry Singleton, feels like a thing found, a long-forgotten heirloom suddenly discovered in a steamer trunk tucked away in a cobwebbed corner of the basement. It came to me, however, through two-day mail, a volume newly published by the N.C. Division of Archives and History. Independent editor Bob Moser had informed me that the paper would be running an excerpt this week (page 14), and had wondered if reading it might prompt any column ideas. “Sure,” I thought, “I have plenty of time to read a book and write an article for next week.” I wondered what relevance I’d be able to find, here in March 2000, envisioning some kind of weak parallel with the indentured servitude and exploitation of athletes during the NCAA basketball tournament.
After reading the first page, however, I stopped worrying about finding any contemporary relevance in this book–or finishing it in plenty of time. Singleton, who learned to read and write after fighting in the Civil War, is such a wonderfully succinct writer that his memoir takes up only 32 pages. They provide the vivid first-person recollections of a black man, born into bondage in Eastern North Carolina, and of the circumstances that eventually led him to run away along with thousands of other slaves to fight for freedom in the Union army.
Singleton’s matter-of-fact narration contrasts sharply–and somewhat unsettlingly–with a contemporary moral understanding of the horror that was everyday life for Africans in antebellum America. He recounts, in steady unemotional prose, being sold away to another state at the age of 5. His master did not even notify his mother or brothers, who were working in the field when the transaction was completed. Singleton’s new master, he recalls in the same steady voice, would have him sleep on a bare, dirt floor in the house, like a dog.
Singleton’s words carry no venom or rage, instead bearing witness to the cold realities that marked his time on earth. As a reader, I found myself playing emotional fill-in-the-blank, knowing what I would have said and done in the same situations.
Yeah, right. In one of Eddie Murphy’s early stand-up routines, he touched on this disconnect that “new” black folk have with the reality of our forebears. Had he been a slave, Murphy said, he would have grabbed his crotch and boldly told massa, “I ain’t balin’ no goddamn cotton!”
While Singleton certainly did not rebel Eddie Murphy-style, he was no fearful man. He recounts several escapes from his masters, beginning with a dramatic return to his North Carolina family from Georgia at age 7. He ran away for the last time at age 20 to join the Union army. When rebuffed in his attempts to serve, he gathered 1,000 black men and trained them himself until they were finally allowed to fight, almost six months after emancipation.
And then he recounts, decades later, his pride at having served his nation, brimming with a sense of gratitude. Huh? Against the backdrop of such a hostile America, I can’t help but find Singleton’s notion of black patriotism ironic.
True, since he was writing years after emancipation (unlike a lot of earlier slave narratives, published by or written for the purposes of the abolitionist movement), there was no need for anti-slavery advocacy in Singleton’s Recollections. Still, staring harder at the pages, I wonder: How can Singleton be so calm in reliving all the inhumane, yet all-too-real, details of his early life, and come out of it with kind words for America?
The historical context is important. Published in 1922, the book followed by three years the bloody summer of 1919, when black soldiers returned home from World War I. Thinking like Singleton that they’d proven their worth, their valor and their loyalty, they were instead violently reminded that the country still regarded them as worthy only of fear, spite and derision. And yet here is a man, still not regarded as a man by the majority of his country’s citizens, singing its praises.
However brave, Singleton was obviously a realist. Death threats he’d received from the Ku Klux Klan, for having had the temerity to fight in the war, led him to move north and voluntarily separate himself from his Eastern North Carolina roots. He uses a pseudonymn for his master’s surname in Recollections, most likely to protect relatives who remained in North Carolina. Even in New York state, the racial atmosphere of 1922 did not lend itself to safely publishing harsh condemnations of a black man’s mistreatment.
Reading Singleton’s words in that light, my puzzlement starts to give way to a smile. Despite the tremendous pressures on him to write with docility, there’s still a significant subtext in this slender autobiography: subtle, coded references and equally subtle implications in what Singleton discusses and what he doesn’t discuss. For African-American readers in 1922, these would no doubt have been as meaningful as the secret instructions slaves passed along within field hollers and spirituals.
We can still decode plenty of these quiet messages. Near the end, when Singleton mentions the fact that he proudly votes, he emphasizes the duties of his race to prove themselves worthy of citizenship. This can be read as an unspoken-yet-implicit plea to America to recognize the worthiness of its newest citizens, and to extend to them all the rights they’re due. While lacking the stridency of black writers of the coming generation, who were in 1922 taking baby steps toward what would be a cultural renaissance in Harlem, Singleton nonetheless makes his point.
Summing up the fate of black people, late in Recollections of My Slavery Days, Singleton quotes the biblical passage: “Old things are passed away; behold all things are become new!” So great was the impact of having been a slave, the idea of freedom was still new to this man, 60 years removed from the shackle and the whip of the “peculiar institution.” Now, almost 80 years from when it was penned, and almost a century-and-a-half after the end of slavery, his book itself has become “new.” But what should we do with it? For one thing, make it required reading for high-school students in North Carolina. Singleton’s memoir represents an opportunity for those of us in the present, and future, to connect with an indelible part of the past.
But we need more than history; we need applied history. We need to use the past to guide and shape our future while it’s still malleable. Which brings me back to the question I had before I opened these pages: “What’s the relevance?”
After reading Singleton’s Recollections, the answer is clarion-clear. His depiction of “slavery days” vividly illustrates the deadly threat that education poses to the status quo.
On the very first page of the narrative, Singleton mentions that he was once whipped, not for reading, but on suspicion of opening a book. And in case the importance of this is lost on the reader, he mentions it again on the last page of the book as he sums up the tremendous transformations in his life.
If we used this book in the schools, it would teach powerful lessons about the ways in which education, coupled with a strong sense of purpose, can help people change the economic and social conditions into which they’re born–and also help larger groups make collective strides toward dignity and freedom. Those of us with skills and literacy–not just in the “readin’ and ‘ritin’” sense, but with the ability to read between the lines and think critically–will be the ones who ultimately control our own freedom. Those who do will not be relegated to field-hand status until the next big change comes.
Even then, Singleton reminds us, it pays to be ready. His life’s story testifies to the agency of African Americans in the freedom struggle. Contrary to a certain strain of myth, Singleton confirms the fact that black people did not merely have freedom handed to them, but paid their manumission price in blood, manifesting their desires in a thousand little rebellions of the heart and mind–whether picking up arms, running away, or readying themselves for freedom when it came.