June/July/Aug 2008

Voices Carry

The African-American storytelling tradition is on vivid display in an anthology featuring interviews with former slaves, and their diaries, letters, and memoirs.

Lawrence Hill


Between the two of them, my teenage daughters have been required by their Canadian high school teachers to read—no fewer than three timesone and only one book that purports to introduce them to the African-American experience. Can you guess? It's Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. And if they were interested in a contemporary film about the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, all they had to do last year was visit a suburban cinema to watch Amazing Grace, a movie that has the temerity to dramatize the life of abolitionist William Wilberforce while barely showing a black face or evoking any of the personal struggles endured by the peoples who insisted on shaking off the chains that bound them. If my daughters asked for another book about the experiences of slavery and segregation in America, chances are that a librarian or teacher would hand them Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, or perhaps The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron.

Is it a problem that many of the most famous and enduring fictional accounts of African Americans have been penned by whites? After Styron released his Pulitzer Prize–winning Confessions in 1967, some African-American writers were so incensed that just a year later they retaliated with the essay collection William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. I think that Styron, Twain, Stowe, and Lee wrote valuable books that deserve to be read and understood within the body of literature exploring the black experience in America. However, I do deplore that voices by African-American and African-Canadian writers continue to be crowded out of the picture. True, W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and, more recently, Edward P. Jones's The Known World have been duly embraced, as have Alex Haley's astoundingly resilient Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But the average elementary or high school student in the United States or Canada who wants—or is told—to learn something about black culture and history is more likely to begin and end his or her reading with Twain and Lee than with any of these African-American writers.

One way to interrupt this trend—whether unconscious or deliberate—of ignoring African-American writers is to incorporate memoirs into the body of Civil War literature. In its transparency and vitality, the African-American memoir has the power to reach out and grab readers and hold them chapter after chapter. A great slave narrative, for example, offers the drama of fiction and the cutting edge of historical fact.

In Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes that memoir plays a central role in African-American literature. "For hundreds of black authors, the most important written statement that they could make seems to have been the publication of their life stories," he remarks. "Constructed upon an ironic foundation of autobiographical narratives written by ex-slaves, the African-American tradition . . . traces its lineage—in the act of declaring the existence of a surviving, enduring ethnic self—to this impulse of autobiography." His lively anthology, published seventeen years ago, includes excerpts from works by Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, and Claude Brown, among others. Brown is represented by his 1965 autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, an account of growing up in Harlem amid crime and violence. It also happens to be unputdownable:

Down on 146th Street, they'd put money on street fights. If there were two little boys on one block who were good with their hands, or one around the corner and one on Eighth Avenue, men on the corner would try and egg them into a fight.

I remember Big Bill, one of the street-corner hustlers before he went to jail for killing a bartender. When I was about seven or eight years old, I remember being on the street and Bill telling me one day, "Sonny Boy, I know you can kick this little boy's ass on 146th Street, and I'll give you a dollar to do it."

I knew I couldn't say no, couldn't be afraid. He was telling all these other men around there on the street that I could beat this boy's ass. There was another man, a number's hustler, who said, "No. They ain't got no boy here on Eighth Avenue who could beat little Rip's ass on 146th Street."

Just like Wright's Black Boy and James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, Manchild in the Promised Land leaps off the page and grabs the reader by the collar. "Come right here," the writer seems to be saying. "We have pressing business." In a shoving contest for the attention of impatient readers, Manchild should stand up favorably against Uncle Tom's Cabin any day of the week. But American schools and libraries have frequently banned Manchild, and who today has even heard of Claude Brown?

In 1987, four years before Bearing Witness appeared, Gates edited another anthology, titled The Classic Slave Narratives. Here, he reached back to include full-length slave writings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by four memoirists: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. "In literacy lay true freedom for the black slave," Gates notes in his introduction. "We do not know exactly how many slaves escaped to freedom across the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line, but one scholar . . . estimates the total at sixty thousand. Of this number, over one hundred wrote book-length 'slave narratives,' as we call them, before the end of the Civil War."

Boston King, an African-American born around 1760 on a plantation on the Ashley River some twenty-eight miles from Charleston, in what he correctly remembers as the "Province of South Carolina," wrote a short, riveting account of his flight from slavery, his service to the British during the American Revolutionary War, and his subsequent exodus with the "Black Loyalists" from Manhattan to Nova Scotia in 1783. He also recorded the chaos in Manhattan in the aftermath of the peace treaty the Americans and the British signed that year to end the Revolutionary War:

About which time, the horrors and devastation of war happily terminated, and peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New York, that all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho' some of them had been three or four years among the English.

This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North Carolina and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New York, or even dragging them out of their beds.

What's striking about such narratives is the immediacy of expression. These authors have a fundamental point to make, one of such personal urgency that the reader can hardly turn away. Between each line breathes a voice that seems to whisper: "This is my name, this is when I was born, this is who I am and how I have lived, and I am going to assert my own humanity by setting my story down on paper." If we are to persuade bookstores, reviewers, librarians, and curriculum writers to look for fresh literature touching on the African-American experience, and prevail on teachers to exercise more imagination than merely shov-ing the old pile of school editions of To Kill a Mockingbird at yet another class of yawning students, it may be memoir that does the trick.

Or a variation on memoir. Andrew Ward's new The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves could prove an apt candidate. Ward, an essayist for the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post, has explored other aspects of African-American history in Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (2000) and River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (2005). With The Slaves' War, he has created a literary hybrid: a merging of essay and oral history. And why not? Some hybrids have a way of drawing attention to issues that might have been ignored in books delivered along more traditional lines. By way of example: In 2006, Dave Eggers brought out What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a book whose unabashed combination of fiction and autobiography has been fabulously successful.

Ward has taken his material "from the voices of . . . slave civilians, sifted from literally thousands of interviews, obituaries, squibs, diaries, letters, memoirs, and depositions." He has arranged these accounts into a chronological narrative, sliding back and forth between the eastern and western theaters of battle, and interspersed chapters on the specific experiences of slaves during the war: first encounters with the Yankees; slaves guarding their masters' property; "refugeeing," or the forced migration of slaves by owners who sought to hide them in the Deep South or far West so that they could not be liberated by the invading Northern soldiers; "contrabands," the Southern blacks who escaped slavery to serve the Union Army in a variety of ways; emancipation; and so forth. Ward does not examine the role of blacks as soldiers in the Union Army, acknowledging that other books have covered that material, but concentrates instead on the recollections of black men and women who served both armies as bodyguards, valets, grooms, teamsters, scouts, fora­gers, woodcutters, laundresses, nurses, and cooks. He introduces the voices of African Americans who present the Civil War from their perspectives as children, mothers, fathers, spies, blacksmiths, slaves, and freedmen. Often the results resemble the kind of intimate conversation one might hear at a kitchen table:

"One day a Yankee officer tied his riding horse to one of the best apple trees in the orchard," recalled a slave named Isaac. "The horse he begun to bite the bark on the tree. So I said, 'Mister, that's a mighty good horse-apple tree your horse is biting; he'll kill it.' The Yankee give me a most searching look and said, 'You think more of a damn apple tree than I do of a man's life.' He stood close to me with his sharp shooter, his neck as red as any rose, all ready to put my candle out at any minute. You better believe I chased myself away from there. After that, I said no more about tying horses to apple trees."

Ward also offers narratives of ordinary African Americans who preferred to be left out of the hostilities. Solomon Lambert, a slave who found himself and his fellows hidden from Union soldiers on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, recalls: "We hear the guns. . . . We didn't want to go down there. That was white man's war." Others, however, couldn't escape being caught up in the fighting, even if it meant helping what they perceived to be the wrong side. Martin Jackson served with the First Texas Cavalry under Confederate colonel Augustus Buchel, "a full-blooded German, and as fine a man and a soldier as you ever saw." Nonetheless, Jackson's attitude toward the war and the Confederate cause was complicated: "Just what my feelings were about the war . . . I have never been able to figure out. I knew the Yanks were going to win; from the beginning, I wanted them to win and lick us Southerners. But I hoped they were going to do it without wiping out our company."

One might question the need for another book about the Civil War. The conflict so dominates American history and the contemporary imagination that it has spawned legions of cultural artifacts, including songs ("Dixie," "Old Black Joe," "John Brown's Body"), films (The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Glory), and novels (Sartoris, Jubilee, Cold Mountain). Even horses from that war have their stories: Ajax was ridden by Robert E. Lee but was too big and was sent back to the farm, Charlie was the only horse to unseat Ulysses S. Grant, and Sam was Sherman's fast-walking bay.

Indeed, the war so swirls in our collective psyche that folks haven't even been able to agree what to call it. Sometime after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, in 1865, the conflict was called the War of the Rebellion. But in 1928, Congress recognized the name War Between the States. Finally, most Americans simply referred to it as the Civil War. But it has taken on other monikers: the War for Southern Nationality, the War Against Northern Aggression, the Lost Cause, the Late Unpleasantness, Mr. Lincoln's War, and the War to Suppress Yankee Arrogance.

Yet despite the seemingly overanalyzed story of the American Civil War, Ward achieves a rare feat: He is able to introduce as yet unheard voices. Every generation needs, in its own time and ways, to make sense of human history—its failures and successes—and Ward provides a unique lens through which we can understand this significant period. The Slaves' War, however, is not a simple narrative, nor is it limited to the story of one, two, or ten people. Rather, the book offers a broad tapestry of African-American boys, girls, men, and women.

Some of the accounts are hauntingly sad:

"Have you any children?" a missionary asked an old slave woman in Norfolk, Virginia. "No, honey," she said, "no I hasn't. And yet, Missus, I has. Fourteen children I's raised and hugged in these old arms; and sometimes I thinks I feels their little hands on my cheeks. But they's all gone. I don't know where they are." And even if she were dying in the corner of the mission hall, "there wouldn't be one to bring me a cup of water."

At other moments, they are downright funny. When ex-slaves balk at the idea of retaliating against their former oppressors, a black preacher is quoted speaking—after the surrender of the Southof former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who spent a month on the lam before falling into Union hands in May 1865: "Shake Jeff Davis over the mouth of hell, but O Lord, don't drop him in."

Often, the mundane details of war emerge in quirky interactions. For example, William Mack Lee, the wartime slave cook for Robert E. Lee, was lambasted by his owner for serving up Nellie, the general's favorite hen, for dinner:

"She was a good hen," [William Mack] Lee recalled, "and laid mighty near every day. We kept her in the ambulance, where she had her nest." On May 4 [1864], the eve of the Battle of the Wilderness, "we was all so hungry, and I didn't have nothing to cook, that I was just plain bumfuzzled. I didn't know what to do. Marse Robert, he had gone and invited a crowd of generals to eat with him, and I had to get the victuals. . . . So I had to go out to the ambulance and catch the little black hen." He "hated for to lose her"; nevertheless, he "picked her good, and stuffed her with bread stuffing, mixed with butter."

Somehow [Robert E.] Lee recognized his prize hen when William "brung Nellie into the commissary tent," for he turned on his servant "right before all them gentlemen." "William," said Lee, "now that you have killed Nellie, what are we going to do for eggs?" "I just had to do it, Marse Robert," he replied. But Lee "kept on scolding me about that hen. He never scolded about nothing else. He told me I was a fool to kill the hen what lay the golden egg. It made Marse Robert awful sad to think of anything being killed, whether 'twas one of his soldiers, or his little black hen."

Such passages recount African Americans' domestic encounters during the war in a way that gives the military side of the story a more human dimension than that offered by most scholarly books. Although the Union Army is generally perceived as having helped liberate African Americans from slavery, there are terrible accounts of their assaults on black civilians, including the rape of black women. Thousands of contrabands lived in shacks, tents, and abandoned buildings that flanked army settlements; they cut wood for steamboats, picked cotton, and repaired railroads. They met with great prejudice, frequently went unpaid and unrewarded for their services, and confronted lice, tuberculosis, and smallpox. Ward notes that more than a quarter of the black laborers pressed into service in the Union Army in 1862–63 died. To replace them, the army sent press gangs on surprise raids on black churches, barber shops, parties, and picnics:

All the fugitives in the camp made their beds on the floor, to escape danger from rifle balls fired through the thin siding of the frame structures. . . . The Contrabands mixed uneasily with an almost equal number of poor white refugees "in a more hopeless and helpless condition than the Freedmen," wrote a Northern observer, "for the mass of them are just as poor and ignorant and degraded as the slaves themselves, and twice as mean, and they don't seem to have energy enough to die decently."

The book ends on a fascinating note that leads back to the presence of black voices in modern literature and to how difficult it has been for Americans to permit them to be heard. Interviews with former slaves carried out in the 1920s and '30s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration proved to be among the best sources for the countless quotes in The Slaves' War. In his author's note, Ward explains: "Some WPA editors were so determined to present this material in what they deemed 'authentic Negro dialect' that if they received an interview accurately transcribed in the 'proper' English of the interviewee, they sent it back to be reworked with all the stereotypical usages with which black speech was represented at that time." He goes on:

With breathtaking hauteur, a white interviewer for the WPA named William V. Ervin of Texas described a ninety-year-old former slave from Johnson County named Thomas Johns as boasting "an intelligence much above that of the average Negro, and which would even do credit to some ranks of the white race. He pronounces well most of the words he uses, and seldom misplaces one as to meaning, even occasional 'big' words." But this did not prevent Ervin from representing Johns as employing "de," "ol'est," "somepin," "ketch," and on and on.

Ward notes that the former slaves interviewed by the WPA used a vigorous English with its own conjugations and syntax. He chooses in this compendium to let stand various idiomatic usages, yet he has cleaned up dialect that "made transcriber and reader accomplices in a caricature that was not only gratuitous and degrading but grossly inaccurate."

In a telling depiction of the tension between WPA interviewers and interviewees, Ward describes a former slave named Saint Johnson, who turned on his interviewer shortly into the session. "I've told you enough," Johnson snapped. "I've told you too much. How come they want all this stuff from the colored people, anyway? Do you take any stories from the white people? They know all about it. They know more about it than I do. They don't need me to tell it to them. I ain't got nothing to say about politics. You know what the truth is. Why don't you say it? You don't need to hide behind my words."

It's a good thing that Johnson and hundreds of other former slaves overcame their understandable bitterness stemming from a lifetime of slavery and segregation and agreed to share their life experiences. They have given us a fresh vantage on the Civil War. And they have added the ringing clarity of memoir to our collective discussion about the black experience in America. Roll over, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and tell Mark Twain the news.

Burlington, Ontario–based writer Lawrence Hill is the author of three novels, most recently Someone Knows My Name, which was published last year by Norton.

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