“Nine Days” is an engrossing, well-researched examination of that overlooked slice of civil rights history worthy of closer scrutiny.
Publishing on Feb. 16, “Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery & Abolition” (Penguin Random House, $22) is a collection of excerpts from more than 50 first-person accounts of life in the antebellum South told primarily by African Americans, both those who were enslaved and those born free.
It is the first in a series of books planned from the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library system. The foreword is written by poet Kevin Young, former director of the center. Edited by Michelle Commander, the collection is categorized into sections containing accounts of slave rebellions and insurrection, black abolitionist activities, slave escapes, the literary arts and the dawn of freedom.
A good place to start is the heart-pumping excerpt of “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.” Written in 1860 by William Craft, it tells the incredible story of the couple’s daring ruse to escape from a plantation in Macon in 1848.
With William’s help, Ellen, who was light-skinned, cut off her hair and dressed in menswear, posing as a white man traveling with a slave, who was, in fact, her husband. With Ellen’s face wrapped in a poultice to discourage conversation and her right hand in a sling to prevent from having to sign anything (she couldn’t write), they took a circuitous route aboard multiple trains and steamships to freedom in Massachusetts. The ploy was a success, and the Crafts were welcomed into Boston’s Black society where they became active abolitionists.
Illustrating how high the stakes were, the excerpt includes chilling accounts of punishments routinely doled out to runaway slaves who got caught. “Nothing seems to give the slaveholders so much pleasure as the catching and torturing of fugitives,” writes Craft.
Also noteworthy is an excerpt from “A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life,” an 1859 account by Eliza Potter, a freeborn woman of mixed race who was a hairstylist for well-to-do white women. The position gave her rare access to the social and domestic goings-on among prominent white society. Her confidential tone is reminiscent of a visit to one’s own chatty hairstylist, but Potter’s tales include sickening accounts of elderly enslaved women worked to the bone and plantation owners too poor to feed or clothe their slaves but who put on a great show of affluence during the winter opera season in New Orleans.
Among her stories is one about a bank teller who marries a Black woman after he convinces a physician to “transfer some of her blood into his veins and then went to the court and swore he had colored blood in him.” In another, she recounts how an elderly enslaved woman routinely mistreated by her mistress meets her long-lost daughter by happenstance. Her daughter is a free woman, and when word gets out about their reunion, the entire community rallies to raise enough money for the woman to buy her mother’s freedom.
Just like the stories one hears at the hair salon, there’s no way to know which of Porter’s stories are true and which have been embellished over time. But that’s not really the point. The stories we tell ourselves, regardless of their accuracy, often reveal a greater truth about the reality of our experience than do simple facts.
Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. email@example.com