Q&A: The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives

  • October 25, 2012

Q&A with Devon Carbado and Donald Weise, the editors of The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives

The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives
Devon Carbado and Donald Weise, eds.
Q&A by Sarah Vogelsong

For many Americans, the Narrative of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl are required reading in school. But those narratives are not stand-alone examples of a time when many African Americans were barred from learning to read and write. In their new anthology, The Long Walk to Freedom, Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise present a broad range of stories by former slaves relating their experiences in slavery and their escape, for a variety of reasons, from the “peculiar institution.” The stories, which span some 60 years of slavery and extend from the Deep South to Philadelphia, reveal both commonalities and differences in the lives of runaways. Besides offering a harrowing reminder of the horrors and realities of slavery, the book is an inspiring testament to the endurance of the human spirit.

What inspired you to collect these narratives into one book?

Surprisingly, scholars have paid relatively little attention to runaway slave narratives as a unique genre within the context of slave narratives. We wanted to bring attention to these narratives by putting them together in one book. Cumulatively, these narratives tell an important story about resistance and make clear that slaves ran away for a multiplicity of reasons, not all of which had to do with challenging the institution of slavery per se. Finally, we wanted to provide an historical account of slavery via the voices of the people who actually experienced it. While the picture of slavery that emerges from these narratives is necessarily incomplete, one gets a very textured sense of the “peculiar institution” through the very detailed descriptions these first-person accounts provide.

How did you go about gathering all of these stories? Did you face any particular difficulties in the collection process?

Our methodology was rather straightforward. We read every slave narrative we could find. Some of these were in previously published volumes. Some were in archives. That was our initial pool. After eliminating those that did not have a runaway dimension, we organized the narratives into various themes — for example, running away because of religion or running away to reconnect with family or running away to avoid punishment, and so on. The difficulty for us had mostly to do with deciding which narratives to include and which themes to highlight. Due to space limitations, there were many solid narratives we had to leave out.

Some of the stories — such as that of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl — are familiar to a broad audience, whereas others are obscure. Why do you think certain stories have become popular while others have not?

Part of the mass appeal of the stories has to do with the person behind the story. Frederick Douglass is, of course, an enormously important political and historical figure. He has a place in our history quite apart from his forceful narrative. Other narratives, like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, have public traction because the stories they articulate are both compelling and dramatic.

Both the Introduction and the Historical Afterword identify the “runaway slave narrative” as a particular literary genre. Can you talk a little about the literary importance of these texts separate from their historical value?

For many years, and well into the 20th century, long after slavery had been abolished and narratives had ceased being used in part for propaganda to end slavery, slave narratives were the predominant form of African-American literature. In other words, a literary tradition was established among a group of people who as slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. Narratives therefore served not only as a source for propaganda but as a familiar means by which to tell one’s own story, whether one composed that story himself or herself or dictated the life history to another person, as was sometimes the case. Slave narratives in many ways can be read as the foundation upon which African-American literature is based. We stress this point in the introduction — that slave narratives might be understood as the genesis of the African-American protest tradition.

In the introduction to his “Slavery Days in Old Kentucky,” former slave Isaac Johnson is quoted as writing: “Attempts are sometimes made to color the Institution [of slavery] to make it appear as though the old days of American slavery were patriarchal days to be desired, to surround the Institution with glamour as though it possessed great intrinsic merits of value to both races.” Johnson clearly sees one point of his memoir as dispelling that glamour to reveal the reality of slavery. Do you think that this is still an important function of slave narratives in our society today?

Slave narratives remain a source of fascination to contemporary readers because they are first-person accounts of the barbarity that blacks suffered for centuries. In other words, these are not present-day scholars writing about nightmarish events of over 150 years ago. There’s an immediacy and authenticity that no outsider could replicate. As the book’s editors, we found ourselves, over and over, shocked and sickened by the extreme graphic violence of these writings because American popular culture has tended to minimize these horrors. Slave narratives function today as a crucial reality check for readers.

You include the “Confessions” of Nat Turner, a still-controversial figure, in this volume. In terms of both tone and content, his story is in many ways at the other end of the spectrum from the more traditional “runaway” stories. Why did you decide to include the “Confessions,” and why do you think their presence in this kind of compilation is important?

Nat Turner is one of the most controversial figures in African-American history, his rebellion is the bloodiest slave rebellion in U.S. history, and for us, including him was essential. To some people even today, Turner and his army of runaway slaves are basically cold-blooded killers who murdered whites, including women and children, in the name of God. To others, like activists in the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s in the United States, Turner was the prophetic leader of a slave rebellion who sought freedom for blacks “by any means necessary.” Apart from giving voice to this polarizing historical figure, we also wanted to demonstrate that fugitives were capable of a large-scale slave revolt with a political agenda and that fugitives themselves were capable of violence.

Are there any overarching features of these stories recounting the runaway-slave experience that you think are particularly notable and not widely recognized today?

Looking at slavery through the lives of runaway slaves helps dispel enduring myths around the fugitive experience that provide a more realistic accounting — for example, the notion that fugitives automatically headed North to free states, when many did not. Or that most slaves were aided by the Underground Railroad, when most weren’t. Or that even if a slave managed to reach a state where slavery was illegal, that she or he was protected from demands for return made by one’s former slave master. Or that some fugitives ran away not to seek freedom once and for all but to travel short distances temporarily to see loved ones on neighboring plantations.

Do you have any plans for a second compilation, either of additional runaway-slave narratives or narratives of former slaves navigating life as free blacks?

At present, we do not have plans for a second compilation.  Likely, we will leave it to others to take this work forward.

There has been a book on the likes of Blanche K. Bruce and maybe even Joseph Rainey,  who went from slavery to the U.S. Senate and Congress, respectively. But might there be a compilation of others navigating their lives post-slavery?

A compilation highlighting precisely how people experienced themselves post-slavery would, we think, be a useful addition to the literature. This is not to say that scholars have ignored this historical period, but rather that there are not as many first-person accounts as one might like.

How did you come together to write this book?

Both of us have a deep commitment to understanding the extent to which, as an historical matter, various forms of inequality, including but not limited to racial inequality, have been coextensive with resistance and demonstration. We have worked on two other books that implicate these concerns, one on the writings of the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin (Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin) and the other on LGBT issues (Black Like Us: A Century of African American Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Literature). Plus, one of us (Weise) has been co-editor of a book on the black panther party (The Huey Newton Reader) and the other (Carbado) on central cases in American civil-rights law (Race Law Stories). The Long Walk to Freedom grows out of and is an extension of these broader interests.

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor from Richmond, Va. Her work has also appeared in The Neworld Review and Pleasant Living Magazine.

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