A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave in the State of Delaware, North America Analysis

Solomon Bayley

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Solomon Bayley, a former slave, is one of the earliest antebellum African American spiritual writers. His somewhat disjointed, two-part narrative begins with a preface by Robert Hurnard, a Quaker and abolitionist from Essex, England, who met Bayley in Delaware in 1820. Having heard Bayley’s account of his escape from slavery, Hurnard persuaded him to write his life story. The publication of this narrative was intended in part to generate income for the aged and by then childless Bayley and his wife, but the narrative was also designed to place slavery in a poor light.

Bayley came from a family with deep American roots. His grandmother had been transported from West Africa to Virginia at the age of eleven and sold to a brutal family. She gave birth to fifteen children, some of whom were transported to Delaware. Bayley grew to adulthood before being brought to Virginia. In his autobiographical narrative, he does not mention that his father, brother, and sister were subsequently taken to the Caribbean. His mother ultimately ran away with Bayley’s infant brother and escaped to freedom in New Jersey.

Bayley begins his tale with a tribute to the power and goodness of God. Born in Kent County, Delaware, Bayley is moved against his will along with his parents and siblings—but without his wife and children—when his master takes the group to Alexandria, Virginia. Under Delaware law, slaveholders taking slaves out of the state were not permitted to put them up for immediate sale, but the Bayley family is sold soon after they arrive. Bayley brings suit to gain emancipation, but, two days before the hearing is to take place, he is shipped to Richmond, Virginia, put in irons, and thrown in jail. After a short stay that tests his faith in God,...

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A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave in the State of Delaware, North America Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Sets Bayley’s work in the context of the earliest African American writers.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Antebellum Slave Narratives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Argues that slave narratives were not literal descriptions of reality but instead adhered to popular literary conventions.

Lee, A. Robert. Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-Americans. Sterling, Va.: Pluto, 1998. Although there are no specific references to Bayley’s work, this book sets slave narratives in historical and cultural context.

McBride, Dwight A. Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Argues that white and black people in the antebellum United States possessed different definitions of truth.

Pierce, Yolanda. Hell Without Fires: Slavery, Christianity, and the Antebellum Spiritual Narrative. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. One of the few books to focus on Bayley’s work, this book examines the spiritual and earthly results of conversion to Christianity for African American antebellum writers.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Asserts that when they write their autobiographies, black writers claim an authority that they have not until then possessed in their lives.

Williams, William H. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1996. Historical study of laws regarding slavery in Delaware. Provides crucial context for understanding Bayley’s lawsuit, as well as other aspects of his narrative.