In his slave narrative, William Wells Brown assailed the prevailing notion of his time that slaves lacked legal or historical selfhood. His autobiography asserts that he has an autonomous identity. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, like many of the stories written by former slaves, does more than chronicle a journey from bondage to freedom. The work also reveals the ways in which the former slave author writes a sense of self, denied by the South’s peculiar institution, into existence.
So great was slavery’s disregard of black personhood that William, as a boy on a Kentucky plantation, is forced to change his name when his master’s nephew, also named William, comes to live as part of the white household. Brown never forgets this insult. He writes of his flight across the Mason-Dixon line: “So I was not only hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for a name.” He finds a name by accepting as his surname that of an Ohio Quaker, Wells Brown, who gives him food and shelter during his escape. He also insists on retaining his first name, showing that his conception of freedom includes the ability to define, shape, and control one’s own identity.
Brown is careful to record that his achievement of an unfettered identity is not without its tragic consequences. His personal freedom is undercut by reminders that his mother and siblings remain enslaved. When an escape undertaken in 1833 with his...
(The entire section is 429 words.)