William Wells Brown: What aspects of Brown obtaining a new life surprised you or encouraged you to see your own form of "freedom"?
In his Narrative, William Wells Brown’s obtaining a new life encourages the reader to envision “freedom” as autonomy to define one’s own identity as well as to remove oneself from enslavement. He also reminds us that freedom is limited when it is obtained by one individual but not the rest of their family or community.
Writing in the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, Brown provides numerous ways to understand what freedom means in terms of his personal situation and his understanding of the concept within American society overall. While Brown was able to flee the South and thereby become liberated from enslavement, his decision to leave required him to separate from his family. He writes movingly of several aspects of identity transformation through which he passed. These include changing his name as well as his place of residence.
Brown suggests that freedom may remain an abstract concept and an illusory ideal when society has the power to keep it legally out of the reach of so many people. He particularly calls attention to the enforced separation from his own family members but also addresses the implications for all African Americans who remained in the U.S. states where slavery was legal.
One aspect of freedom that Brown explores is his name. The slaveholder for whom he worked claimed the power to rename him. Once Brown reached the North, he reclaimed his own first name, William, and assumed the last name of a man who aided him during his escape. This aspect of autonomy emphasizes the extent to which slaveholders attempted to control enslaved people and deprive them of such fundamental rights.