(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a nineteenth century novel by Hannah Crafts, is believed to be at least partly autobiographical, and its narrator shares the name of the author. It is impossible, however, to determine how much of the text is a factual account of the Crafts’s life and how much is fiction based on the author’s general experience. In the novel, Hannah—a young slave girl on a North Carolina plantation—demonstrates an unusual desire to learn to read. A kind old couple that lives nearby breaks the law by teaching her. They also convert her to Christianity. However, the couple’s actions are discovered, and they are sent to jail. The deeply saddened Hannah, however, grows up working as a trusted house slave.

At her master’s large wedding, Hannah notices Mr. Trappe, a stern-looking older man dressed in black, following the bride, who is Hannah’s new mistress. Soon after the wedding, Mr. Trappe is ensconced in a room of his own at the plantation: The mysterious lawyer rarely lets the young bride out of his sight. Hannah’s new mistress is miserable, and Hannah comes to believe that Mr. Trappe holds an enormous secret over her head. As time goes on, Hannah and the Mistress become devoted to each other. The Mistress becomes ill and rarely leaves the house. Then, Hannah discovers her secret: Her mistress is biracial. Under North Carolina law, she is a slave. Unless the Mistress obeys him, Mr. Trappe has threatened to tell the bride’s husband her secret.

Hannah tells the Mistress that she must flee and promises to go with her. They plan to escape at night, run to the...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ballinger, Gill, Tom Lustig, and Dale Townshend. “Missing Intertexts: Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative and African American Literary History.” Journal of American Studies 39, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 207-37.

Fisch, Audrey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Records the experience and history of slavery in the United States while comprehensively examining the slave narrative’s relation to abolitionism, Anglo-American literary traditions such as autobiography and sentimental literature, and the larger African American literary tradition.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Hollis Robbins, eds. In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Written by authorities on African American history and literature, this collection of scholarly articles analyzes Craft’s novel.