To Tell a Free Story

Between 1760 and 1865, roughly a hundred Afro-American men and women wrote autobiographical accounts of their lives in the United States. Another fifty or sixty were the subjects of biographies, written by both white and black authors, during the same period. In this ground-breaking critical study, William L. Andrews takes issue with the critical consensus, voiced by scholars such as John W. Blassingame and Robert B. Stepto, concerning the autobiographies produced by Afro-Americans between 1760 and 1865. He argues that Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and Jacob D. Green’s Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave, from Kentucky, Containing an Account of His Three Escapes, in 1839, 1846, and 1848 (1864), texts which Blassingame and Stepto see as corrupted by fictionalization, demonstrate actual rhetorical mastery of the genre and foreshadow experiments with dialogue and authentic Southern dialect undertaken by American realists such as George W. Harris, Johnson Jones Hooper, and Mark Twain after the Civil War.

Given the number of Afro-American autobiographies and the amount of critical attention they have received, Andrews proposes in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 a hypothesis that justifies his selection of particular texts. In the first chapter, he examines those problems of origin, authorship, and editorial control by whites which have traditionally invalidated Afro-American narratives as historical testimony. He advances as hypothesis, based on methods of reading derived from the critics Wolfgang Iser, Paul Ricoeur, and Mikhail Bakhtin, the statement that these autobiographies should be read as literary texts which, as has always been true of fiction, manipulate “the conventions of speech action in a way that defies the rules of ordinary utterances.” In simple terms, Andrews is suggesting that the history of Afro-American autobiography demonstrates an increasing control of the language of the text by actual black authors, that control revealing itself in a general movement away from white narrative models and in the rhetorical use of fictionalizing techniques to reveal the subjective, rather than the objective, significance of black experience. As the Afro-American men and women who wrote their lives between 1760 and 1865 felt increasingly free to express truth as they saw it, the texts they produced became the means by which these authors validated their identities and their freedom from the social, political, and moral conventions of white American society.

Andrews suggests that between 1760 and 1840, the autobiographies of American blacks suffered from a struggle between white and black narrational voices for control of the texts. As A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (1760) indicates, the book never examines his thoughts or feelings; it never enters his consciousness. Andrews claims that most Afro-American autobiographies written before 1840 depended upon narrative devices derived from white models, chiefly the criminal confession and the account of Christian conversion. A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents, in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave, in the State of Delaware, North America: Written by Himself (1825), edited by Robert Hainard, draws upon specific biblical passages to suggest the significance of Bayley’s life. The Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave; Who Was for Several...

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Choice. XXIV, December, 1986, p. 620.

Library Journal. CXI, June 15, 1986, p. 68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, August 24, 1986, p. 10.

Times Literary Supplement. October 17, 1986, p. 1170.