Excerpt From 1st Black Female Novelist

The fugitive slave writes about her childhood experiences as a house servant.

Detail, manuscript, The Bondwoman's Narrative, page 159, Beineke Library, Yale University
Detail, manuscript, The Bondwoman's Narrative, page 159, Beineke Library, Yale University

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“Child” she said “I was thinking of our Saviour’s words to Peter where he commands the latter to ‘feed his lambs.’ I will dispense to you such knowledge as I possess. Come to me each day. I will teach you to read in the hope and trust that you will thereby be made better in this world and that to come.[“] Her demeanor like her words was very grave and solemn.

“Where do you live?[“] I inquired.

“In the little cottage just around the foot of the hill” she replied.

“I will come: Oh how eagerly, how joyfully” I answered “but if master finds it out his anger will be terrible; and then I have no means of paying you.”

She smiled quietly, bade me fear nothing, and went her way. I returned home that evening with a light heart. Pleased, delighted, overwhelmed with my good fortune in prospective I felt like a being to whom a new world with all its mysteries and marvels was opening, and could scarcely repress my tears of joy and thankfulness. It sometimes seems that we require sympathy more in joy than sorrow; for the heart exultant, and overflowing with good nature longs to impart a portion of its happiness. Especial[l]y is this the case with children. How it augments the importance of any little success to them that some one probably a mother will receive the intelligence with a show of delight and interest. But I had no mother, no friend.

The next day and the next I went out to gather blackberries, and took advantage of the fine opportunity to visit my worthy instructress and receive my first lesson. I was surprised at the smallness yet perfect neatness of her dwelling, at the quiet and orderly repose that reigned in through all its appointments; it was in such pleasing contrast to our great house with its bustle, confusion, and troops of servants of all ages and colors.

“Hannah, my dear, you are welcome” she said coming forward and extending her hand. “I rejoice to see you. I am, or rather was a northern woman, and consequently have no prejudices against your birth, or race, or condition, indeed I feel a warmer interest in your welfare than I should were you the daughter of a queen.[“] I should have thanked her for so much kindness, and interest such expressions of motherly interest, but could find no words, and so sat silent and embarrassed.

I had heard of the North where the people were all free, and where the colored race had so many and such true friends, and was more delighted with her, and with the idea that I had found some of them than I could possibly have expressed in words.

At length while I was stumbling over the alphabet and trying to impress the different forms of the letters on my mind, an old man with a cane and silvered hair walked in, and coming close to me inquired “Is this the girl of whom you spoke, mother?” and when she answered in the affirmative he said many words of kindness and encouragement to me, and that though a slave I must be good and trust in God.

They were an aged couple, who for more than fifty years had occupied the same home, and who had shared together all the vicissitudes of life — its joys and sorrows, its hopes and fears. Wealth had been theirs, with all the appliances of luxury, and they became poor through a  series of misfortunes.  Yet as they had borne riches with virtuous moderation they conformed to poverty with subdued content, and readily exchanged the splendid mansion for the lowly cottage, and the merchant’s desk and counting room for the fields of toil. Not that they were insensible to the benefits or advantages of riches, but they felt that life had something more — that the peace of God and their own consciences united to honor and intelligence were in themselves a fortune which the world neither gave nor could take away.

They had long before relinquished all selfish projects and ambitious aims. To be upright and honest, to incumber neither public nor private charity, and to contribute something to the happiness of others seemed to be the sum total of their present desires. Uncle Siah, as I learned to call him, had long been unable to work, except at some of the lighter branches of employment, or in cultivating the small garden which furnished their supply of exce[ l] lent vegetables and likewise the simple herbs which imparted such healing properties to the salves and unguents that the kind old woman distributed around the neighborhood.

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