(Special to The Root) — The Bondwoman's Narrative is believed to be the first novel ever written by an African-American woman. The book was purchased at auction by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001 and published in 2002, becoming a best-seller. New research has uncovered the identity of the mystery author. She was Hannah Bond, a fugitive slave from North Carolina. This excerpt is written as it first appeared, with the original edit markings and spellings.
For more on how the writer's identity was discovered, please see Gates' article "Discovery of 1st Black Female Novelist."
Look not upon me because I am black; because the sun hath looked upon me. SONG OF SOLOMON
It may be that I assume to[o] much responsibility in attempting to write these pages. The world will probably say so, and I am aware of my deficiencies. I am neither clever, nor learned, nor talented. When a child they used to scold and find fault with me because they said I was dull and stupid. Perhaps under other circumstances and with more encouragement I might have appeared better; for I was shy and reserved and scarce dared open my lips to any one I had none of that quickness and animation which are so much admired in children, but rather a silent unobtrusive way of observing things and events, and wishing to understand them better than I could.
I was not brought up by any body in particular that I know of. I had no training, no cultivation. The birds of the air, or beasts of the feild are not freer from moral culture than I was. No one seemed to care for me till I was able to work, and then it was Hannah do this and Hannah do that, but I never complained as I found a sort of pleasure and something to divert my thoughts in employment. Of my relatives I knew nothing. No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better. This seemed the harder to be borne, because my complexion was almost white, and the obnoxious descent could not be readily traced, though it gave a rotundity to my person, a wave and curl to my hair, and perhaps led me to fancy pictorial illustrations and flaming colors.
The busiest life has its leisure moments; it was so with mine. I had from the first an instinctive desire for knowledge and the means of mental improvement. Though neglected and a slave, I felt the immortal longings in me. In the absence of books and teachers and schools I determined to learn if not in a regular, approved, and scientific way. I was aware that this plan would meet with opposition, perhaps with punishment. My master never permitted his slaves to be taught. Education in his view tended to enlarge and expand their ideas; made them less subservient to their superiors, and besides that its blessings were destined to be conferred exclusively on the higher and nobler race. Indeed though he was generally easy and good-tempered, there was nothing liberal or democratic in his nature. Slaves were slaves to him, and nothing more. Practically he regarded them not as men and women, but in the same light as horses or other domestic animals. He supplied their necessities of food and clothing from motives of policy, but [di] scounted the ideas of equality and fraternity as preposterous and absurd. Of course I had nothing to expect from him, yet "where there's a will there's a way."
I was employed about the house, consequently my labors were much easier than those of the field servants, and I enjoyed intervals of repose and rest unknown to them. Then, too, I was a mere child and some hours of each day were allotted to play. On such occasions, and while the other children of the house were amusing themselves I would quietly steal away from their company to ponder over the pages of some old book or newspaper that chance had thrown in [my] way. Though I knew not the meaning of a single letter, and had not the means of finding out I loved to look at them and think that some day I should probably understand them all.
My dream was destined to be realized. One day while sitting on a little bank, beneath the shade of some large trees, at a short distance from my playmates,
She smiled benevolently and inquired why I concealed my book, and with child-like artlessness I told her all. How earnestly I desired knowledge, how our Master interdicted it, and how I was trying to teach myself. She stood for a few moments apparently buried in deep thought, but I interpreted her looks and actions favorably, and an idea struck me that perhaps she could read, and would become my teacher. She seemed to understand my wish before I expressed it.
"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.
Educated at the north they both felt keenly on the subject of slavery and the degradation and ignorance it imposes on one portion of the human race. Yet all their conversation on this point was tempered with the utmost discretion and judgement, and though they could not be reconciled to the system they were disposed to stand still and wait in faith and hope for the salvation of the Lord.
In their morning and evening sacrifice of worship the poor slave was always remembered, and even their devout songs of praise were imbued with the same spirit. They loved to think and to speak of all mankind as brothers, the children of one great parent, and all bound to the same eternity.
Simple and retiring in their habits modest unostentatious and poor their virtues were almost wholly unknown. In that wearied and bent old man, who frequently went out in pleasant weather to sell baskets at the doors of the rich few recognised the possessor of sterling worth, and the candidate for immortality, yet his meek gentle smile, and loving words excited their sympathies and won their regard.
How I wished to be with them all the time — how I entreated them to buy me, but in vain.
They had not the means.
It must not be supposed that learning to read was all they taught me, or that my visits to them were made with regularity. They gave me an insight to many things. They cultivated my moral nature. They led me to the foot of the Cross. Sometimes in the evening while the other slaves were enjoying the banjo and the dance I would steal away to hold sweet converse with them. Sometimes a morning walk with the other children, or an errand to a neighbors would furnish the desired opportunity, and sometimes an interval of many days elapsed between my calls to their house.
At such times, however, I tried to remember the good things they had taught me, and to improve myself by gathering up such crumbs of knowledge as I could, and adding little by little to my stock of information. Of course my opportunities were limited, and I had much to make me miserable and discontented. The life of a slave at best is not a pleasant one, but I had formed a resolution to always look on the bright side of things, to be industrious, cheerful, and true-hearted, to do some good though in an humble way, and to win some love if I could. "I am a slave" thus my thoughts would run. "I can never be great, nor rich; I cannot hold an elevated position in society, but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of an eternal reward.["]
By and by as I grew older, and was enabled to manifest my good intentions, not so much by words, as a manner of sympathy and consideration for every one, I was quite astonished to see how much I was trusted and confided in, how I was made the repository of secrets, and how the weak, the sick, and the suffering came to me for advice and assistance. Then the little slave children were almost entirely confided to my care. I hope that I was good and gentle to them; for I pitied their hard and cruel fate very much, and used to think that, notwithstanding all the labor and trouble they gave me, if I could so discharge my duty by them that in after years their memories would hover over this as the sunshiny period of their lives I should be amply repaid.
What a blessing it is that faith, and hope, and love are universal in their nature and operation — that poor as well as rich, bond as well as free are susceptible to their pleasing influences, and contain within themselves a treasure of consolation for all the ills of life. These little children, slaves though they were, and doomed to a life of toil and drudgery, ignorant, and untutored, assimilated thus to the highest and proudest in the land — thus evinced their equal origin, and immortal destiny.
How much love and confidence and affection I won it is impossible to describe. How the rude and boisterous became gentle and obliging, and how ready they all were to serve and obey me, not because I exacted the service or obedience, but because their own loving natures prompted them to reciprocate my love. How I longed to become their teacher, and open the door of knowledge to their minds by instructing them to read but it might not be. I could not have even hoped to escape detection and discovery would have entailed punishment on all.
Thus the seasons passed away. Summer insensibly melted into autumn, and autumn gave place to winter. I still visited Aunt Hetty, and enjoyed the benefits of her gracious counsels. Seated by the clear wood fire she was always busy in the preparation or repair of garments as perfect taste and economy dictated, or plying her bright knitting needles by the evening lamp, while her aged companion sat socially by her side.
One evening I was sitting with them, and reading from the book of God. Our intercourse had remained so long undiscovered that I had almost ceased to fear disclosure. Probably I had grown less circumspect though not intentionally, or it might be that in conformity to the inscrutable ways of Providence the faith and strength of these aged servants of the Cross were to be tried by a more severe ordeal. Alas: Alas that I should have been the means.
The door suddenly opened without warning, and the overseer of my master's estate walked into the house. My horror, and grief, and astonishment were indescribable. I felt Oh how much more than I tell. He addressed me rudely, and bade me begone home on the instant. I durst not disobey, but retreating through the doorway I glanced back at the calm sedate countenances of the aged couple, who were all unmoved by the torrent of threats and invectives he poured out against them.
My Master was absent at the time, the overseer could find no precedent for my case, and so I escaped the punishment I should otherwise have suffered. Not so with my venerable and venerated teachers. It was considered necessary to make an example of them, that others might be deterred from the like attempts. Years passed, however, before I learned their fate. The cruel overseer would not tell me whither he had removed them, but to all my inquiries he simply answered that he would take good care I never saw them again. My fancy painted them as immured in a dungeon for the crime of teaching a slave to read. Their cottage of home remained uninhabited for a time, and then strangers came and took possession of it. But Oh the difference to me. For days and weeks I was inconsolable, and how I hated and blamed myself as the cause of their misery. After a time the intensity of my feelings subsided, and I came to a more rational and consistent manner of thinking. I concluded that they were happy whatever might be their condition, and that only by doing right and being good I could make anything like an adequate return for all they had done and suffered for me.
Another year passed away. There was to be a change in our establishment, and the ancient mansion of Lindendale was to receive a mistress. Hitherto our master had been a bachelor. He was a portly man, middle-aged, and of aristocratic name and connexions. His estate had descended to him through many generations, and it was whispered though no one seemed to know, that he was bringing his beautiful bride to an impoverished house.
The remembrance is fresh to me as that of yesterday. The holidays were passed, and we had been promised another in honor of the occasion. But we were not animated with the idea of that half so much as because something had occurred to break the dull monotony of our existence; something that would give life, and zest, and interest, to one day at least; and something that would afford a theme for conversation and speculation. Then our preparations were quite wonderful, and the old housekeeper nearly overdid herself in fidgetting and fretting and worrying while dragging her unwieldly weight of flesh up and down the staircases, along the galleries and passages, and through the rooms where floors were undergoing the process of being rubbed bright, carpets were being spread, curtains shaken out, beds puffed and covered and furniture dusted and polished, and all things prepared as beseemed the dignity of the family and the fastidious taste of its expected mistress. It was a grand time for me as now I had an opportunity of seeing the house, and ascertaining what a fine old place it was. Heretofore all except certain apartments had been interdicted to us, but now that the chambers were opened to be aired and renovated no one could prevent us making good use of our eyes. And we saw on all sides the appearance of wealth and splendor, and the appliances to every luxury. What a variety of beautiful rooms, all splendid yet so different, and seemingly inhabited by marble images of art, or human forms pictured on the walls. What an array of costly furniture adorned the rich saloons and gorgeous halls. We thought our master must be a very great man to have so much wealth at his command, but it never occurred to us to inquire whose sweat and blood and unpaid labor had contributed to produce it.
The evening previous to the expected arrival of the bridal party Mrs Bry the housekeeper, announced the preparations to be complete and all things in readiness. Then she remembered that the windows of one apartment had been left open for a freer admission of air. They must be closed and barred and the good old dame imposed that duty on me. "I am so excessively weary or I would attend to it myself" she said giving me my directions "but I think that I can rely on you not to touch or misplace anything or loiter in the rooms." I assured her that she could and departed on my errand.
There is something inexpressibly dreary and solemn in passing through the silent rooms of a large house, especially one whence many generations have passed to the grave. Involuntarily you find yourself thinking of them, and wondering how they looked in life, and how the rooms looked in their possession, and whether or not they would recognise their former habitations if restored once more to earth and them. Then all we have heard or fancied of spiritual existences occur to us. There is the echo of a stealthy tread behind us. There is a shadow flitting past through the gloom. There is a sound, but it does not seem of mortality. A supernatural thrill pervades your frame, and you feel the presence of mysterious beings. It may be foolish and childish, but it is one of the unaccountable things instinctive to the human nature.
Thus I felt while threading the long galleries which led to the southern turret. The apartment there was stately rather than splendid, and in other days before the northern and eastern wing had been added to the building it had formed the family drawing room, and was now from its retired situation the favorite resort of my master; when he became weary of noise and bustle and turmoil as he sometimes did. It was adorned with a long succession of family portraits ranged against the walls in due order of age and ancestral dignity. To these portraits Mrs Bry had informed me a strange legend was attached. It was said that Sir Clifford De Vincent, a nobleman of power and influence in the old world, having incurred the wrath of his sovereign, fled for safety to the shores of the Old Dominion, and became the founder of my Master's paternal estate. When the house had been completed according to his directions, he ordered his portrait and that of his wife to be hung in the drawing room, and denounced a severe malediction against the person who should ever presume to remove them, and against any possessor of the mansion who being of his name and blood should neglect to follow his example. And well had his wishes been obeyed. Generation had succeeded generation, and a long line of De Vincents occupied the family residence, yet each one inheritor had contributed to the adornments of the drawing-room a faithful transcript of his person and lineaments, side by side with that of his Lady. The ceremonial of hanging up these portraits was usually made the occasion of a great festivity, in which hundreds of the neighboring gentry participated. But my master had seen fit to dissent from this custom, and his portrait unaccompanied by that of a Lady had been added to the number, though without the usual demonstration of mirth and rejoicing.
Memories of the dead give at any time a haunting air to a silent room. How much more this becomes the case when standing face to face with their pictured resemblances and looking into the stony eyes motionless and void of expression as those of an exhumed corpse. But even as I gazed the golden light of sunset penetrating through the open windows in an oblique direction set each rigid feature in a glow. Movements like those of life came over the line of stolid faces as the shadows of a linden played there. The stern old sire with sword and armorial bearings seems moodily to relax his haughty brow aspect. The countenance of another, a veteran in the old-time wars, assumes a gracious expression it never wore in life; and another appears to open and shut his lips continually though they emit no sound. Over the pale pure features of a bride descends a halo of glory; the long shining locks of a young mother waver and float over the child she holds; and the frozen cheek of an ancient dame seems beguiled into smiles and dimples.
Involuntarily I gazed as the fire of the sun died out, even untill the floor became dusky, and the shadows of the linden falling broader and deeper wrapped all in gloom. Hitherto I had not contemplated my Master's picture; for my thoughts had been with the dead, but now I looked for it, where it hung solitary, and thought how soon it would have a companion like the others, and what a new aspect would thereby be given to the apartment. But was it prophecy, or presentiment, or why was it that this idea was attended to my mind with something painful? That it seemed the first scene in some fearful tragedy; the foreboding of some great calamity; a curse of destiny that no circumstances could avert or soften. And why was it that as I mused the portrait of my master changed seemed to change from its usually kind and placid expression to one of wrath and gloom, that the calm brow should become wrinkled with passion, the lips turgid with malevolence — yet thus it was.
Though filled with superstitious awe I was in no haste to leave the room; for there surrounded by mysterious associations I seemed suddenly to have grown old, to have entered a new world of thoughts, and feelings and sentiments. I was not a slave with these pictured memorials of the past. They could not enforce drudgery, or condemn me on account of my color to a life of servitude. As their companion I could think and speculate. In their presence my mind seemed to run riotous and exult in its freedom as a rational being, and one destined for something higher and better than this world can afford.
I closed the windows, for the night air had become sharp and piercing, and the linden creaked and swayed its branches to the fitful gusts. Then, there was a sharp voice at the door. It said "child what are you doing?["] I turned round and answered "Looking at the pictures."
Mrs Bry alarmed at my prolonged absence had actually dragged her unweildly person thither to acertain the cause.
"Looking at the pictures" she repeated "as if such an ignorant thing as you are would know any thing about them."
Ignorance, forsooth. Can ignorance quench the immortal mind or prevent its feeling at times the indications of its heavenly origin. Can it destroy that deep abiding appreciation of the beautiful that seems inherent to the human soul? Can it seal up the fountains of truth and all intuitive perception of life, death and eternity? I think not. Those to whom man learns teaches little, nature like a wise and prudent mother teaches much.
Excerpt courtesy of Hatchette Book Group.