A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom: Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation
Prices for book: A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom: Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation
Book ISBN: 9780156034517
Author(s): David W. Blight
Document type: Trade Paper
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An Illuminating, Inspiring Journey into the Realities of Slavery
As Dr. Blight notes in his introduction, most books written by African Americans of their experiences in escaping from slavery were extensively edited prior to their publication. Few have come down to us in their original raw, unedited form. Narratives such as these two, which have survived to the present time without such editing are rare and valuable. They provide insight into what life was really like for a slave: the brutality and pain they endured, and the tremendous risks and challenges they had to overcome to gain their freedom.
The first half of the book is background material: Blight reviews of the evolution of slave-escape narratives as a literary form, showing how John Washington and Wallace Turnage were influenced by similar [published] narratives, and yet how they differ. Frequent comparisons are made with the writings of well known African Americans who had escaped from slavery, especially Frederick Douglass. (Douglass has been a focus of Dr. Blight's career, as can be seen in his excellent works Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (which I've reviewed here on Amazon) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (The Bedford Series in History and Culture).)
What really makes these two men's stories come alive is Dr. Blight's passion for the material, and interest in making sure we have enough background to fully appreciate these two men's narratives. He treats their stories with great respect and reverence - providing the original texts of each with minimal editing - retaining the original grammar and spelling, and making minor changes only when necessary for readability. As he puts it, it is important to allow these two individuals to speak with their own voices - as so many others were unable to do.
Dr. Blight's writing skills are superb. His writing style strongly reminds me of the passionate, rhythmic style he used in lectures when I was his student. The pace of the material he supplies in support of the two narratives is excellent: providing interesting and illuminating information without getting in the way, and without smothering us with excessive detail. He does an excellent of following the lives of these men and their families after they wrote these narratives - an effort that required extensive research in many libraries as well as State and Federal archives.
A closing chapter discusses Dr. Blight's development of a friendship with some of John Washington's descendants, whom he was able to locate (after a long and difficult search) shortly before the publication of this book. What strikes me about this chapter is how personally stirred and inspired he was in meeting and working with Ruth Washington, the granddaughter of John Washington, and Ruth's family.
This is an excellent book, and one I would classify as a "must read" for anyone seeking an understanding of slavery in the Civil War era. Definitely a five star effort!
A. Vander Meulen (Amazon.com)
Masterful firsthand tellings of survival and escape
In a confluence of events that is hardly short of providential, not one, two unpublished slave narratives fell into David Blight's hands. The narratives, kept lovingly for over a century by the families of former slaves Wallace Turnage and John Washington, chronicle the early lives and desperate circumstances that propelled these two oppressed human beings onto the historical stage. Wallace and Turnage, while sharing the common bondage of slavery, led very different lives. Washington had relatively easier life and shorter route to freedom. Turnage's life was shot through with physical assaults, peril and cinematic close calls. Both men wrote with an urgency that revealed their thirst for freedom and deep desire to preserve their tales for their posterity.
The first half of the book allows David Blight to provide the historical and cultural contexts that his two protagonists could only guess at. Ensnared in the day-to-day turmoil of slavery and survival, they could only guess at the political and military forces that were moving them toward eventual liberation. Blight muses too on the oft-asked question of who freed the slaves - Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation or the salves themselves. his complex and nuanced answer is seconded by the experiences captured by Washington and Turnage. The book's second half contains the unedited narratives, told in soaring but often rough prose, by the men themselves.
"A Slave No More" is gripping, significantly because it is true. The poetry of freedom sings from its pages, crafted by the literary hands of men who were not expected to learn the alphabet, much less to pen epic odes to the liberation of the human body and spirit. Wonderful and worthwhile.
Jean E. Pouliot (Amazon.com)
Narratives of Emancipation
Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are among a handful of former slaves in the Old South who wrote famous narratives of their lives in slavery and their ultimate escape to freedom. It is a rare and important event to find additional first-person narratives that document the efforts of slaves to become free. The noted historian David Blight had the good fortune to become aware of two such narratives which had previously been held close by the families of their authors. Blight has published these accounts in his recent book "A Slave no More" (2007), together with background information on the manuscripts, a discussion of the lives of the authors following their escapes from slavery, and a brief history of Emancipation during and following the Civil War.
The attraction of this book lies more in the narratives than in Blight's commentary. The narratives were composed by John Washington (1838 -- 1918) and Wallace Turnage (1846-1916). Washington and Turnage both discuss their lives in slavery and the factors impelling them to make their escape. The narratives do not extend to the subsequent lives of the narrators in freedom. The narratives are written in a non-literary style which nevertheless have great power from their very simplicity. Neither man was writing for the public. Their accounts of slavery offer the opportunity to get to know two people who did not make it into the history books but whose storyies have much to teach.
The narrative of John Washington, which he titled "Memorys of the Past" is the more literary of the two. Washington vowed to escape from slavery when his mother was sold away when he was a child. Washington spent most of his early life as an urban slave in Virginia working as a house servant,in a tobacco factory, and in an inn, among other places. With the advance of the Union army through Fredericksburg in 1862, Washington saw his opportunity to cross the river to the Union lines. He became an aide to several Union officers and ultimately established himself with his wife, who had been born free, in Washington D.C. Washington's narrative has some excellent portrayals of the movements of the soldiers on both sides and of his experiences with the Union army.
Turnage's account is untitled and substantially less polished that Washington's. Turnage spent most of his time in slavery in the deep south near Pickensville, Alabama. He was a field hand and subjected to more cruelty and violence than was Washington. His account is replete with descriptions of whippings given to himself and, especially, to women. Witnessing and receiving these whippings made Turnage determined to escape. Turnage made at least four unsuccessful attempts at escape before he succeeded, after each of which he was punished with increasing severity. In the first several attempts, Turnage went west to try to reach the Union lines in Corinth, Mississippi. He nearly succeeded but was returned to his master on each occasion. Turnage finally succeeded in a daring attempt to reach Mobile Bay, the site of a great Union naval victory. Turnage had to cross snake-infested swamps and achieved freedom only when Union soldiers rescued him from the sinking makeshift boat in which he had been riding to freedom. Turnage offers a graphic, gritty account of his escape and of the harshness of slavery in the deep south. Importantly, Turnage does not show bitterness towards his oppressors. He writes at the outset of his narrative: "I do not mean to speak disparagingly of those who sold me, nor of those who bought me. Though I seen a hard time, it had an attendency to make a man out of me." (Blight, page 213)
In his introductory material, Blight retells and expands upon the narratives of Washington and Turnage. Through laborious historical research, Blight also describes the lives of the two men and their families after their escape. Washington spent most of his life as a painter in Washington D.C. and was active in the church and the developing African-American community. His five children went on to careers, with his youngest son enjoying success as a science teacher and athletic coach. Turnage had a much more difficult time of it living in the overcrowded, disease-infested sections of New York City and witnessing the deaths of his mother, wife, and several children. One of his daughters was able to "pass" for white, and she was the source for recovering her father's manuscript.
Blight also offers an interesting discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation which focuses on the immediate reaction to it in African American communities in both North and South. I found Blight's discussion somewhat broader and more polemical than it needed to be to elucidate the narratives of Washington and Turnage. But most of his discussion makes for interesting reading.
Washington and Turnage wrote inspiring narratives of their journey from slavery to freedom. Blight has done a service in making these narratives available to the public. This book will be of interest to readers concerned with American slavery, the Civil War, and African American history. Readers unfamiliar with other slave narratives may wish to explore Frederick Douglass's autobiographies and the volume titled "Slave Narratives," both of which are available from the Library of America.
Robin Friedman (Amazon.com)
Two who sought and found their own freedom
Recently two new important African-American slave narratives have come to light, published here along with scholarly commentary for the first time. They are considered significant by historians because they support a theory that slaves played a role in bringing about their own freedom. Traditionally slavery is thought to have ended with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation - Lincoln freed the slaves, we are taught in school. However, is it possible that the slaves themselves played a role in their own freedom, that their own actions, conscious or not, helped bring about Emancipation? This is what today many historians contend, and these two narratives support that view. "For most slaves", Blight says, "freedom did not come on a particular day; it evolved by process." It was the process of waves of slaves escaping into Union lines as the war moved south, often forming shanty towns of "contrabands" (as the Union called escaped slaves, they were initially classified by the north as property). Eventually something had to be done about the"contraband" and Lincoln signed some limited laws that gave them freedom, which eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But it was the slaves desire for freedom, willing to risk life by escaping, that forced the issue of Emancipation. Further, many of these freed slaves then took up arms and joined the Union army. It is estimated over 700,000 of the nearly 4 million slaves found freedom through this "process", the remaining 3.3 million achieving freedom with the 13th Amendment.
Whatever the historical debates, these narratives are interesting and even thrilling. Although not as well written as Frederick Douglass, in many ways the adventures of these young men are more real and tangible - as private documents they were not written to be published, not filtered through an editor. They were meant for friends and family and thus have a rough, raw real edge to them.
David Blight has done a great service to historians and the public by both publishing the original sources and summarizing and expanding on them. Each of the two narratives has a corresponding chapter that re-creates the narrative in more detail and clarity for the modern reader. In addition there are two chapters that examine what happened to the men after the war including some fascinating pictures. No two slave narratives are alike and these will surely not disappoint as important historical case examples and thrilling stories. America has two new unsung heroes representative of 100s of thousands who sought and found their own freedom.
Stephen Balbach (Amazon.com)
Intriguing, beautifully written history
This book makes the Civil War period and slavery come alive, partly through the real voices of 2 emancipated slaves, and partly through the consumate writing skill of the author. The level is just right: carefully documented sources (endnotes) that authenticate the story, plus a wonderfully accessible writing style that is clear, never boring, and quietly compassionate. This is an engaging book I recommend even to those having only a casual interest in history.
Fred Schroyer (Amazon.com)
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