Nearly 150 years after one of the earliest known slave narratives was written, the real author’s identity has finally been unearthed. The discovery preserves writer Hannah Bond’s legacy and her distinct fictionalized account of life as a color-conscious fugitive slave in antebellum America.
Previously known by her pseudonym, Hannah Crafts, Bond grew up on a plantation in North Carolina in the early 1800s. Disguised as a man, she escaped from slavery and eventually made her way to New Jersey.
She detailed much of her life in a semi-autobiographical, cloth-bound manuscript that was stowed in a New Jersey attic and eventually purchased by curator Dorothy Porter Wesley in 1948. Following Wesley’s death, Bond’s narrative went up for auction and was purchased by renowned literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 2001.
A year later, Gates published The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and it quickly became a bestseller, adding Bond’s story to the literary canon and further humanizing the experiences of women slaves.
Yet information about the writer was backed by too little evidence to prove the authenticity of the work. Many scholars even doubted that the narrative was written by a slave or a woman.
Using public records, wills and diaries, however, Gregg Hecimovich at Winthrop University collected evidence that confirms the writer’s name and provides insight into how a slave with restricted access to education wrote the best-selling story. One explanation accounts for the traces of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House found in Bond’s narrative: According to Hecimovich’s research, the plantation on which Bond lived was located next to a girls’ school, where the students had to recite passages from the novel. Bond could have listened in on lessons and gotten a copy of the book.
Hecimovich’s new information has been reviewed by Gates and several other scholars, who confirm the legitimacy of his work. He plans to publish more information on his findings in a book, which will give academics and fans of the novel more information on the life of Hannah Bonds and how she created her masterpiece.
Though the story was written in the 19th century, Bond’s novel remains relevant today, as themes in The Bondwoman’s Narrative address ongoing issues in the black community. Her discussion of colorism, the “one-drop” rule and racial identity, for example, reflect questions brought up in the recently released documentary Dark Girls and in the popular internet meme “Light-skinned dudes be like….” The novel is a reminder for the African-American community to celebrate the foundation laid by our ancestors, praise progress and continue our dialogue on the social residue of a difficult past.
Shae Collins is a recent Pepperdine University graduate and the creator of A Womyn’s Worth, a social commentary blog that addresses interests and cultural issues of black women. She is currently an intern at Ms.