Slave Narratives: Mary Prince
As an African-American living in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine what life as a slave was like. When watching documentaries, hearing stories, or reading slave narratives, the first reaction for me is, “I would have run away…I bet they wouldn’t have beat me like that…I would have poisoned massa…” The reality is, the deep set fear that most slaves had for Whites at the time would have prevented all those things.
When it comes to required reading, I am never too eager about slave narratives. I’m more of a 20th century literature type girl myself. As an undergrad, I can recall reading The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African: Written by Himself and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself. At the time, I wasn’t impressed, as a matter of fact, I was pretty bored and refused to participate during the discussion/comparison of the texts. I think as African-Americans (or maybe this is just me), we tend to think we know the harsh realities of slavery.
I hope that its safe to say that my reading abilities (and tolerance levels) have risen in ten years time. In reading Equiano, Cugoano, and Jea’s narratives, I would definitely say that I have a different perspective. Imagine reading 300 pages of British slave narratives in one sitting. I will admit that I did some skimming, but found myself being put in check by Equiano during his conclusion:
If any incident in this little work should appear uninteresting and trifling to most readers, I can only say, as my excuse for mentioning it, that almost every event of my life made an impression on my mind and influence my conduct…every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser… (179)
The Story of Mary Prince, A West-Indian Slave really stood out from the other male narratives. In Early Black British Writing, Alan Richardson notes that, “Prince’s text proves that less can be more: the less she accuses and moralizes, the more she tells about the effects of slavery on real lives. In fact, of all the Black writers of this period, none takes readers more swiftly and more shrewdly into the horrors of slavery than Prince” (233). In other words, Prince gives us the harsh details without the “Jesus saved my poor slave soul” preachiness that the other British narrators relied upon. With Jesus/God on your side, it’s like…well…we know you’ll be okay (in due time). Mary Prince, on the other hand, provided the real details of slave life. Days after completing her story, it still pops into my head every now and then.
In comparison to slaves, I probably live a pretty lazy life. I want vacation time, extended hours of sleep, to just sit around and read books, and tell folks what I think about things. Pardon my ignorance, but I thought the life of a slave included beatings, the denial of literacy, and work hours from sun up to sun down (to name a few). Mary Prince’s story set me straight. Can you imagine:
I was immediately sent to work in the salt water with the rest of the slaves. This work was perfectly new to me. I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o’clock in the morning till nine, when we were given some Indian corn boiled in water, which we were obliged to swallow as fast as we could for fear the rain should come on and melt the salt. We were then called again to our tasks, and worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment. We came home at twelve; ate our corn soup, called blawly, as fast as we could, and went back to our employment till dark at night. We then shovelled up the salt in large heaps, and went down to the sea, where we washed the pickle from our limbs, and cleaed the barrows and shovels from the salt. When we returned to the house, our master gave us each our allowance of raw Indian corn, which we pounded in a mortar and boiled in water for our suppers.
If you can imagine, this was just one of Prince’s stories since she was sold several times during her life. Well, I’d love to write more, but I have to get back to work. Enjoy the related clips from YouTube. The second one comes from the mocumentary CSA.
Happy reading, ya’ll.