- Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Black Imprisonment, Servitude, and Bondage, 1816–1861 by Keith Michael Green
To understand fully the meaning of true freedom one must look at and analyze the lack of freedom in all its various forms. Keith Michael Green examines multiple modes of African American “unfreedoms” in Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Black Imprisonment, Servitude, and Bondage, 1816–1861. Green’s thesis disputes the view that southern African American slavery was the only form of subjugation to influence African American literature, specifically the slave narrative. Green attempts to move the focus of the slave narrative away from the plantation, “thereby complicating and expanding the map of what constitutes nineteenth-century writing about African American bondage” (p. 19).
To accomplish this, Green organizes Bound to Respect in two different sections. The first, “Bound to Slavery,” encapsulates Chapter Two and Three, including an analysis of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. This chapter uses various sources of literature to focuses on the incarceration of slaves within the penal system. Chapter Three is an examination of Cherokee slavery emphasizing Henry Bibb’s The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave. The next section, entitled “Bound in Freedom,” contains Chapter Four in which Green considers Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig to investigate the indentured servitude of African American children in the North. Chapter Five offers a look into North African or Barbary captivity with an examination of Robert Adams’s The Narrative of Robert Adams. The structure and organization of the chapters aid the reader in comprehending Green’s overall thesis. The division of chapters by [End Page 265] theme highlights the difficulty of separating the various forms of African American subjugation in the antebellum United States and emphasizes the importance of looking at black narratives through a lens other than plantation slavery. As Green explains, “Tales of black suffering and bondage thus have the capacity to turn ethnocentric narratives back onto themselves, directing their classist, chauvinistic, and able-bodied perspectives back at the groups and institutions who most benefit from them and granting that power back to the least powerful” (p. 15).
Green’s examination of the penal system and its effects on African American subjugation in Chapter Two presents an interesting viewpoint on a second type of bondage that many slaves may have faced. The chapter discusses the jail system and how African Americans reacted to it in antebellum society, but also how white masters and subjugators used the system to keep blacks in bondage. Green explains that “this chapter seeks to chart how imprisonment (and even the threat of imprisonment) might have been a crucial part of what it meant to be a slave” (p. 28). Green also uses examples and scenes of imprisonment in these narratives to link similar scenes from later literature. He writes, “These scenes of prison jailing and maternal suffering anticipate the splintering of families attendant to imprisonment in later African American prison writing, encoding a recurring trope throughout African American prison literature in which heartbroken mothers must wrestle with the reality of their son’s incarceration” (p. 52).
While the bulk of the book is insightful and coherent, Green’s breakdown of The Narrative of Robert Adams in Chapter Five has the biggest disconnect from his thesis. However, Green does make valid and indisputable points about the treatment of Adams, an American mulatto captured in North Africa, compared to the treatment and description of white Europeans, Arabs, and Moors. As a mulatto, Adams had to maintain a balance of sophistication and simplicity when he gave his account of captivity and adventure to white Europeans. This was important, Green explains, because “In order for the testimony of persons of African descent and former captives [End Page 266] to be taken seriously, it had to appear sincere without being too sophisticated” (p. 143). In another section of the narrative Adams told of an elephant hunt...