The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 1-12
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Her Refusal to Be Recast(e):
Annie Burton's Narrative of Resistance
Annie L. Burton's 1909 autobiography, Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days, is the postbellum slave autobiography of an "ordinary" black woman, who refuses to be re-enslaved in either word or in deed. In her simply written narrative, she offers extraordinary resistance to the emerging racial caste system of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction America. While her text begins with reminiscences about her childhood in chattel bondage, at the heart of her work is the power struggle between black women domestic workers and their white female employers. The story of her voyage from slavery in Clayton, Alabama, to domestic work in the industrial North, and finally to business-ownership in Jacksonville, Florida, charts the powerful economic and social forces that attempted to re-inscribe a system of slavery onto the first generation of nominally freed African Americans. Burton's refusal to participate in this reinstatement of her slave condition challenged the pervasive image of black woman as "mammy," that is, the faithful, obedient domestic servant. Burton's Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days details not only one woman's quest from slavery to physical freedom but also her journey from a proscribed role to the creation of her own free identity. [End Page 1]
As a document of resistance, Burton's narrative begins strangely. In her chapter titled "Recollections of a Happy Life," she writes, "the memory of my happy, care-free childhood days on the plantation, with my little white and black companions, is often with me" (3). Burton recalls that both black and white children were entirely ignorant of their positions as racialized subjects, neither "knowing nor caring what things were going on in the great world" outside their realm (3). These initial "happy" memories strike a dissonant chord, as generally the most painful aspects of bondage are detailed at the beginning of a slave narrative. Burton, simply and powerfully, chooses to juxtapose these happier memories with the details of the hunger and nakedness she experiences as a child during slavery days, in contrast to her well-kept and well-fed white companions (4-5). She recalls being whipped for eating more than her allotment of food (4), and she remembers slave women sold for their failure to produce offspring (5). Burton gives a detailed account of the lynching of a slave who was wrongly accused of the murder of his overseer (5). She acknowledges that her own father was a white planter who never "noticed... or in any way acknowledged" her as his child (8). So while it is initially discomforting that Burton writes about some of her "happy," memories of slavery, the reader is clear that Burton suffers no illusion as to the utter brutality of this peculiar institution. The contrast of Burton's "happy" childhood days with these bitter and brutal realities of slavery speaks to the desire within her autobiography to reconcile a brutal past and yet maintain hope—and sanity—for a future.1 And it is the uncertainty of that future that Burton gives voice to in her narrative.
Born into slavery, and a young girl during the Civil War, Burton was witness to a world being turned upside down; for once, slave owners were living and acting in fear. She sees her slave master leaving "unceremoniously for the woods" and remaining concealed there for five days when the Union troops arrive in Alabama. She writes with delicious irony: "the niggers had run away whenever they got a chance, but now it was master's and the other white folks' turn to run" (9). She describes freedom as a righteous blow "to the owners of plantations and slaves," especially as their children "would feel it more than they, for they had been reared to be waited upon by willing or unwilling slaves" (39).
Yet despite the system of slavery being turned upside down in front of Annie Burton's eyes, fundamental ideas about...