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Biography 24.3 (2001) 669-670

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Sterling Lecater Bland, Jr. Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 184 pp. ISBN 0-275-96707-7, $22.95.

This nicely written study of a number of antebellum slave narratives seeks to illuminate the multiple identities created within such narratives. Composed for a literary theory audience but very accessible to other readers and students, the book reaffirms a number of older interpretations while mixing in the author's own ideas.

Bland divides his argument into three main sections, encompassing the literary and cultural landscape, the slaves' response, and an epilogue. The first section includes an illuminating discussion of "masking" in slave narratives, by which bond people produced a series of identities separate from the ken of their masters. Using original insights overlaying older ideas, Bland relates "masking" to W. E. B. Du Bois's double-consciousness and Bahktin's theory of "double-voiced discourse." Such doubling, the author announces, served as "an imaginative and creative (as well as an honest and accurate) response to the contradictions inherent in a supposedly Christian nation that tolerated the slave system" (13). Within this statement the author reveals much of his argument: masking is a creative means to allay spiritual malaise. This analysis is carried through a second chapter, in which Bland surveys a number of techniques slaves used to combat their conditions on plantations.

The second section, entitled "Speaking for Themselves," introduces a novel interpretation of Nat Turner's trial record. While many of the narratives spoken about in this book are unsurprising--Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and William and Ellen Craft--Bland's interpretation of Nat Turner is highly original and expansive. He relates Turner's jeremiad to the Old Testament, a reference used ably by Douglas Egerton in his recent book on Denmark Vesey. Initially, Bland associates Turner's voice with that of the criminal conversion narratives common in the early nineteenth century which invariably featured a deathbed confession. More powerfully, Turner's vision, Bland argues, was related to contemporary works by David Walker and Robert Alexander Young in creating an early manifestation of liberation theology.

Following this evocative chapter is a more pedestrian reading of Frederick Douglass's narratives. It includes a lengthy discussion of the fight with Mr. Covey, one of American literature's greatest villains. A nice photo of Mr. Auld, Douglass's troubled master, will compensate readers. After that are more familiar but useful interpretations of Sandy and the African root.

Bland is also intent in posing his narrators against their white abolitionist allies. So the quarrel between Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison is [End Page 669] reviewed, as is the contest between Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Maria Child. A final section offers a concise discussion of passing as presented in the narrative of William and Ellen Craft. Throughout, occasional asides relate antebellum narratives to twentieth-century literary figures. This technique is helpful, though not always fully developed.

Bland presents a number of good ideas and novel insights into familiar and lesser-known narratives. His argument about double consciousness, though previously made by William Andrews, Jr., and Will Gravely, is effective throughout this trim volume. One criticism is the lack of a good index. This book can be profitably used in undergraduate classrooms or as an ancillary text.

Graham Russell Hodges

Graham Russell Hodges is Professor of History at Colgate University. He is the author of Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey 1613-1863 (U of North Carolina P, 1999) and David Ruggles: Black Apostle of Freedom (U of North Carolina P, forthcoming).



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