- Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams
"Showing the feelings of living property," as Harriet Beecher Stowe so famously does in her antislavery fiction, has long been a subject of American literature. Though Heather Andrea Williams in her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, refers to works of American literature, ranging from the fiction [End Page 126] of Mark Twain and Charles W. Chesnutt to that of Toni Morrison and, of course, Stowe, her account of "the thoughts and feelings of enslaved people" is no fiction (3). It is instead a work of history drawn from the twelve hundred Information Wanted or Lost Friends advertisements published in black newspapers during the 1860s and 1870s that were printed to meet the demand of former slaves and their descendants in search of family members who were sold away from one another during slavery or lost during the Civil War. These messages, usually written in first person, in search of information about family members also offer a good deal of information about the feelings of those searching, as Williams's close readings of them reveal.
Alongside these brief messages written by former slaves and their descendants (which make up the bulk of the book's fifth chapter) Williams consults other forms of documentary evidence such as census data, journals, letters by both whites and blacks, Freedman's Bureau papers, and slave narratives. Taken together, these documents construct an important emotional history of slavery, reflecting the grief, sorrow, hope, fear, and love that tormented the American South during the slave era.
While historians have long been aware of these documents, Williams may well be the first to make them central to the study of slavery. By doing so, she provides a history of the interior lives of African Americans in the nineteenth-century South that affirms and supplements what writers such as Stowe and Chesnutt rendered in fiction.
Organized chronologically into three parts—"Separation," "The Search," and "Reunification"—the book offers readers a particularly fluid account of the feelings of property. Unlike Stowe, who relied on the language of American sentiment, and other histories of slavery that rely on the language of the legal and financial terms that owners and traders used, Williams turns to the language of the slaves and the words they used to describe the experience of being sold. But unlike most accounts of the slave experience that look to the words of the most famous (and eloquent) slaves, Williams passes only briefly over well-known slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown and doesn't even mention Harriet Jacobs's now canonical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), which provides some of the most poignant descriptions of a slave mother separated from her children. Instead, Williams introduces lesser-known slaves such as Francis Fredric, Thomas Jones, Lunsford Lane, Kate Drumgoold, and Bethany Veney with surprising results. We learn from Veney, for example, that slaves had the possibility of meeting potential spouses by attending church services together. Veney's little-known narrative, The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman, first published well after slavery in 1889, bears few [End Page 127] of the literary marks of Jacobs's 1861 narrative. In many respects, Veney's is a more conventional slave narrative that provides a clearer account of how slavery affected those who were held in bondage and lacked the personal connections to publish a narrative that would appeal to abolitionists such as Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison. Still, Veney offers new historical insights into the master-slave relationship that are worth further exploration.
The wide range of primary sources Williams collects and organizes in this book is truly remarkable. Making good use of digital archives such as the University of North Carolina's widely acclaimed website Documenting the American South as well as...