- Kitchen Testimony: Ex-Slaves’ Narratives in New Company
A talkative servant is never considered a desirable inmate in any family. (1855) 1
In 1850, a correspondent to the pro-slavery New York Herald had a complaint. Aware, along with most of the nation, of the widely reported divorce suits of the nation’s foremost Shakespearean actor and his allegedly wild wife, the letter-writer questioned the merit of putting Edwin and Catherine Forrest’s domestic servants on the witness stand. “It seems to me to be unjust,” this onlooker commented,
and improper, and unreasonable to believe imputations against any respectable woman, of gross misconduct, such as vulgarity or drunkenness, to say nothing of worse charges or insinuations, upon the mere belief and unexplained statement of . . . such witnesses as those relied on in this case. An ignorant housekeeper, and an equally ignorant Irish man servant, are not exactly the persons whose construction should govern us in estimating the conduct of their superiors. 2
The kicker to this haughty assertion lies in its tail for, according to “An American,” servant-witnesses should be inadmissible in court “even though they may speak the truth, and testify under no improper influence.” Nothing about this charge admits that quite a few servant-witnesses had been testifying in print and lecture-halls in recent years because “An American” ignored writers like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown (to name only the most acclaimed). Ten years later, a pro-slavery novelist did acknowledge the accounts of former and fugitive chattel, but wondered why any sensible person would listen to menials’ complaints. In what looks like a direct reference to the Forrest trial, she scoffed that Carolina readers knew better than to credit Irish servants who claimed to have witnessed immorality. No more, she thought, should “civilized, educated Abolitionists . . . be so daft as to believe the monstrosities fulminated by lying runaway negroes, against their masters.” 3
These comments remind literary and cultural historians that in addition to race-based resistance, ex-slaves’ narratives were subject to a class-based fear, and that both class and race inflect the notorious complaint that “the slave as a general thing, is a [End Page 141] liar.” 4 Class and race also mingle in the term “testimony . . . from the kitchen,” which was coined by one of Catherine Forrest’s alleged lovers, a man with reason to fear what servants might say. 5 With this essay, I want to emphasize the fact that many ex-slave narrators had been house staff at some point, to draw their life-stories closer to accounts of waged service like Louisa May Alcott’s “How I Went Out to Service” (1874) and the housekeeper’s memoir published as A Lifetime with Mark Twain (1925). As this conflation of separable categories runs counter to some familiar patterns of thought, I will first outline the reasons that ex-slaves’ narratives could look like kitchen testimony to 19th-century homemakers trying to defend a rank-perquisite they held dear. I then survey several 19th-century servant-writers to illuminate the strategies they used when venturing into public speech. I conclude with a few thoughts on the boons I see for inquiries about ex-slaves’ narratives as a subset of the broader category of accounts written by people whose claim for attention rested on the fact that they had served. My inspiration throughout is the non-slave servant-writers forced to negotiate many of the same obstacles that former and fugitive slaves encountered when they tried to enter print. 6 A few of these writers are known and esteemed, most notably Alcott and Harriet Wilson, while others are still obscure, like Eliza M. Potter and Kate Leary. In bringing these servant-writers alongside ex-slave narrators like Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley, I do not follow the antebellum pundit who opined: “[t]he words slave and servant are perfectly synonymous” or even David Walker’s charge that “a servant is a slave to the man whom he serves.” 7 I contend, instead, that if ex-slave narrators were forced to “run a gauntlet of critics . . . hindered, if not obstructed, by the surveillance of both friend and foe...