Venture Smith’s Autobiography and Runaway Ad: Enslavement in Early New York

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Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes, in the introduction to The Classic Slave Narratives, that more than 6,000 ex-slaves left some form of written testament between 1703 and 1944. (1) Most enslaved Africans were illiterate. There are very few preserved journals or personal letters written by them during their captivity. So where did all these documents come from? In the long history of human bondage, it was only the black slaves in the United States who–once secure and free in the North, and with the generous encouragement and assistance of northern abolitionists–created a genre of literature [the slave narrative] that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate. (2) On the anti-slavery lecture circuit, in magazines, and in books, ex-slaves told the stories of their lives. Another huge effort at documentation occurred in the next century, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Federal Writers Project paid scholars and students to travel the South and interview elderly African Americans who were formerly enslaved. (3) More than two thousand narratives were recorded on tape and then transcribed onto paper. Taken together, these primary documents are a rich historical resource, much of which is now available on the Internet. But advising students to simply “go on the Web” and “search on the key words ‘slave narrative'” would probably lead to confusion for most of the class. Without some guidance from a teacher, students can be overwhelmed by the enormity of the collections, confused by old-fashioned terms and writing style, or misled by reading random bits of the historical record. Preparing to Read Narratives Here are some suggestions for how teachers can prepare students for critical reading and learning from these documents. 1. Reduce the volume of examples. Hundreds of choices are overwhelming to middle-level students. Select a small sample of narratives. An excerpt of the Narrative of Venture Smith follows as a handout for students to read and discuss. One good source is the University of Virginia’s online lesson plans at “Documenting the American South.” (4) 2. Many of the narratives are hundreds of pages long. Decide on the topics you want the class to examine. Point students towards the sections they should read. 3. Some of the narratives include painful or sensationalized accounts and long passages about religious beliefs. Teachers need to read all material before assigning it and decide what is appropriate for the age and abilities of their students. 4. Teachers may need to simplify or translate archaic English or material written in non-standard dialects. On the following handout, ellipses (…) show where the editor has removed words, and [brackets] indicate that the editor has added a word. Students should understand that the original document has been excerpted and text altered–as indicated–to clarify meaning. 5. The narratives are from a different historical era. Because of this, African Americans are often referred to as “Negroes” or “colored.” Derogatory and racist language that is unacceptable in our society today appears in these texts. We recommend that teachers discuss the use of language with their classes before beginning the project. This should be an open discussion, not a lecture, because our terms with regard to the human condition are still evolving. For example, some historians believe that the narrators of these accounts should be referred to as “formerly enslaved people” rather than “former slaves,” since slavery is a condition imposed on people, not part of their core identity. 6. Provide students with background, context, analysis, guiding questions, and related resources, as suggested in the lesson plan below.