When Africans were violently brought over to America and forced under the institution of slavery, the separation from their heritage was far more than physical. Their traditional religions and practices were demonized and punished on a large scale, creating a compulsion to assimilate to the dominant culture and enforcing a more complete rupture from their various cultural pasts. The fictionalized autobiography The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a manuscript written in the mid-nineteenth century which tells the story of a slave woman who runs away from her oppressors, deals with the tensions between the Western America and the traditional African cultures under the institution of slavery. Many scholars have noted the manuscript’s blatant appropriation of the urban gothic Bleak House by Charles Dickens in several passages, but the comparison between the Western gothic genre and Crafts’s novel goes deeper than simple copying. Crafts takes many characteristics of the Western gothic novel and incorporates them into her own work, contextualizing them in accordance to experience of slavery. In other words, she African-Americanizes them. Specifically, Crafts African-Americanizes the Western gothic literary tradition in her use of traditional folklore and oral narratives in the African-American communities under slavery. This appropriation illustrating the complicated relationship between the two cultures is furthered by Crafts’s character and persona, Hannah, through her own position within and without the African-American culture of folklore and oral narratives.
There is much academic debate over the exact genre of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, as well as the racial and historical identity of the author. Some, like the scholar who brought the work to the public eye, Henry Louis Gates Jr., believe the text to be a fictionalized autobiography with varying levels of factual accuracy. Others prefer to interpret the text as a novel, the product of literary inspiration with many different influences. For simplicity and clarity, this paper will be referring to the author as Crafts, her narrator and character as Hannah, and will treat the text as a novel as to better analyze the gothic influences on the writing and how they affect readings of the work. I will also take some time to outline my use of the terms “appropriate,” “refit,” and “transform,” since they have vastly different connotations as to the value and meaning of Crafts’s work. Using the word “appropriate” implies a sort of intellectual thievery and uncreative plagiarism. When applied to literary work, this term implicitly argues that the “appropriating” work is at best of limited value and at worst utterly reprehensible. In contrast, the terms “refit” or “transform” imply a purposeful reimagining of outside tropes and characteristics to illustrate something new, and do not have the same negative value connotations as “appropriate.” Therefore, the terms “refit” and “transform” are ultimately more useful to the discussion of Crafts’s engagement with gothic literature.
Gothic literature can be loosely characterized by its merger of horror and romanticism, as well as by several salient elements found in the vast majority of permutations: a grand but decayed setting (such as a haunted mansion or castle), supernatural elements, reference to curses or prophecies, and representations of some form of monstrosity or insanity (Smith). These same elements are utilized often throughout Crafts’s novel, but adapted to the setting of the antebellum American South, specifically to the culture of the African slave populations and their experience under slavery. Rachel Teukolsky, professor of English at Vanderbilt University, argues that Crafts had written a book where “Bleak House’s urban gothic is rewritten…as a Southern Gothic,” which can extended to her treatment of other gothic novels of the era (Teukolsky 513). However, the Southern Gothic genre was arguably created after the Civil War to describe the post-war South, so Crafts’s novel may be better described as proto- Southern Gothic. Even proto-Southern Gothic, though, fails to capture the important specificity of the slave experience, so Slave Gothic is perhaps the best descriptor of Crafts’s work, being the most specific term to refer to work detailing the horrors of slavery before the institution’s collapse.
One of the more blatant examples of Crafts’s use of the gothic tradition by way of African-Americanization is in Hannah’s retelling of slave folklore surrounding a linden tree on the property of her first masters’ plantation, Lindendale. According to the legend, the tree haunted by the ghost of a slave woman who, along with her little dog, was tied to its trunk for days without food or water for no other reason than their master’s cruelty and desire for violence. As the slave woman hung there dying, she cried out with her last breath,
I will hang here till I die as a curse to this house, and I will come here after I am dead to prove its bane. In sunshine and shadow, by day and by night I will brood over this tree, and weigh down its branches, and when death, or sickness, or misfortune is to befall the family ye may listen for ye will assuredly hear the creaking of its limbs. (Crafts 25)
The community of slaves at Lindendale tell this story around campfires at night, immortalizing and fantasizing the story of the Linden Tree, which was then used to explain all manners of strange occurrences. The story was therefore preserved as an oral narrative, and became part of the rich folklore specific to the African-American slaves of Lindendale.
Several basic elements of the gothic tradition are evident in this story. The haunted mansion becomes the slave plantation, ideologically decaying as the institution of slavery becomes increasingly fragile in the years before the Civil War. The supernatural elements and the role of curses are salient in that they are a direct result of racial violence under slavery, bleeding their intrinsic horror onto a political institution. The part of the monster is played by the cruel master, a man made vicious by the insanity of slavery. Each element of classic gothic literature is thus renovated to reveal a horrifying truth about life in the antebellum South, framed by conventions of gothic horror.
The pattern of slave narratives in gothic style is found in another prominent example later in Crafts’s work. On Hannah’s second plantation, she and another slave, Jo, saw a strange figure in the main house of the plantation that Jo interpreted as a ghost and Hannah interpreted as a physical person. Later, when walking with her mistress, Hannah overhears Jo retelling the story to a group of other slaves, who easily accept the fantastic tale as it fits with their canon of “superstitious” folklore.
…we were surprised to hear the sharp and unmusical voice of Jo detailing to a group of wondering listeners an account of his night’s ghostly visitant. Of course the story lost nothing of the strange or marvelous by the recital, and the ludicrous countenances of the auditors, as they were variously excited by fear, wonder and apprehension were enough to have provoked a smile on the lip of Heraclitus. Their remarks were no less comical, as no one thought of attributing the appearance to natural causes. (Crafts 143)
Jo, by way of telling the story of his ghostly experience, is working within and creating new folklore, specific to his community of fellow slaves. The others slaves are used to this creation of truth, and readily accept Jo’s oral story into their understanding of reality on the plantation. As for expressing characteristics of gothic literature, this narrative re-contextualizes several aspects within an explicitly African-American reality. Once again, the setting of haunted castle or mansion is replaced in this tale by the slave plantation, witness to the “hauntings” of a shadowy figure. This same shadowy figure is the expression of the supernatural, colored black by Jo’s perception and Hannah’s sleuthing. Black bodies become the haunting supernatural forces that turn the antebellum plantation into a site of gothic horror.
Important to note is that these oral narratives are propagated solely by the African-American population for themselves. Their white masters never took their “superstitions” seriously, or acknowledged any significance in the objects of their fascination. In the case of the Linden Tree, the master of the Lindendale plantation responds to its ominous creaking by saying that the sounds were merely the product of “the decayed branches of an old tree at the end of the house,” and promises in vain to have it cut down (Crafts 30). Mrs. Henry, the white mistress Hannah was walking beside during Jo’s narrative to the other slaves, condescendingly despairs at the lack of intelligence in her slaves that they believe such stories, remarking “It is really strange…My servants were never indulged in superstitious tendencies. I have always striven to instruct them better…” (Crafts 143). Since the powerful, “rational,” white people in the story reject their slaves’ narratives, these traditions are clearly racialized as belonging only to the uneducated Africans. By framing folklore and oral narratives as strictly part of slave culture, it is all the more ironic that these narratives should be the ones most blatantly drawing on Western gothic characteristics. The traditionally European genre is refitted to suit the experiences of African-Americans, a people who at that point in history were not even widely considered to be human under slavery. Crafts is transforming and translating the Western gothic genre, giving its implicit literary power to the folk narrative traditions of African-American slaves.
Crafts’s use of these blatant aspects of gothic literary tradition transformed into the context of the African-American slave culture reveals a deeper criticism of Western culture as a part of revealing tensions between slave culture and the culture of slavery. Daniel Hack, in his article “Close Reading at a Distance: The African Americanization of Bleak House,” contends that many African-American figures and abolitionists used a “strategy of transformative reproduction and creative appropriation” in reprinting and reusing Charles Dicken’s urban gothic Bleak House, repurposing the text for their own cause (Hack 742). Hack includes Crafts in his argument, claiming that she uses elements and direct passages from Bleak House to create a social novel far more powerful than Dickens’s, one that focuses on the institution of slavery instead of poverty. He also notes that Crafts speaks with the voice of Western genres without fully belonging in those genres, saying “Crafts seems steeped in the literature of the day and yet largely indifferent to the protocols of print culture” (Hack 747). He thus frames her as a literary outsider, using a conglomeration of voices, ranging from African-American to European, but belonging to neither voice entirely.
Hack’s thesis can be extended to include Crafts’ use of elements from the broader genre of gothic literature, and his claim that Crafts had created a social criticism novel can be further specified to include how Crafts uses gothic tradition to expose cultural tensions between the oppressing force of slave owners and the slaves. The fact that most of the repurposed gothic material is found within the context of the African-American population could be taken to illustrate the oppressive nature of Western culture, both literary and otherwise, but could also simply communicate the complexities of power and “appropriation,” as these African-American slaves are taking and repurposing a previously Western style of literature. In a very literal way, Crafts use of Western gothic literary traditions in the context of African-American slaves exposes the complicated relationship between the two cultures and peoples.
Just as Crafts’s writing does not easily fit within Western or African-American categories, Hannah does not easily fit into either of the two ideological distinctions of white and black. While she is clearly a slave and is well aware of the power imbalance between her and her masters, her textual relationship with other slaves indicates that she is not truly a part of the slave culture either. For one, Hannah is a domestic slave, and thus leads a far more comfortable life than many other slaves. In addition to the difference in her duties, Hannah also spends an inordinate amount of time with her various mistresses, getting to know them rather than engaging with her fellow slaves. Hannah is enforcing class division, putting herself on the side of the masters in part by virtue of her domestic work. As Rachel Teukolsky points out, “at every point Hannah takes pains to establish her class superiority to other slaves in the novel” (Teukolsky 515). Over and over again, Hannah speaks about other slaves as if she were different from them, as if she were an outsider.
More importantly, Hannah is also spiritually and ideologically separated from the African-American community. Instead of the traditional religions of her ancestors, her faith is steadfastly within the white tradition of Christianity, no matter the non-denominational and abolitionist form it took. Hannah also seems to be ambivalent toward the truth of the folk narratives she hears, at times emotionally responding to them and at others joining her mistress in rejecting them as superstition. In regards to the legend of the Linden Tree, she seems to take its supernatural qualities as fact, referring to the legend as “history” and confessing that when the branches creaked ominously, “we all [the slaves] knew that was said to forebode calamity to the family” (Crafts 20). However, she later says that she does not believe in the stories her fellow slaves tell, saying she “seldom gave way to imaginary terror” (Crafts 136). Her ambivalent attitude is again illustrated in her response to Jo’s aforementioned folk tale about his ghostly visitation. In describing the scene of Jo’s retelling of the story, she calls the rapt listeners “ludicrous” and “comical.” They speak in heavy dialect, yet another indication of their separation from Hannah, who apparently speaks without accent. The language Hannah uses to describe the slaves participating in Jo’s oral narrative implies a level derision toward the slave culture, as well as a measure of cultural elitism, as she frames herself as more intelligent than other African-Americans. She seems to very consciously delineate herself from them. Instead of denying the veracity of Jo’s story outright, however, Hannah tells her disbelieving mistress that “there may be something in it after all,” going on to tell her very factual version of events (Crafts 143). In this, she marks herself as separate from her white mistress in that she is willing to admit to the truth in Jo’s story.
Instead of explicitly taking one side of the truth, Western “rationality” or the Africans’ “irrationality,” Hannah acts as a mediator or translator between the two, expressing to her mistress the truths in the fictionalized account of Jo’s ghostly adventure while still deriding the overall story as false. Both physically and ideologically, Hannah is an outsider of both the African-American and white communities around her. She does not subscribe to or participate in the folk traditions of oral narratives in the slave community, yet she cannot be a member of the white community due to her social status. However, Hannah is necessarily also a qualified member of both groups. She is a slave and shares experiences with other African-Americans, casting her into an identity that she cannot truly escape, even as she escapes the literal bonds of slavery in the final chapter of the book. She also possesses an incredibly Western literary and intellectual voice, and has meaningful relationships with various white people in her environments. Therefore, Hannah is simultaneously black and white, while belonging to neither group entirely. Just as Crafts’s use of Western gothic characteristics places the novel in between Western and slave cultures, Hannah is also in between the two cultures.
Hannah’s complicated place in between the cultures of white and African-American make her an interesting window to view the world of slavery through. She is a truly liminal figure, in between the definitions of whiteness and blackness. She is both an outsider and an insider no matter what perspective is taken. The reader catches a glimpse of the life of an African-American woman through the literary gaze of a Westerner. Because of her literarily unique position, as a character she functions as a way for Crafts to explore the theoretically opposing forces of whiteness and blackness, of slave owners and slaves. Through Hannah’s criticism of slave owners, the reader understands her hatred of the institution of slavery. Through Hannah’s dismissal of many folk narratives and oral stories told by slaves, the reader understands the cultural elitism at play against the traditional cultures of African-Americans. Crafts can also display both the blatant tensions of slavery, like violence and rape, and the subtle ones, like cultural appropriation and devaluation through Hannah, who has the social status to be witness to both and the intellect to critically examine both. The creation of Hannah as a narrator and character allow for the space to deal with these tensions. Crafts’s use of the gothic tradition also fits neatly within her pattern of insider and outsider play, for as Hack notes, she is a literary outsider in the genres she utilizes.
Crafts’s novel is situated in the in-between, both in Hannah and the literary style which mashes together the Western and the slave culture. Hannah represents the blatant and subtle tensions between white and African-American cultures, communities, and ideologies through not only her experiences but in her separation from other slaves’ use of traditional folklore and oral narratives. She is at once apart from and a part of these communities, and functions as a literal and literary mediator between the two “opposing” cultural forces. The display of tension is deepened and complicated by Crafts translation of Western gothic elements to the experience of African-American slaves, creating a work that mediates the cultural divide just as Hannah mediates the divide between her fellow slaves and their masters. The conglomeration of genre and sources of this text indicates a far deeper engagement with meaning than simple appropriation. Instead, Crafts has transformed the gothic genre to illustrate the unique tensions between slaves and slave owners, whites and blacks, and the cultures of both.
Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Grand Central, 2014. Print.
Hack, Daniel. “Close Reading at a Distance: The African Americanization of Bleak House.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 34, no. 4, 2008, pp. 729–753., www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/592542.
Smith, Andrew. “Introduction.” Gothic Literature, NED – New edition, 2 ed., Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2013, pp. 1–17, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g09zdb.6.
Teukolsky, Rachel. “Pictures in Bleak Houses: Slavery and the Aesthetics of Transatlantic Reform.” ELH, vol. 76, no. 2, 2009, pp. 491–522., www.jstor.org/stable/27742945.