William Wells Brown's Narrative of a Fugitive Slave
Wells Brown was a prominent author, lecturer and historian
of the mid-nineteenth century. Born into slavery and
eventually gaining his freedom, he used his experiences from
his time in bondage to establish a career in writing and
lecturing. Even when the Constitution allowed for slavery,
religion justified it, and society accepted it, Brown spoke
out against the horrific practice, utilizing literature and
speech as powerful tools against slavery. Hired by the
American Anti-Slavery Society, he worked closely with famous
abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell
Phillips to help pioneer the field of African American
literature and speech. The Narrative of William W.
Brown: A Fugitive Slave, Written By Himself is his most
popular narrative and is acclaimed for its straightforward
and unadorned writing style and his often frank emotionally
detached recounts of his experiences as a slave. His story
provides a window into the cruel and bizarre practice of
slavery as the events throughout the piece give a testimony
against the institution of slavery.
narrative serves as a first hand testimony of the key ideas
and practices that abolitionists of the time opposed and
were eager to exploit. Like in Frederick Douglass’
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American
Slave and countless slave narratives like it, Brown’s
accounts of his servitude, escape, and life after freedom
offer more than just an entertaining story. In addition,
they also tell of the plight of slavery as a whole,
recounting events and emotions experienced by the masses.
He personalizes the practice, giving the perhaps naïve or
uninformed reader, a glimpse into the lives and mindset of
slaves both in the context of his own personal experience,
as well as the institution as a whole.
increased popularity of slave narratives during the
nineteenth century stemmed from the fact that readers could
study first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery and, in turn,
create a powerful tool for abolitionists.
William Wells Brown’s abolitionist editors, Edmund Quincy
and J C Hathaway, not only edited and wrote prefaces for his
text to give it credibility and appeal but, in addition,
they were hoping that his work would help instigate readers
to “understand slavery better and to hate it
worse”(Jefferson,14). Brown conforms to this genre of
abolitionist African American literature with frequent
accounts of the inhumanities that he endured and discussions
of events that represent slavery as an institution rather
than as an individual experience.
takes no time to prepare the reader for the harsh realities
of slavery; he begins his narrative by immediately and
bluntly telling how he was born in Lexington, KY then stolen by
his master. He then goes on to cite that, at a very young age,
he witnessed his mother being whipped in the field.
Brown candidly recounts how he woke up one morning to hear
the sounds of his mother being whipped for being a few
minutes late to the field, explaining “I
could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry
of my poor mother. I remained at the door, not daring to
venture any farther. The cold chills ran over me, and I wept
aloud. After giving her ten lashes, the sound of the whip
ceased, and I returned to my bed, and found no consolation
but in my tears. It was not yet daylight”(Brown, 16). His story continues on this vein, openly recounting
the horrific realities and brutalities of slavery. Brown
relates how he was beaten mercilessly and suffered horribly
from hunger and cold, not sparing the reader any of the
shocking detail and often explaining the cruelties frankly
and complacently with little emotion.
throughout his work Brown espouses slavery’s dehumanizing
effects, telling of the horrors of the system and the wrongs
that it forces humans to commit. Like Frederick Douglass in
his “Fourth of July Address,” Brown reveals the
contradictions of the institution as he highlights hypocrisy
of a society that allows for the exploitation of human labor
while, at the same time, declaring its own Christian
goodness. After being whipped mercilessly by a cruel master
he explains how “The man who
but a few hours before had bound my hands together with a
strong cord, read a chapter from the Bible, and then offered
up prayer, just as though God sanctioned the act he had just
committed upon a poor panting, fugitive slave”(Brown, 73).This example of a master’s abuse of religion
shows a practice universal throughout the institution of
slavery and personalizes it within Brown’s account of his
life, providing more fuel for abolitionists.
throughout this work, Brown highlights how the institution
of slavery often turns good moral people, including himself,
corrupt. Most memorably Brown recounts a situation in
which he exploited a fellow slave so that he, himself, would
not have to be punished.
explains that, “This incident shows how it is that slavery
makes its victims lying and mean… I have often, since my
escape, deeply regretted the deception I practiced upon this
poor fellow; and I heartily desire that it may be, at some
time or other, in my power to make him amends for his
vicarious sufferings in my behalf”(Brown, 58).To justify this act, Brown explains that the
situation illustrates the meanness and brutality that slaves
would have to resort to under the horrible system.
Furthermore, Brown tells of how he was hired by his master
to work in the slave trade; essentially supporting the very
practice that ruins lives, destroys families and causes
pain to himself and his family and friends. One of the most
dehumanizing tasks that he had to carry out was preparing
slaves for market and traveling with slave traders despite
begging to his master to allow him to work somewhere else. He
describes how he was “heart-sick at seeing [his]
fellow-creatures bought and sold”(Brown, 43).
the misery and sense of hypocrisy that Brown may have felt,
this was his task and like many others he must have faced,
he detached himself emotionally. Brown does not seem to hold
himself or the individuals who carried it out responsible,
but instead blames the situation and institution of
slavery. Perhaps he feels that he has made up for these
acts later with his work in abolition and helping to smuggle
fugitives to freedom in Canada through his work on the
narrative is an excellent addition to a broad field of slave
narratives and abolitionist literature. He speaks for the
masses and voices the opinions and atrocities experienced by
a lot of slaves of the time. He focuses on specific
incidents and events to tell his story and lets the reader
draw their own opinions and conclusions from the events and
his work. The narrative ends optimistically with Brown
beginning his new life as an abolitionist and leaving the
reader profoundly moved by his triumphs and heartaches, as
well as, with anger and incredulity at the institution of
reproduction without permission of the author]
of Congress, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-05453]
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Autobiography: Notes Toward a Definition of a Genre.” To
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Linda M. “William Wells Brown (1814-1884).” African
American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S.
Nelsonl. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002. 55-60.
Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave. New York: Penguin Group (USA)
Frederick. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One:
Speeches, Debates and Interviews: Volume 2: 1847-54. Ed.
John W. Blassingame. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Paul. “The Autobiographical Writings of William Wells
Brown.” Masterpieces of African-American Literature.
Ed. Frank n. Magill. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. 13-17.
6. Yellin, Jean
Fagan. “William Wells Brown.” The Intricate Knot: Black
Figures in American Literature, 1776-1863.
New York: New York University Press, 1972. 152-81.