You are here

[Un]Authorised Voices - Who Speaks for the Slave?

Slaves have consistently fought to speak for themselves by acquiring that knowledge which was forbidden to them and using it to contest their objectification; surely we therefore owe it to them to listen to what they have to say rather than to attempt to speak for them and surely we must respect the authority in their voices rather than assume we need some independent authorisation before we can trust their testimony?

Ben Schiller

Issue #69, June 2004

I am apt to suspect the negroes... to be naturally inferior to the whites... Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity;... In Jamaica... they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.
— David Hume, Of National Characters (1753)
Some people say... Mendi people dolt, because we no talk American language. Merica people no talk Mendi language; Merica people dolt?
— Letter from Ka-Le to John Quincy Adams (1841)

Slavery as institution and metaphor is both product and perpetuator of discrimination. If Africans may be enslaved because their skin-colour makes them the "inferior" of the European or Arab, then slavery too becomes a badge of inferiority; since the subjugated woman can be forced into prostitution, so her role as commodified sex-object comes to further symbolise her low status. Thus slavery, both literal and metaphorical, institutionalises the objectification of its victims.

That the master, whether a plantation owner, a pimp, a people-trafficker, or the chairman of the board, objectifies his victim, be they an African, a woman, a migrant worker or a child, comes as no surprise. What I shall endeavour to show here is that systems of enslavement institutionalise this objectification so effectively that even those sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved all too frequently share the master's view of his victim as "voiceless," and may even be implicated in the process of objectification. This process is exemplified in the treatment and interpretation of slave literacy not only by masters but also by abolitionists, historians, and in popular culture. Since the subject will be conceptualised in the broad framework of slavery as institution, contemporary and historical, and slavery as a metaphor, the word "literacy" will also be used as a broad concept. It will be taken to cover not only the ability to read and write, but also language learning and technological literacy, since these all may be seen to be forms of knowledge/literacy denied to slaves.

Literacy and Slavery

In choosing literacy as my subject I follow the example of slaves themselves who have always recognised that to contest their objectification they must challenge their masters' exclusive possession of knowledge, and of slave-owners who knew that should the slave learn too much it would, in the words of Frederick Douglass' master, "forever unfit him to be a slave." Douglass nonetheless sought out literacy since he saw it as "the pathway from slavery to freedom." So too did Francis Bok, a seven year-old boy kidnapped and set to work as a goat-herd in modern-day Sudan, who saw that "the secrets of [the slave-owners'] power and wealth were in their heads... [and] the only way to sneak inside and steal those secrets was to learn their language," although his efforts were neither welcomed nor praised. Mende Nazer, another Sudanese victim of modern slavery, also recognised that her slavery depended on the masters' control over knowledge, and made her own way to freedom by persuading a friend of her master to teach her to use the phone:

When I got back to Madina's house, I told her that I'd been looking at mobiles in the shops and I asked her to teach me how to use the phone. We played with her mobile and her normal phone, changing ringing tones and pretending to call each other, until we were both laughing at our own antics.
Colored Scholars Excluded from Schools, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839

One further example to be added to this list is that of the Africans who overwhelmed the crew of the schooner La Amistad only to be imprisoned in the United States whilst American lawyers argued over their disposition, Africans such as the eleven year old Ka-Le who strove to learn to read and write "American language" in an attempt to persuade his captors that he and his fellow Mendians were not objects to be bought and sold. As we shall see, however, popular culture has robbed them of this achievement and reduced them yet again to mere objects in a white morality play.

The nascence of Spielberg's essentialisation of the African/slave in his 1997 film Amistad, however, is the master's objectification of the slave, which is where we must begin. Slavery depends upon the denial of the humanity, or at least of the equal humanity, of the victim, which is to say that it is only by conceptualising the slave as inferior that masters may justify their enslavement. This is typified by Hume's analysis of African "ingenuity" quoted above, but it is in the writings of his French contemporary Montesquieu that we find an enlightenment thinker making the most explicit link between race, sub-humanity, intellect, and slavery. The Spirit of Laws (1752) justifies "our right to make slaves of the negroes," in terms of race: "these creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied;" equated with sub-humanity: "it is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body;" equated with lack of intellect: "negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their wanting common sense?" Most telling, however, in that it shows the way in which the master needed the slave to be his inferior, is Montesquieu's conclusion that "it is impossible for us to assume that these people are men because if we assumed they were men one would begin to believe that we ourselves were not Christians."

Racial Objectification and Education

Objectification thus provides the master with the sanction of inequality and we can see this reflected in the testimony of slavery's victims. For instance, Mende Nazer's description of her master's reaction to catching her at prayer, resonates with Montesquieu's analysis of the necessity of believing in the slave's inferiority: "So, now you're trying to copy us are you? Do you really think that prayers are for people like you? Black people like you... Don't you know? Islam isn't for black people like you." Race is equated with sub-humanity and a lack of intellect in that not only is religion not meant for "Black people like you" but the very fact that she prays is made into a sign of ignorance — she is merely 'aping' her captors.

This same process was at work in American slavery as shown in an anonymous 1821 letter from a slave to a prominent North Carolina preacher: "Master John... I want you to tell me the Reson you allways preach to the white folks and keep your back to us." Perhaps the most revealing example of the way in which the justification for the subjugation of a slave becomes institutionalised, however, comes from Francis Bok who recalls being told "I make you sleep with the animals... because you ARE an animal," and observes that the Arabic word abd (or yebit as Mende Nazer heard it from her masters) with which he was addressed while enslaved "was a very useful word: it meant both 'black person' and 'slave'."

But such objectification is fragile. It can be all too easily shattered by a little learning and the extent of the masters' fears of literacy (and the slaves prizing of it) are apparent in both slaves' and slave-owners' testimony. For example, in 1740 South Carolina state legislators ruled "all and every person or persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach, or cause any slave or slaves to be taught, to write, shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds" (about $18,000). Slaves, meanwhile, feared terrible punishment if their literacy were discovered: "The first time you was caught trying to read or write, you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first jint offen your forefinger."

Colored Schools Broken Up, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839

Even where teaching and/or literacy is not illegal both master and slave understand what is at stake, as Edward Walker (an American slave who escaped to Canada in 1858), reveals in his recollection of Kentucky slave-owner Hayden Nelson's reaction to Hayden Nelson Jr.'s attempts to "play school master":

The boys came into the sitting room of the Nelson house and Hayden would teach them their letters. His father didn't like it, but he let his son have his way, under the belief that he would soon get tired of it, and that his scholars wouldn't have the patience to learn... I stuck to it, and learned so fast that the father couldn't stand it and made his son quit after about two weeks.

Not all masters refuse education to their slaves, however, since in order to utilise their labour the slave-owner sometimes requires the slave to have some knowledge and so, when it suits the master, slaves are sometimes permitted to be taught — just enough to make the master's job a little easier, but no so much as to challenge his status — even as they are taught to fear learning. Francis Bok, for instance, recalls that even though his master Giemma "was not about to waste his time in conversation with a seven-year-old Dinka [and] whenever I tried to talk to him, to try out some words, he shouted at me and gave me a swat," he nonetheless knew that he needed this little Dinka slave to understand enough Arabic that he could follow orders:

They kept saying this word "hanim", and I quickly realised it must be the word for "goats". I pointed to my goats, said "hanim?" and Giemma nodded. It was my job to take the goats to where they could eat grass and then where they could drink water. "Sahl" meant "grass", and "water" was "maa"... I began to pick up a working vocabulary in Arabic. I quickly learned, for example, that I said, "na'am", (yes), and they said, "la", (no).

Learning is not always given by the powerful, of course - often it must be taken by the powerless, and as we have seen, Francis Bok was not only taught for the convenience of his master, but also stole what lessons he could in order to gain some power/knowledge for himself. Similarly, African-American slaves acquired education by stealth. John Sella Martin, for instance, was so skilled at marbles that he became a "banker" for a white boy, Eaton Bass, who "had no stock [of marbles] to begin with... therefore, I insisted on his putting in an equivalent in the way of service to me, which service was to teach me my alphabet." Having taught himself to read from a discarded spelling-book, James Bradley also persuaded his "young master" to teach him to write, but his mistress caught them and put a stop to it, fearing Bradley would write himself a pass and escape: "But I persevered, and made marks of all sorts and shapes I could think of. By turning every way, I was, after a long time, able to write tolerably plain."

Once learnt, however, knowledge can be shared illicitly, and again American slaves' recollections of slavery testify to the lengths they were prepared to go in order to pass on their skills: "Dey had pit schools in slave days too. Way out in de woods... an' de slaves would slip out o' d Quarters at night, an go to dese pits, an some niggah dat had some learnin' would have a school."

Esteeming Illiteracy

But whether slaves learn from one another, or from their master, and whether they learn with or without the sanction of authority, their knowledge challenges their objectification and asserts their humanity. It equips them to communicate, to criticise, to escape, or to interpret scripture, all without the intercession of the master-class. In short, literacy operates as a shibboleth that maintains the distinction between master and slave, subject and object, modern citizen and primitive savage, and thus one might assume that those intent on attacking slavery would do so by challenging this institutionalised objectification of the victim. Yet all too often they seem instead to internalise it.

For instance, while the highly literate Frederick Douglass' narrative might have been a bestseller, American abolitionists preferred to employ his talents as a lecturer, and in general, although their constituency was the literate middle-classes, they nonetheless favoured the spoken over the written word. This is clear from their reluctance to promote fugitive slaves' writings — although over fifty slave narratives were published between 1831 and 1861, Garrison's Liberator reviewed only six of them — whilst when it came to lectures they preferred their fugitive-slave/lecturer to be unschooled and artless. For instance, Lydia Maria Child commented that she found the testimony of Lewis Clarke, (an illiterate fugitive slave who spoke at a number of abolitionist meetings in the same period as Douglass), particularly compelling because he was clearly uneducated and unsophisticated:

His obvious want of education was one guaranty of the truth of his story; and the uncouth awkwardness of his language had a sort of charm, like the circuitous expression, and stammering utterance, of a foreign tongue, striving to speak our most familiar phrases.

Why was Clarke so appealing? I think the answer lies in the philanthropists' preferences for the powerless. The powerless victim in need of rescue or the heroic escapee in need of succour places the helper in a far more self-satisfying light than does the emergence from slavery of a survivor who requires no more than a safe space to live. Harriet Jacobs in 1894. Cabinet photograph by Gilbert Studios, Washington, DC.At the same time the uneducated, illiterate slave is testimony to the damage caused by slavery and thus makes better abolitionist propaganda than the self-confident, independent, even arrogant men portrayed in the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Henry Bibb, or Frederick Douglass. Thus slaves become objects to be freed, just as they were objects to be enslaved.

To return to the slave narratives, they are in themselves very revealing of the scepticism directed toward the literate slave both in their own time and in our histories of them. When first put into print, each had to verified and authorised by a host of white authorities before it could be accepted as truthful, a process which did not end with publication, but which has continued to the present day as historians have repeated history in a perpetual challenge to the authority of the slave narrator. For example, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl was only finally and definitively 'proven' to be a work of autobiography rather than fiction in 1981, 120 years after it was first published. What free white person has had to wait so long for the authorisation of their autobiography?

Authority and Contemporary Slave Narratives

Nor are the modern slave narratives of Francis Bok or Mende Nazer (published in 2003 and 2004 respectively) free of this quest for authority. Both are written with the aid of 'respectable authorities' in the form of the journalists Francis Tivnan and Damien Lewis. Both sport similar covers featuring the face of the African author with the title text centred on eye (witnessing) or mouth (bearing witness) — again the emphasis is on demonstrating authority. And both have similar subtitles: Escape From Slavery — The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity — and My Journey to Freedom in America, Francis Bok with Edward Tivnan; Slave — The True Story of a Girl's Lost Childhood and Her Fight for Survival, Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis. Although the differences between them are notable (first person versus third person pronouns, "with" as opposed to "and" in the author credits,) what is striking is that they both stress the words "true story."

Covers of German, Italian, and Dutch editions of Mende Nazer's Slave (2003)

But perhaps the most telling indication that the quest for authority in the slave narrative is as important today as it was in nineteenth-century America comes in Damien Lewis' account of the first time he met Mende Nazer -- he was recruited by a Nuba friend of his who "wanted help in rescuing her: in particular, a journalist to witness the rescue so it was 'on the record'. That's where I came in." And he continues to play this role, providing the 'Afterword' to her story in which he details its authenticity based on his own testimony as witness to her rescue, and provides his own bona fides by citing his experiences filming and interviewing "hundreds of escaped slaves" in Sudan itself. And should his word not be considered good enough, he goes on to cite authorities greater even than that epitome of civilisation and literacy, the journalist:

Stories like Mende's have been documented literally in their thousands by organisations like the UN, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International. A recent report by the US Bureau of African Affairs found that 'slavery in Sudan is characterised by violent capture and abductions, subjection to forced labour with no pay, denial of a victim's freedom of movement and choice, prohibition of the use of native language, and the denial of contact with the victim's family'. That one sentence could be used to sum up Mende's own story.

I hasten to add that in drawing attention to this quest for authority I intend no criticism of Mende Nazer, Francis Bok, Damien Lewis or Edward Tivnan (nor indeed Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Lloyd Garrison, or Lydia Child). Theirs was and is a valid response to a world that treats Africans as untrustworthy, victims as suspects and where the words "asylum seeker" are synonymous with the words "freeloader" or "criminal." Rather, my criticism is of that worldview and the ways in which it is perpetuated.

Which brings us back to Spielberg and Amistad and his portrayal of the relationship between the African/slave/victim and the European/abolitionist/saviour. For his morality play to work the slave must be no more than object, and so the Africans in Spielberg's film learn only pidgin-religion, piecing together the gospel on the basis of engravings in a bible, despite the fact that many were converted to Christianity: perhaps religion wasn't meant for them, "for black people" like them. Nor do they never learn to speak English, despite the fact that many of the Amistad rebels not only learnt to speak it but also to read and write it: perhaps, like Frederick Douglass' master, Spielberg was worried that it would "forever unfit them to be slaves" at least in the eyes of his audience.

So who speaks for the slave? According to Spielberg's construction only their masters or their emancipators. However, slaves have consistently fought to speak for themselves by acquiring that knowledge which was forbidden to them and using it to contest their objectification — surely we therefore owe it to them to listen to what they have to say rather than to attempt to speak for them and surely we must respect the authority in their voices rather than assume we need some independent authorisation before we can trust their testimony? Thus while not questioning the sincerity or committment of organisations such as The Anti-Slavery Society, I would suggest that "a voice for the voiceless," the tag-line it uses on its website, does a dis-service to those it wishes to aid.

Who speaks for the slave? It must surely be the slave.

Ben Schiller is a PhD student at Edinburgh University.

Colored Scholars Excluded from Schools, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839 (New York: Published for the American Anti-Slavery Society, Vol. I, No. 4), p. 13. Courtesy The John Hay Library, Brown University. Colored Schools Broken Up, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839 (New York: Published for the American Anti-Slavery Society, Vol. I, No. 4), p. 15. Courtesy The John Hay Library, Brown University. Harriet Jacobs in 1894. Cabinet photograph by Gilbert Studios, Washington, DC. Covers of German, Italian, and Dutch editions of Mende Nazer's Slave (2003).

Copyright © 2004 by Ben Schiller. All rights reserved.