Hannah Crafts' Dickensian art
Mrs. Perkins and Mrs. Piper in Washington D.C.
Discovering Hannah Crafts
In 2012, the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. saw a manuscript for sale in an auction catalogue, from the collection of Dorothy Porter Wesley, which immediately pricked his interest. Wesley was a great librarian and bibliophile who had amassed one of the great collections of African-American literature. When she retired in 1973, Wesley had collected over 180,000 items. Her collection is one of the major wellsprings of the scholarship of African-American history that has flourished since the 1960s.
No wonder, then, that Gates was intrigued. Especially because some of the other notes in the auction catalogue suggested that the manuscript in question, written by Hannah Crafts, might be the first novel written by an enslaved woman, possibly the first American novel written by a black woman. No wonder, too, that Gates was astonished to find, after the auction, that he had been the only bidder.
In 2002, Gates edited and published The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a page-turning narrative about the life of a slave woman, the horrors she sees and suffers, and her escape to freedom. It is a brisk, bitter, unflinching account of the evils of slaveholding and the struggle for liberation, as well as a satire of contemporary life. Though I have had my stomach turned by the accounts of physical violence towards slaves in Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, I was grimly astonished by the early hanging scene, which must rank as some of strongest testimony of evil written in the nineteenth century.