Among Slave Narratives

Michael Drexler

Bucknell University

I taught Humanity in Algiers in a 200 level course called Slave Narratives.  We read the novella early in the semester after Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and between the The Address of Abraham Johnstone, a Black Man, Who Was Hanged at Woodbury and A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa.  In the context of these late 18th-century narratives, Humanity in Algiers showed how the ethnographic impulse in the slave narrative may have been a response to readers’ expectations that confrontation with the exotic other would include such detail.  Equiano and Smith both describe the lifeworld of Africa before the confrontation with agents–black or white–of the transatlantic slave trade.  Each tells a story of noble parentage and recounts what they could recall of social customs, law, domestic relations, and engagement with foreigners.  Azem’s story is here similar.  

But it is Abraham Johnstone’s relatively obscure gallow’s tale with which Humanity in Algiers most registered.  Johnstone, former slave and then resident of New Jersey had been accused of killing “a Guinea Negro.”  The text, divided into four parts, includes a preface by Johnstone’s white defenders; a monitory address to the “People of Colour,” which reads very much like patronizing gradualist emancipation literature; Johnstone’s dying confession–though still adamant about his innocence; and a sentimental, but also bitter letter to his wife, who refused to visit him in jail.  He ends his narrative with the following injunction:  “for God’s sake my dear woman, and for your dying husbands sake, shun and by all means avoid frolicking and all it’s attending evil concomitants, for your personal attendance at such scenes, is inimical to your future happiness, and renders you odious in the sight of God, and contemptible in the opinions of men.”  Thus what is seemingly most personal to Johnstone is also that which most reiterates the arguments of the paternalist, if beneficent, whites who published the narrative.

Untangling the multiple audiences and political motives for the publication of Johnstone’s text is a vexing process, but it did give us a set of interesting questions to ask about Humanity in Algiers, published for a white readership in Troy, NY.  Much as early slave narratives had several, and sometimes contradictory goals–mixing genres, testifying to religious conversion, and–usually–containing a criticism of slavery and the trade in human beings, Humanity in Algiers is a quilt-work from multiple samples.  Thanks to Ed and Duncan for making the text available.   


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