As part of the 2019 Writer’s Discussion Series, William Andrews presented a lecture on Tuesday to promote his newest publication. Titled “Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865,” Andrews discusses the role and influence of status and class in the lives of the enslaved.
With a look into more than 60 mid-nineteenth-century slave narratives, Andrews’ book illustrates the effects of social mobility among slaves in the South.
“My book draws on all the slave narratives that were published between 1840 and 1865,” Andrews said. “Most people write about a few of the narratives, especially the most famous people who wrote the narratives, people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and William Wells Brown.”
While Andrews has included these prominent stories in his book, he wanted to bring light to the less-heard, but equally important, narratives.
“My book is about a great many people whose narratives have not been discussed much, if at all,” Andrews said. “... And it’s important if you’re going to understand class to understand what everybody had to say about their experience in slavery, and therefore their experience in class as well, not just what the most famous people had to say about it.”
To prime the audience with a better understanding of the writing style and word choice often used in slave narratives, Andrews’s narrated the preface from his publication.
“(The preface) helps to understand why American slavery is fundamental to an understanding of America, of what America was and still is,” Andrews said.
As he continued, Andrews outlined the major principles he has identified from his research into the slave narratives.
“From these narratives, I’ve realized the four basic defining institutions of the United States at its founding, namely democracy, capitalism, Protestant Christianity and marriage, were profoundly corrupted by the fifth defining institution of the United States at its inception: slavery,” Andrews said.
Following his narration, Andrews began further discussion and analysis of his book, offering direct quotes from several slave narratives produced by the men and women of lower status.
“My book explores and explains class starting out from the realization that slaveholders divided the enslaved into categories of workers,” Andrews said.
These categories ranged from unskilled work, often agricultural work done in rural areas, to opportunities for more skilled slaves, such as work done in more urban areas in bigger cities, Andrews said.
“From the different classes of work that the enslaved did evolved social distinctions, higher and lower ranks, even material differences among the enslaved,” Andrews said. “Slaveholding law stipulated that all slaves were the same, that they had no rights, they were people who were considered property. Slaveholding practice did not always follow the strictures of the law.”
This discrepancy, according to Andrews, is a contributing factor in the development of social distinctions within the enslaved population, particularly those who worked in the higher status areas.
Despite obvious limitations as an enslaved person, many of these men and women worked tirelessly to raise their status and find better jobs within their population. Andrews attributes this drive and sense of motivation to an understanding of class, even among a population fiercely discriminated against.
Andrews is E. Maynard Adams Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was the 2017 recipient of the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for lifetime achievement in the study of American literature, in addition to numerous other accolades.
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