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Martha Griffith Browne, d. 1906
Autobiography of a Female Slave
New York: Redfield, 1857.

Summary

Despite its title, Autobiography of a Female Slave (1857) is not actually an autobiography, nor was it written by a slave. Instead, as scholar Carolyn Wedin Sylvander notes, Martha Griffith Browne, a white slave owner who later became an abolitionist, compiled the novel from "recited and well-known facts" and from her "firsthand experiences" (p. 145). The narrative is so realistic that readers are often unsure how to interpret it. Sylvander notes that "Since its first publication readers have sometimes taken the Autobiography to be an authentic slave narrative, sometimes an edited or shaped narrative, and sometimes a completely fictionalized story" (p. 145). Despite not actually being an autobiography, the text does offer an account of the types of trials faced by many slaves and remains a powerful anti-slavery narrative.

The novel centers around a female slave, Ann, who tells her tale in much the same way that a slave in an authentic slave narrative would: the first-person narrator begins by describing her childhood and then moves chronologically through her struggles. The characters Ann encounters often serve as representative types (of slaves, of owners, and of Americans, from both the North and the South). All of these types interact with Ann and alter the course of her life, but none of them ever modifies her vitriolic attacks on slavery, justified through moral, religious, and even gendered appeals.

Ann tells the reader that she was born in southern Kentucky of a "bright mulatto woman" and an unknown, likely white, father (pp. 9-10). Ann is taken into the home of her mistress where she is taught to read. Ann quickly notes, however, that her mistress, "though a warm-hearted woman," was a "violent advocate of slavery": "she professed to love me dearly, and had bestowed so much attention upon the cultivation of my mind . . . yet if any one had spoken of giving me freedom, she would have condemned it as domestic heresy" (p. 12). In this way, Browne presents Ann's first mistress as a symbol for a specific type: the kind hearted but misguided slave owner.

Following the death of the master, the estate is divided and sold to cover "heavy debts" (pg. 13). Mr. Peterkin—Ann's new master who literally beats her away from her mother—represents the unduly cruel slave owner. At her new home, Ann is underfed, ill-clothed and abused. She becomes the servant of Miss Jane Peterkin, one of the two daughters in the household. Miss Jane, like her sister Matilda, is fickle and inhumane. John, the only son, is the family pet—his charm and contemplativeness ensure that he is adored, although his anti-slavery views put him at odds with his family.

Ann has a particularly vexed relationship with Lindy, another slave on the estate who comes to serve as Ann's nemesis. When the girls are washing dishes after a large dinner party, Lindy drops and shatters a saucer. She blames Ann for the loss, which causes Ann to be bound, stripped, and whipped unconscious. Soon thereafter, Lindy tries to escape. She is recaptured and locked in a hold until a trader can be summoned and she can be sold. John spends the night outside Lindy's hold to comfort her. When he falls ill from his care-giving he asks that his family relinquish their slaves to fulfill his dying wish. They all agree—and John announces the manumission to the house slaves—but the family quickly denounces their promises after John passes. Mr. Peterkin dies soon after. Following the death of her father, Miss Jane marries a Mr. Summerville and she takes Ann with her when she moves to an unnamed city.

When Miss Jane demands that Ann be punished for alleged impudence, Mr. Summerville takes her to the barkeeper for a whipping, declaring that "Gentlemen do not correct negroes; they hire others to do that sort of business" (p. 280). When the barkeeper attempts to seduce Ann before he whips her, she strikes him with a broken bottle. Because of this, Ann is sent to jail. While there, Mr. Trueman, a kindly Northerner she has encountered previously, decides to represent her when her owners leave her at the mercy of the courts. Louise—a savvy former slave who purchased her freedom—visits Ann in jail, and brings flowers from another friend and fellow slave, Henry. Ann thus has her first taste of true friendship and love.

Ann is found guilty and sentenced to 200 lashes. After this punishment, she is returned to her masters and quickly learns that she is to be sold. In the interim, she spends any available time with Louise and Henry. Henry is laboring to buy his freedom from his master, and has been promised his manumission for $1000. He promises Ann that he will buy his own freedom, move North, and return to purchase Ann's freedom. After being sold to a "negro-trader" Ann is nearly suicidal, dreading the inevitable sale into the deep South and permanent separation from Henry (p. 316). But Henry finds a buyer for Ann at the last possible moment, getting a Mr. Moodwell to secure her for his sister, Miss Nancy.

Miss Nancy is an invalid who requires much care, but she is kind and treats Ann as an equal, giving her a bedroom, sharing her inner thoughts, and allowing her to see Henry. When Miss Nancy learns of Henry's plans, she agrees to write out Ann's freedom papers as soon as Henry is free. Because Ann does not wish to leave Miss Nancy without proper care, Miss Nancy agrees to settle wherever Ann and Henry chose to live. She even gives Henry the last remaining installment on his freedom.

Tragically, Ann and Henry's plans are foiled when Ann's nemesis, Lindy, re-enters the narrative. Desiring Henry and unwilling to accept his love for anyone else, Lindy goes to Henry's master and announces that he is planning to cheat him out of the last payment. When Henry arrives with his final payment, his master takes his money and tells him he has been sold and that all of his money—since he earned it as a slave—belongs to him, the legal master. Unable to bear this burden—"I am sold; but I shall be a slave no more"—Henry slits his own throat (p. 389). Ann spends months in a fog, emerging only when Miss Nancy is dying. She obtains her freedom through Miss Nancy's will and sails North to live out the remainder of her life teaching children. The last lines of the narrative call on others to continue fighting slavery and oppression: "Answer proudly, loudly, brave men; and answer, No, No!" (p. 401).

Works Consulted: Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, "Browne, Martha Griffith," American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, Taryn Benbo-Pfalzgraf, ed., Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.

Meredith Malburne

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