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Annie Parker, Passages in the life of a slave woman (Review)

December 31, 2014

I have, this year, reviewed a couple of Library of America‘s (LOA) stories about slavery in the USA, one being Harriet Ann Jacobs’ “The lover”, and the other William Wells Brown’s, Madison Washington. I’ve always been interested in slavery in the US, so when Annie Parker’s “Passages in the life of a slave woman” appeared in my inbox, I of course wanted to read it – and discovered yet another intriguing story.

When I say I discovered “another intriguing story”, I don’t just mean Parker’s story but the story of Parker herself. Let me explain. Parker’s story, “Passages in the life of a slave woman”, was published, according to LOA’s always illuminating notes, in Autographs for freedom. This was an annual anthology of antislavery literature published as a fundraising venture by the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. (Only two were apparently produced). The anthologies included “original works by such dignitaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, William Wells Brown, Catherine M. Sedgwick, William H. Seward, and Horace Greeley”, as well as Frederick Douglass’ novella, The heroic slave, about Madison Washington. They also included two pieces by Annie Parker – a poem, Story telling”, and the story I’m discussing here. But, here’s the thing – no-one, says LOA, apparently knows who this Annie Parker is (or was).

So, like any good blogger, I did an internet search – just a little one – and found a guest post on the blog of the IAHI, aka, the IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) Arts and Humanities Institute. The guest post, published in September 2014, is titled “In Search of Annie Parker by Professor Jack Kaufman-McKivigan”. Kaufman-McKivigan’s post concerns a symposium that was coming up in October at which experts were “to examine the historical and literary significance of Douglass’s novella, The Heroic Slave.” In preparation for this event, staff members were engaging, he said, in some “literary detective work” – and one of these projects was trying to identify Annie Parker.

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Kaufman-McKivigan writes in the post that in recent decades her story “has been anthologized several times as one of the earliest works of fiction by an African-American author”. That’s interesting in itself, because it means they (whoever “they” are) have assumed she was an African-American contributor. It could be so, and the story could be autobiographical, but I also wondered, given the lack of information about her, whether “Annie Parker” was a pseudonym. Anyhow, our professor says they found a couple more articles by an Annie Parker in a temperance journal from Geneva, New York, but then the trail went “cold, very cold”. Genealogical research, he says, turned up “a few possible ‘Annie Parkers’ in the upstate New York region” but none had “any known connection to the antislavery movement and all were white”. He then posits that Annie Parker may not have been a runaway slave as others have speculated, but might have been “a pen-name”. The question then is whose? One possible idea is the above-mentioned Harriet Jacobs. There are some valid reasons for making this connection, as he explains in the post – so do read it at the link above if you are interested. Why Jacobs might have wanted to use a pseudonym is a question the literary detectives are now working on. All very interesting – and one of the reasons I do enjoy these LOA offerings.

Now, though, the story – which is told first person in the voice of a slave, after the opening paragraph is told third person. I was, I must say, quite flummoxed by this. The paragraph has some odd punctuation, in that there are opening quotation marks but no closing ones. LOA’s notes suggest this is to indicate that the rest of the story is composed entirely of her narrative. Fair enough, though I don’t quite understand why Parker needed to start with the third person, except that it does make for an easy way of telling us who the narrator is.

The story is told by the slave, Phillis, sister of another slave, Elsie, who had died giving birth to her second child. Both Elsie’s children – the first, a son, and the newborn, a girl – were fathered by “the young master”. The son, who looks too much like his father is sold off before the young master brings a wife home, thus preventing any awkward questions being asked. Meanwhile, Phillis cares for the daughter, Zilpha, as she grows up to young womanhood. I won’t give away the story here but simply tell you that LOA introduces it as a “tale, charged with incest and gothic intrigue”. You can read it at the link, below. It’s only 6 pages.

This is not a story about beatings and cruel physical treatment. Indeed the new mistress:

proved a kind and gentle mistress. All the slaves loved her, as well they might, for she did everything in her power to make them comfortable and happy.

But, we never forget that slaves are powerless – and, as we know only too well, when anything happens that threatens an owner’s happiness or security, little thought, even on the kindest plantations, is given to the “feelings” of the slaves. They are possessions and can be moved around at will. Their emotional or psychological needs, let alone their physical safety, are not relevant. And so, in this story, as certain truths come to light, the owner takes actions to protect his security and happiness. The irony is that he, like his mistress, is generally (perhaps “superficially” is the better word) kind and fair, but there are limits – and it is the impact of those limits that we are left with, confirming once again what a destructive institution slavery was, indeed is.

Annie Parker
“Passages in the life of a slave woman”
First published: In Autobiography for freedom, 1853.
Available: Online at the Library of America

8 Comments leave one →
  1. sharkell permalink
    December 31, 2014 8:47 pm

    I recently read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and was absolutely blown away by it. I still think of it regularly and it has made it onto my top ten reads fir 2014. Have you read it Sue?

    • January 1, 2015 12:38 am

      No, Sharkell, just her short piece that I mention here. That’s great that you’ve read the bigger work.

  2. January 1, 2015 4:18 am

    Interesting story but the mystery around the author proves even more fascinating!

    • January 1, 2015 7:59 am

      Yes, I thought so too, Stefanie. I wonder. If their research is able to prove anything more conclusively, there could be a letter somewhere in which she is mentioned. Fascinating to contemplate.

  3. Will permalink
    January 1, 2015 4:24 am

    There’s a great trove of material, mostly autobiographical, of North American slave narratives available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/index.html

    This was one of the earliest digital humanities projects undertaken–to digitize all known slave autobiographies. Sponsored by the library where I work, so forgive me for bragging.

    will

    • January 1, 2015 8:00 am

      Oh no brag away Will, libraries need to be bragged about. As a retired librarians/archivist I’m all for it. And thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

  4. January 1, 2015 12:02 pm

    Happy NY Gummie: see you in 2015. I have a few Aussie titles lined up and even managed a Best Aussie book of the year in 2014 (a tie as it so happens)

    • January 1, 2015 2:08 pm

      Happy NY to you too Guy … have you written you EOY post? I’m just going through my inbox now so if you have I’ll get to it and check out THE Aussie book.

      Look forward to more contact, of course, in 2015.

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