The written narratives of enslaved people offer a window into circumstances that are, to most of us, unimaginable. These vital documents immortalize the names of their authors: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs, among them. But one woman wrote anonymously, perhaps trusting history to keep her secret until it was safe for her identity to be revealed. In The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Harvard University professor Gregg Hecimovich sets out to find the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an unpublished manuscript bought at auction by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001. Hecimovich relies on the scholarship of Gates and others to celebrate the life and work of the first Black female novelist, Hannah Bond—more than a century after her death.
Scholars have suggested other candidates to fit the bondwoman’s identity—women who walked similar paths from slavery to freedom in the antebellum South of North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Yet Hecimovich successfully braids together the fictitious details of the novel’s protagonist with Bond’s autobiography, leaving little doubt about the truth. Thanks to his deep research—and despite remaining gaps in the historical record—the titular bondwoman comes vividly to life.
As a “domestic servant,” Bond was at the mercy of her enslavers, who sexually abused her and cruelly severed her family ties—a practice especially rampant after the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, when slave owners increasingly forced their captives to reproduce and then sold their children. Bond lost her mother and her child, but she held onto her hunger to learn and become literate. She especially leaned on Charles Dickens and Bleak House for help in creating her writing.