Freeing New York and the Fugitive Slave

Written under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl documents the circumstances that lead Jacobs from being born a slave to the procuring of her freedom. According to Bruce Mills, Jacobs contracted with Lydia Maria Child, a well-known abolitionist, to prepare her manuscript for printing (Mills 255). Mills states, “[Child] felt that the spiritual change necessary for lasting social change could be most effectively fostered through reform literature” (Mills 264). Child also felt that Jacob’s Incidents was particularly well suited to the abolitionist cause (Mills 263). Being built around a woman’s experience of slavery, Jacob’s Incidents is more likely to have an effect on woman readers and it should have its strongest effect on mothers. Mills states, “[W]omen of the North argued that mothers understood the immorality of slavery on an instinctual level and that slavery attacked the sanctity of the all-important calling to give birth to, protect, and educate the republic’s children” (Mills 266). However, Jacobs Incidents does not simply rely on the natural instinct of women to demonstrate the evils of slavery; the story allows the readers to experience for themselves the paranoia experienced by a fugitive slave in the north. The way in which Jacobs builds up the tension leading to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is a particularly strong example of how well Incidents is suited to the abolitionist cause.

Because she spent so much time in her narrative dreaming about escaping to freedom in the north, when Linda arrives in New York, much of the stories tension is resolved. However, her escape does not completely dissolve her status as a slave, and Jacobs uses Linda’s ties to her former life to build a tone that shows that she is still not completely free. She uses this tone to build up tension surrounding her discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act. By treating the bustling city streets of New York as if they were located in a small town and bringing Linda back into contact with people she had known in the past, Jacobs begins to build a case to show that the Free States of the North are complicit in propping up the institution of Slavery in the south.

Even though the events of Jacobs Incidents happened in the mid nineteenth century, New York City was a very populated place. According to, the population of New York City in 1850 was 590,000 people and the population density was 65,110 people per square mile ( Despite her pretense of being a long term resident of New York and a freewoman, she is portrayed as being overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the big city and she is shown to be easily picked out from the crowd. When Linda and Fanny arrive in New York, the existence of a crowd of coachmen yelling over each other fighting for their next fare quickly paints a picture of a city just this crowded. With so many people coming and going, it could seem that even a runaway slave could easily hide. However, the tension begins to slowly build back up as Linda and Fanny are picked out by a disreputable coachman and fooled into contracting for a ride on a flatbed designed for the delivery of goods.

Linda says, “We followed, and we found our trunks on a truck, and we were invited to take our seats on them” (Jacobs 624). The inclusion of this scene reminds the reader of Linda’s status as a slave. Even in the free city of New York, Linda and Fanny are treated as little more than merchandise. The coachman’s expectation that Linda and Fanny will accept a ride on the back of a cargo vehicle with the rest of the stock of items demonstrates that despite the fact that the laws of New York do not allow slavery not all of the residents hold progressive views on race. Furthermore, this scene shows that Linda, who has come so far toward achieving her goal of freedom, is still in danger of being captured and may at any time be packed up like her bags and transported back to the south to resume her life as a slave.

After the scene with the coachmen, Jacobs begins to lay on the small town tone deemphasizing the crowd of New York and emphasizing the possibility of being seen by someone who may recognize Linda. A chance encounter on the street with someone from her past would have been highly unlikely. Yet, Jacobs writes the streets of New York as a place where these encounters can and do happen. After narrowly avoiding being fleeced out of some of her money riding on a truck, Linda makes a chance encounter on the street with her daughter and an old acquaintance she knew from North Carolina. However, this encounter is not simply the happy meeting that one might expect of those who have not seen each other in years. In fact, Linda does not recognize even her own daughter until she has been directed to look closer at her by the man who shows her around the city. She says, “I was just about to enter, when two girls passed. My friend called my attention to them” (Jacobs 625). In this scene, Jacobs shows just how easy it could be for Linda run into someone who recognizes her without her even noticing.

If the girls had not been her daughter and a girl who had once lived in her grandmother’s house, her new found freedom in New York could have been compromised on her first day. And by the end of her first day in New York, Linda attracts the attention of quite a host of individuals. She is known to Fanny, the Anti-Slavery Society, The friend that guides her through the city, the woman in Brooklyn who came from her hometown, Sarah, Ellen, and the Hobbs family who fostered Ellen (Jacobs 624-625). Just like in a small town in North Carolina, news travels fast in Jacobs’ depiction of New York, and as the news of Linda’s arrival in New York spreads, the danger of her being known to the wrong person grows.

The peopling of New York with so many from Linda’s past and the reinforcement of the small town feel recreates the conditions of the slave south in New York, and, therefore, Jacobs’ New York shows that along with all the people who are there to help Linda stay in freedom, there are just as many that would see her returned to slavery, and more that wouldn’t care either way. The push and pull of those that would see Linda stay free and those that would see her re-enslaved leads thematically to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. According to Christina Accomando, Jacobs wrote Incidents at least partly in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Accomando says, “Through measures like the Fugitive Slave Act, [Jacobs] reframes the practice of slavery from a Southern tradition to a federal problem” (Accomando). In fact, this same feeling of anxiety could historically be felt in much of the North in the years leading up to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Any fugitive slave who had taken refuge in any of the cities of the North having paid attention to this back and forth of the law would have felt the same uneasiness regarding his or her freedom that Linda is shown to feel.

According to Scott Basinger, laws had been passed by proponents of slavery to make the retrieval of runaway slaves easier. These same laws were then countered with laws passed by the opponents of slavery. By the late 1840s, tensions on both sides had come to a fever pitch, but the retrieval of fugitive slaves had come to a standstill (Basinger 313-321). Basinger states, “In the late 1840s, slaveholders faced favorable judicial procedures in federal law but unfavorable structural provisions. They could reclaim their slaves from free states through a prima facie process, but only if a judge could take cognizance of the case” (Basinger 321). Faced with this stalemate, the slave owners appealed to their representatives in congress to pass a federal law which resulted in the compromise that created the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (Basinger 314). According to American Battle Field Trust, “The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also made the federal government responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves” (Fugitive Slave Act).

When speaking of the Fugitive Slave Act, Linda says,

It was the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population. […] Many a wife discovered a secret she had never known before—that her husband was a fugitive, and must leave her to insure his own safety. Worse still, many a husband discovered that his wife had fled from slavery years ago, and as ‘the child follows the condition of its mother,’ the children of his love were liable to be seized and carried into slavery. (Jacobs 652).

The second sentence of Linda’s quotation speaks directly to her situation and illuminates her anxieties. If she is captured and returned to slavery, she fears her children will be forced back in to slavery as well.

In fact, the same paranoia felt in Jacobs’ Incidents is equally evident in the historical record left by William Cooper Nell. In a public oration that Nell held regarding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Nell states,

We feel impelled in this the hour of peril to convene together for devising ways and means to preserve our lives and liberties – and of presenting that declaration of purpose to the hearts and consciences of all who love liberty for MAN the wide world over. (cited in Smith 38)

Therefore, Jacobs’ Incidents allows Northern readers to feel what it is like to be in a situation where one simple misstep could lead to the loss of one’s liberty despite the fact that he or she had made it the “safety” of New York.

In the end, Linda is eventually freed with the help of the Bruce family who were able to buy her freedom from Dr. Flint. However, the resolution that brings Linda’s freedom rings hollow. As an example of one of the successes of the abolitionist movement, the Bruce family buying Linda’s freedom looks too much like just another white northerner participating in the slave trade. Linda decries the direct participation in slavery through her obtaining of freedom at the auction block. She says,

‘The bill of sale!’ Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.” (Jacobs 662-663)

In this quotation, Linda rages against New York, the federal government, and anyone else who would uphold the laws of the Fugitive Slave Act or otherwise participate in the institution of slavery.

Through the depiction of New York as a small town in a Slave State where news of a fugitive slave travels fast and justice (if it can be called justice) is dealt swiftly to deny citizens of their freedom, Jacobs expresses her outrage against slavery by allowing readers to experience for themselves the feelings of helplessness a slave must have had watching the rise of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Accomando states, “Jacobs locates the geographic, religious, and temporal moment of this outrage to direct possibilities for political action. Instead of celebrating the happy personal resolution, she forces her readers to redirect anger at the still existing political situation” (Accomando). Therefore, Jacobs shows New York not as a representation the Free cities of the North but as just another in the line of cities corrupted by its participation in the upholding of slavery.

Work Cited

Accomando, Christina. “‘The Laws Were Laid down to Me Anew’: Harriet Jacobs and the Reframing of Legal Fictions.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 229–245.

Basinger, Scott J. “Regulating Slavery: Deck-Stacking and Credible Commitment in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.” Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, vol. 19, no. 2, 2003, p. 307. EBSCOhost,

“Fugitive Slave Act.” American Battlefield Trust, 28 June 2018,

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Signet Classics, 2012.

Mills, Bruce. “Lydia Maria Child and the Endings to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” American Literature, vol. 64, no. 2, 1992, pp. 255–272. JSTOR,

“New York Urbanized Area: Population & Density from 1800 (Provisional).” New York Urbanized Area: Population & Density from 1800 (Provisional),

Smith, Earl. “‘William Cooper Nell on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.’” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 66, no. 1, 1981, pp. 37–40. JSTOR,

The Question of Intention

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave depicts the tragedy of the typical life in slavery by detailing the life of one individual who had the fortunate circumstances to escape the clutches of his masters. His narrative was important for the abolitionist cause. Yet, according to many of the theorists of the New Critical method it would seem that these important aspects of Douglass’ Narrative are not worthy of critical study. However, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” offer some guidance that might allow for the inclusion of information from outside of the text itself, and in the case of Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave the arguments put forward in “The Intentional Fallacy” even allow for a small amount of discussion of Douglass’ intention regarding his text.

Under normal circumstances, Wimsatt and Beardsley would flinch at the inclusion of information within a critical study that brings the question of authorial intention. They state,

The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The Poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. (Wimsatt and Beardsley 5)

They argue that authorial intention cannot be part of the criticism of a literary text because only the text is up for discussion, and even the discussion of allusion (while it is allowed) is viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. They discuss allusion as a grey area for critical study. While the inclusion of allusion in a critical study of a text can lead to more understanding of a text, assuming that the text that repeats another text is an allusion is nearly the same as assuming that the author intended the repetition of text as an allusion. They state, “The Question of ‘allusiveness,’ for example, as acutely posed by the poetry of Eliot, is certainly one where a false judgement is likely to involve the intentional fallacy. […] Never the less, we submit that this [the study of allusion] is the true and objective way of criticism […]” (Wimsatt & Beardsley 14, 18). Therefore, if allusion is accepted as a legitimate area for criticism, then the extra-textual life of the subject of the autobiography can be part of a literary criticism of the text if it is done with great care.

Douglass’ Narrative was published by the Anti-Slavery Office in in 1845 and contains a preface by W.M. Lloyd Garrison, an American abolitionist and a letter by Wendell Phillips, who was also an abolitionist. The prefaces by these two abolitionists were chosen by the publisher and likely with permission given by Douglass himself. Therefore, the prefaces have been deemed, at least, to have artistic merit when read alongside the main text of Douglass’ Narrative, and they do fall in line with the main theme. In his preface to Douglass’ Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison states,

After much deliberation, however, he consented to make a trial; and ever since that period, he has acted as a lecturing agent, under the auspices either of the American or the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In labors he has been most abundant; and his success in combating prejudice, in gaining proselytes, in agitating the public mind, has far surpassed the most sanguine expectations that were raised at the commencement of his brilliant career. (Douglass 328)

In the second preface, “Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.,” Wendell Phillips writes,

Let us hear, then, what [slavery] is at its best estate—gaze on its bright side, if it has one; and then imagination may task her powers to add dark lines to the picture, as she travels southward to that (for the colored man) Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the Mississippi sweeps along. (Douglass 336)

The two prefaces share abolitionist themes. Garrison’s preface tells of the progress that Douglass made for the anti-slavery cause, and Phillips’ preface gives Douglass direction in how he could best help the anti-slavery cause. Douglass Narrative does share in these abolitionist themes. Douglass states,

I had not long been a reader of the “Liberator,” before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting. (Douglass 429)

Where Douglass’ Narrative does follow in the anti-slavery themes that are displayed in the prefaces, it also shows a man who is intent on living a quiet life of anonymous support of the abolition of slavery. But the prefaces, if they tell of intention at all, tell only of the intentions of Garrison and Phillips to pressure Douglass to do more for the anti-slavery cause.

Therefore, to the extent that authorial intent can be shown through the text of an autobiography, the textual Douglass’ intent is support the abolitionist cause through reading their papers and attending their events as an audience member. However, the fact that the prefaces and Douglass’ Narrative exists at all shows that Douglass, the author, goes on to do much more than simply attend abolitionist events. Whether or not Douglass is pressured into a taking a greater role than the one he expressed intent to take within the text of his narrative, he did assume this greater role as a noteworthy abolitionist. While the textual Douglass’ intentions to become an influential abolitionist remain unclear, Douglass, the author, proves these intentions through his actions.





Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. in The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, editor. Signet: New York, 1987.

Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Equiano’s Humblebrag

In The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Times of Oluadah Equiano or Gustavus Vasa the African, Equiano must overcome intense racial prejudice in order to get parliament to bring an end to slavery in Britain and to take the first steps to ending the institution of slavery all over the world. However, according to Eileen Elrod, “[Equiano’s] identity for his immediate reading audience was determined entirely by race, remaining unaffected by the transforming religious experiences he sees as central to his story” (Elrod 422). Therefore, Equiano must use his biblical knowledge to create a context for himself and the enslaved people of Africa to be seen by the Christian west as a worthy people in need of delivery from the bondage of slavery and racism. Equiano uses largely sober language to build up powerful metaphors through the use of typology comparing his people to the chosen people of the Bible.

Elrod writes, “In Equiano’s figuring of things, Africans, specifically the Ebo must be viewed not as various racist versions of Christianity would have viewed them—the fallen sons of Ham, descendants of Cain, the lost tribe of Israel—but, rather, as a parallel to Christians’ interpretations of Old Testament Israel, biblical people chosen and favored by God” (Fisher 413). However, because of the particular tastes of the time, Equiano had to take care not to alienate his readership through the use of extravagant or overelaborate language. Rebecca Fisher explains that the use of metaphor in public speech—while thought to be an abuse of speech—was gaining back its favor, and the use of metaphor had to be subtle and disguised as parts of an argument. She writes, “Theories of language that prevailed during Equiano’s day called for direct and simple language […], a language that eschewed gratuitous metaphorical flourishes even as it manifested complex layers of signification” (Fisher 79-80). As a result of this public pressure to maintain a humble tone, Equiano builds his metaphors as a theme letting them color large swaths of his narrative. He starts his metaphor within the confines of his description of the religion of the Eboe people.

Equiano begins his metaphor almost as if the connection had only just then popped into his head. He writes, “We practiced circumcision like the Jews, and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did” (Equiano 41). However, looking back on the beginning of his section on religion one can see a foundation being built for this particular observation. The Eboe believed in one god who created everything and that the soul left the earth after the death of the body (Equiano 39). The way he parallels the Eboe religion to the Christian religion that his readers would recognize creates an unspoken comparison. The parallels ready the reader to hear and accept Equiano’s comparison. However, one might expect Equiano to compare his religion directly to the Christianity of his readers, but Equiano shows humility in his narrative by comparing his people to the Jews. While the Jews are known as the holy people of God, they are still one step further from God than the Christians. Therefore, Equiano’s Christian readers would not be offended by such a forward assumption as to claim to be as good as them. Equiano shows similar humility with his next comparison with the Jews when he equivocates about whether or not his people match the Jews in their number of ritual washings (Equiano 41).

Only after more than three pages of buildup and rhetorical humility does Equiano offer the comparison to the Jews as an actual belief that he holds, yet he maintains his tone of humility with apologies and allowances for the possibility of error in his logic. Equiano writes,

And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy, which, even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the Patriarchs, while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis—an analogy which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other. (Equiano 43-44)

His reference to his idea that the Eboe could have risen from the Jews of the bible as a sketch and an idea that struck him forcibly shows the idea as loosely formed from a quick and likely false impression, yet he quickly follows up this analogy with two and a half pages of evidence that he just happened to have to back up his claim. He lists a genealogy compiled by Dr. Gill showing how the Africans descended from Abraham (Equiano 44). He quotes a theory by Dr. Mitchell explaining how one’s skin tone could change due to the region in which he or she lives (Equiano 45). Finally, he ends his listing of evidence by quoting Acts xvii. 26 about how all the men of all the nations were created from one blood (Equiano 46). Equiano’s evidence—no matter how it stacks up in the light of recent knowledge—gives weight to his claims of kinship with the Jews and allows this metaphorical theme to color the entirety of his narrative.

By placing himself and his African people within the lineage of the “chosen people,” Equiano builds up a vision of Africans as proto-Christians and not the savages unworthy of equal rights as the European people see them. Eileen Elrod writes, “By detailing the proximities of Ebo and biblical Hebrew cultures, [Equiano] challenges readers’ assumptions about ‘primitive’ behavior, asking them, in effect, to recast their favorite Bible stories in a contemporary, specific, African Setting” (Elrod 412). Therefore, when Equiano writes, “I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favorite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life” (Equiano 30). He chooses the words “particular favorite of Heaven” as an analogue to “God’s chosen people” and as a pathway to set up the metaphorical theme of himself as a Moses figure leading his people out of bondage.








Works Cited

Elrod, Eileen Razzari. “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 2001, pp. 409–25.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Gates, Signet Classic, 2012, pp. 13–247.

Fisher, Rebecka Rutledge. “The Poetics of Belonging in the Age of Enlightenment.” Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 72–97.

No Man Can Serve Two Masters: Classical Influence in Paradise Lost

Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, brings together Christian and Classical myth in order to draw attention to a foundational part of the Christian origin story. Milton uses his Classical education to connect his epic with other foundational texts of western society such as The Iliad and The Odyssey and to reiterate the importance of Christian studies alongside the Classics. Milton brings the Greek and Roman Gods into the story of Adam and Eve both to ornament the story and to reinforce themes with Classical parallels. Even the most fleeting reference to Classical myth creates a tapestry or parallels and meaningful connotations within the text. When discussing the repetition of a particular ritual in Homer’s Odyssey, Jennifer Clavore states, “The repetition marks the ritual as ritual, as repeatable; it exists as a form out of time, to be fulfilled in time” (Clavore 31.) The advent of Christianity in Western society occurs as a result of Roman imperialism, and the Roman Empire was built off Greek ideas such as democracy. Because of Western society’s origins in Roman and Greek thought, Greek and Roman myth have the quality of feeling older than Christian myth when viewed from this perspective. Therefore, Milton’s repetition of Classical references and rituals create temporal distortion in a story of the beginning of the universe. This distortion gives the Classical repetitions much more power than they would have already had. The inclusion of the name of the Roman Goddess, Aurora, although it appears only once in the text of Paradise Lost, acts as ritual repetition of Classical thought both as ornamentation and opposition to the Christian message contained within Milton’s text.

John Milton Begins Book V of Paradise Lost with a reference to one of Homer’s stock lines about the rosy fingered dawn (Milton V.1.) Milton’s line, “Now Morn her rosy steps in th’ eastern clime…” (V.1) corresponds closely to Homer’s line, “When young Dawn with her rose red fingers shone once more…” (Odyssey II.1.) According to New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics, “Homer uses these prefabricated metrical building-blocks to facilitate rapid composition of long narrative poems in an oral setting” (Epithet 378-379.) In Homer’s day, epic poems are committed to memory and sung to a live audience. The use of stock lines and repeated epithets are necessary to help with memorization and to keep the recitation to a standard meter. By Milton’s time, reading and writing is much more common, and it is no longer necessary to compose and store poetry solely through memorization. Milton has the benefit of written composition which gives him the luxury of time that allows for the revision of lines to rework rhythm and diversify the imagery to avoid unnecessary repetition. Therefore, when Milton incorporates Homer’s imagery of the “Dawn with her rose red fingers,” he does so not as a stock line intended to initiate the meter but as an invocation of Homer’s verse to locate his Christian epic within the context of the Classical epic tradition. In essence, Milton calls back to Homer’s stock line to invoke the blind poet as his Classical muse and use the image of Aurora as a de facto invocation of the muse.

In live performance, the invocation of the muse serves as a queue for the audience to suspend their disbelief. It allows the audience to believe that the poet is not some fallible person standing in front of them relating stories of pointless fantasy but a conduit of the Gods relating the secrets of the universe and is therefore a ritual to invoke holy revelation. According to Elizabeth Minchin:

[T]he initial appeal serves a practical function: it announces the performance. It is the signal for the audience-to-be to stop talking amongst themselves and to listen to an extraordinary tale. […] By implication he assures his audience that his story will be a story worth telling; its divine source is a guarantee of its authenticity and its quality. […] [H]e offers a bare outline of the story to come. (Minchin 1995)

As there is no performer to disrupt the illusion of Milton’s telling of the poem, an invocation to the muse actually serves to disconnect the reader from the experience of the poem rather than draw him or her in. And in a decidedly Christian poem like Paradise Lost invoking the muse runs the risk of at least confusing or at worst alienating the reader.

Minchin believes that this disconnection can be beneficial to the telling of a long poem such as an epic. Minchin says, “[T]he effect off the invocation […] is metanarrational, in that it interrupts the story to comment on, or draw attention to, some aspect of the tale or its telling” (1995.) Milton uses the metanarrational quality of the invocation of the muse to overcome the disrupting and alienating quality that accompanies such an anachronism. He uses the invocation to reiterate the Christian quality of his epic. Milton allows his narrator to explain directly that the invocation of the muse is purely metaphorical. The narrator says, “Descend from Heav’n Urania…/The meaning, not the name I call” (Milton VII.1, 5.) In this metanarrational flourish, Milton makes it clear that his epic is not intended to create some Pagan/Christian hybrid of a foundational Christian myth, but he intends to use the references to Classical myth for its richness of connotation as a metaphor for Christian truths.

Milton’s repetition of Homer’s words is used to iterate on previous imagery and to drive home important points similar to the way Homer’s repetition of rituals works within The Odyssey. Homer strictly details the rituals to be performed then shows them being performed in strict compliance to the instructions. According to Clavore:

In The Odyssey, the repetition brings back our memory of the earlier description, and gives shape thereby to the intervening narrative. In Paradise Lost, the repeated passages follow each other so quickly that nothing has had a chance to happen in between—neither for the reader, nor for Adam and Eve themselves. The return is too pat. (Clavore 31)

While the ritual and repetition that Milton’s characters perform falls flat, Milton’s narration performs successfully the ritual return to Classical tradition and myth. Homer sets the ritual and opens his epic with a call to the muse (Odyssey 1.1-12.) More than two thousand years later, Milton opens Paradise Lost with a call to the classical muse, Urania (Milton 1.1-49.) In this repetition of ritual, Milton does not return too quickly, nor is his repetition too pat. Milton fills his repetition of the invocation of the muse with Christian intention.

Milton continues to use references to Classical Myth throughout the epic as a kind of a teaching ritual that develops the Classical references into powerful Christian symbolism. Yet, Ernst Robert Curtius says, “[Milton] is […] unsuccessful […] in filling the Christian Urania with life. She remains the product of an embarrassing predicament” (Curtius 244.) According to Curtius, the Classical muse is incompatible with a distinctly Christian story like Paradise Lost. But maybe that was Milton’s point. If Urania does not come across as a real character, she must be metaphor for something else. John Himes says:

With a little careful thought it is possible in most cases to determine with certainty what moral quality each of Milton’s characters is intended to represent. The form, stature, attire, words and actions of each are always consistent with its central nature. Each is also associated with some force, agent, or phenomenon in the material world which suggests and illustrates it. (Himes 528)

Following Himes’ logic, Milton’s muse—though more of a metaphor than a full-fledged character—stands in for the spirit of God. The narrator begins the poem with an invocation of the heavenly muse. The narrator says, “Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top/of Oreb or of Sinai, didst inspire…” (Milton I.6-7.) In the book of Exodus, Horeb is referred to as the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1.) And Sinai is described a mountain of smoke and earthquakes (Exodus 19:18.) On both Horeb and Sinai, God appeared to Moses as a burning bush then again as a cloud of smoke and fire (Exodus 3:2, 19:18.) Therefore, the reference to Oreb and Sinai reconfigure the connotations of the Heavenly Muse from Greek Goddesses of inspiration into the fiery spirit of god that gave his laws to the Israelites through Mosses. In Book III., Milton changes the imagery of the muse from God’s fire to holy light. The narrator says, “Hail holy light, offspring of Heav’n first-born,/Or of th’ Eternal coeternal beam/May I express thee unblamed? Since God is light…” (Milton III.1-3.) By book III, Milton is asking God directly to inspire in him the knowledge that only God can know.

According to William Hunter, the light that is God is also just an aspect of God. Hunter writes, “I wish to urge that the collocation of the two images light-sun and stream-fountain reveals that Milton had in mind the identification of this Holy Light with the Son of God” (Hunter 589.) Hunter indicates that the light coming from the Father is the Son because the ray of light that comes from the emanation of light is both an aspect of the emanation of light and the emanation of light itself. Similarly, he explains, the Son is an emanation of the Father and the Father and the Son are one. Therefore, in Book V, the light of dawn coming in the east is the Son. Milton iterates on his image of the muse as the fire of God changing it to the light of God which is God. Therefore, the mention of Aurora (Milton V.6) is actually the Son personified in the rising light of day, and the Son announces and makes ready for the Father, like Aurora, personifying the dawn announces and makes ready for the sun, the source of the light of day. And the rosy light of the dawn similar to the light one might see coming from a flame draws back on the imagery of the spirit of God as fire.

Milton uses the line “Now Morn her rosy steps in th’ eastern clime/Advancing, sowed the earth with orient pearl…” (V.1-2) to develop Homer’s “When young Dawn with her rose red fingers shone once more…” for a Christian audience. Personifying the morning strengthens the separation between author and inspiration as the morning is the one sowing the inspiration of God as pearls in the earth. Connecting Gods light from book III and the rosy light of dawn, Milton reasserts his intention to narrate from the omnipotent position of God rather than that of a fallible human author, and the reference to Homer’s stock line about the beginning of a new day becomes a powerful Christian symbol as well as a reassertion of the invocation of the muse.

The image of the pearl works both as a physical manifestation of God’s influence, and as a reference to Christian scripture. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 14.45-46.) In Milton’s depiction of earth before the fall, the pearls of God’s kingdom are given freely to all of the earth that is reached by the dawn not just the land within the garden paradise. The morning sowing the pearls of light in the earth shows that in the eyes of God all of the earth, before the fall, is perfectly made in God’s image. But earlier in the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (Matthew 7.6.) With this verse in mind, Milton’s mention of the morning sowing pearls hints at the possibility of man’s fall as it states that dogs and swine are not worthy of the gift of God’s kingdom. And to reinforce this interpretation of Aurora’s dawn as the promise of God’s kingdom being free to all, after the fall the image of the coming morning no longer bears the rosy imagery. The narrator says, “To resalute the world with sacred light/Leucothea waked, and with fresh dews imbalmed/The Earth” (Milton XI.134-136.) While the footnotes in the Modern Library edition of Paradise Lost describes Leucothea as a Goddess of the Dawn (Milton 367,) Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary defines her as a Greek Goddess of the sea (Lemprière 321.) In this passage, the coming of morning is accompanied by Leucothea rather than Aurora, the Goddess of the dawn. And the change in Deity bringing on the light of day signifies a change in tone consistent with the ushering in of death into the world. The morning is no longer brought along by a willing Goddess liberally sowing the pearls of the kingdom of God, but is forced up out of the ocean by the Goddess of the sea who embalms the dying earth trying to stave off its decomposition.

When the imagery associated with Aurora recurs in Book VIII, it connects God’s light with marital love. After Adam discusses his and Eve’s creation and marriage, he asks Raphael if Angels form unions as man. The narrator says, “To whom the angel with a smile that glowed/Celestial rosy red, loves proper Hue, (Milton VIII.618-619.) Then Rafael says, “Easier than air with air, if spirits embrace,/Total they mix, union of pure with pure/[…] As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul” (VIII.626-627, 629.) The rosy red blush on the angle’s smile (VI.1) symbolizes the light of God within Rafael and is a recurrence of the imagery associated Aurora. As Eve is the first created female and as no female characters have been introduced in Paradise Lost other than Aurora, Leucathea, and Urania (who are clearly classical stand ins for God) and Sin (who is an allegorical personification of vice), there is no evidence to support the existence of female angels within the story of Paradise Lost. Therefore, the union of angles that is discussed would be much like the union between the father and the son. As emanations of the father, angels like air can mix soul with soul in an angelic approximation of how Adam and Eve mix flesh with flesh and soul with soul. The repetition of Adam and Eve’s union in the union of angels lends strength to the thematic importance of the union between Adam and Eve.

Even though the occurrence of Aurora at the beginning of Book V of Paradise Lost works as a rhetorical stand in for the Son of God, it is also an image that adds strength to the importance of Eve’s role in God’s plan. Much like the depiction of Eve, Aurora shows up as a beautiful woman in a pastoral setting sowing pearls in the earth everywhere the light touches (V.2.) If the pearls are the kingdom of God, there must be people to be governed over. Eve, like the image of Aurora sowing pearls, is expected to sow the seeds of the kingdom of God on earth by initiating the population of the planet. However, the ritual repetition of Classical traditions through the reference to Aurora does more than simply facilitate a multifaceted string of evolving metaphor, it also brings along all the baggage of Aurora’s place within Classical myth.

Homer’s story of Aurora embedded within Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite stands out as a classical counterpart to the story of Adam and Eve. Isabel Rivers says, “[The Gods] were moral allegories of human conduct and foreshadowings of Christian truth […] Pagan myth both adorns and reveals [these truths] […]” (Rivers 24-25.) While Himes agrees that one can come to a conclusion as to what moral quality the Classical reference represents (Himes 528,) the certainty of the conclusions begins to breakdown when discussing the story of Aurora and Tithonos. When used to do more than simply ornament the story of Paradise Lost, Homer’s rendition of the story of Aurora and Tithonos clouds the Christian message of Milton’s text in a dense fog of competing moral messages.

In Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite, he tells of the tragic love affair between Eos, the Greek counterpart to the Roman Aurora, and Tithonos. Aphrodite says:

In much the same way was Tithonos abducted by Eos [the Dawn Goddess], she of the

golden embroidery.

He too belonged to your family line, looking like the immortal ones.

Then she went with a request to the Son of Kronos [Zeus], him of the dark clouds,

asking that he [Tithonos] become immortal and live for all days to come. (Aphrodite 218-221)

Because of the numerous similarities and differences between the story of Adam and Eve and myth of Aurora and Tithonos, the connection of the two myths causes a dizzying array of interpretative possibilities. In Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, David Quint says, “Narrative emplotment requires a middle constituted by repetition that, because of the dual nature of repetition itself, may short-circuit and collapse upon itself rather than proceed to a desired ending […]” (Quint 51.) The echoes of the story of Aurora and Tithonos within the text of Paradise Lost cause repeating and conflicting implications that do short-circuit and collapse in on themselves. A discussion of these competing implications exemplifies the referential distortion that is created by this short-circuited repetition.

Aurora’s story mirrors that of Eve’s story reversing the roles played by Adam and Eve. Aurora is a goddess, and while she falls in love with Tithonos and takes care of him, she holds him against his will. Eve, on the other hand, is subordinate to Adam. He was created first, and she was created from a part his rib. However, Eve does hold some power over Adam similar to the way Aurora holds power over Tithonos. Milton’s narrator uses references to powerful mythical creatures to describe the power of Eve’s beauty over all those who see her. Eve is described as a wood-nymph, a goddess feigned (Milton V.381), and goddesslike (VII.59.) While Aurora literally is a Goddess, Eve maintains a heavenly air about herself that holds Adam in her spell. Adam says:

All higher knowledge in her presence falls

Degraded, wisdom in discourse with her

Loses discount’nanced, and like folly shows;

Authority and reason on her wait,

As one intended first, not after made […]. (VIII.549-555)

Despite Adam’s superior role in the chain of being, Eve is able to assert her superior charms and live together with him as equals.

The echoes of the imbalanced relationship between Aurora and Tithonos reinforce Eve’s insecurity that leads to her being seduced by the serpent’s lies. Eve fears that Adam will begin to feel burdened by Eve’s inferior position that way that Aurora feels burdened by Tithonos. Aphrodite says, “[S]he nourished him, keeping him in her palace,/with grain and ambrosia. And she gave him beautiful clothes” (Aphrodite 231-232.) As Aurora is completely superior to Tithonos, their relationship develops from lovers into caretaker and dependent. In fact, Aurora becomes so overwhelmed with the amount of work required to take care of Tithonos that the love is lost from their relationship. Aphrodite says, “But when the first strands of gray hair started growing/from his beautiful head and his noble chin,/then the Lady Eos stopped coming to his bed” (228-230.) The signs of ageing on Tithonos’ head are an unavoidable reminder of Tithonos’ inability to bring anything meaningful into their relationship.

The Story of Aurora also prefigures the temptations faced by Eve while she is seduced by the serpent to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Aurora’s story rehearses Eve’s fall. After Eve eats the fruit, the narrator says, Eve has “expectation high/Of knowledge, nor was Godhead from her thought” (Milton IX.789-790.) The narrator speaks the temptations that ultimately convince Eve to disobey God’s injunction against eating the fruit. Eve says, “[R]ender me more equal, and perhaps […]/Superior; for inferior who is free” (IX.823, 825.) In fact, the reason that Eve had worked separate from Adam was because she had wanted to prove herself equal to Adam (IX.285-287.) Yet, the fact that Adam gives in and allows her to leave when Adam, as the authority figure, deems it unwise is proof of her equality. Just the same, when fantasizing about the possibility of becoming a God, Eve says:

But to Adam in what sort

Shall I appear? Shall I to him make known

As yet my change, and give him to partake

Full happiness with me, or rather not,

To keep the odds of knowledge in my power

Without copartner? (IX.816-821)

As demonstrated by the story of Aurora, if Eve were to step so far above Adam as to be a God in love with a mortal, she would end up in the role of a caretaker causing her charge to wither and die as a result of the overabundance of care she would be able to give. Aphrodite says, “[S]he put him in her chamber, and she closed the shining doors over him./From there his voice pours out—it seems never to end—and he has no strength at all,/the kind he used to have in his limbs when they could still bend” (Aphrodite 236-238.) Tithonos’ immortality is an allegorical representation of Aurora’s smothering love, and it is her doting on him and providing everything for him that weakens him.

The comparison between the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Aurora and Tithonos helps to demonstrate that the healthy relationship between Adam and Eve is based on more than just Eve’s beauty despite how much it may overwhelm Adam. Adam and Eve have a fellowship based on rational delight where Aurora’s relationship with Tithonos is based off Tithonos’ beauty and Aurora’s sense of duty. Nowhere in Aphrodite’s story of Aurora is Tithonos consulted about the questions that decide his fate. He is abducted and placed in Aurora’s palace as if he is an object. While in the palace, he is fed and clothed as if he is an animal, and one could imagine that if he is asked, he might have a similar request as Adam has when he asks God for a companion. Adam says:

Thou hast provided all things: but with me

I see not who partakes. In solitude

What happiness, who can enjoy alone,

Or all enjoying, what contentment find? (Milton VIII.363-366)

Of course this conversation never occurred between Aurora and Tithonos as he was never anything more than a beautiful trinket to be enjoyed while it was new than locked away in a vault when it has lost its lustrous shine. Therefore, a conversation like this one must have occurred between Zeus and Aurora. The scene must have been much like watching Aurora asking Zeus for her plaything to be made into a real boy.

For Aurora the huge chasm in the chain of being between mortal and immortal Goddess would make her relationship with Tithonos particularly unfulfilling. Tithonos’ mental capacity would appear to Aurora as if he were an infant in the body of a God. Aphrodite says, “[S]he put him in her chamber, and she closed the shining doors over him./From there his voice pours out—it seems never to end—and he has no strength at all […]” (Aphrodite 236-237.) In these lines, Tithonos becomes like an infant. He cannot move or take care of himself, and while his voice remains, there is no recognition in the text of what he says. For all intents and purposes Tithonos can only be heard and not understood because like a fed up mother with an infant child that won’t stop crying, Aurora closes Tithonos up in her room hoping that the door will muffle the sound just enough for her to get some peace. Therefore, Tithonos’ ability give fellowship and rational delight is hampered by Aurora’s inability to understand his words and give proper care for his needs.

Aurora’s paradise weakens both Tithonos’ body and mind causing him to wither into a freakish version of a human child. According to James Rovira, “Activities sustaining the human body sustain the human mind, the seat of reason, thus turning “corporeal” food into “incorporeal” thought, the physical sustaining the spiritual, the rational. Milton didn’t present the corporeal and incorporeal facets of human existence as completely separate but as part of a larger, organic whole” (Rovira 90.) Milton’s organic whole shows the interconnectedness of mind and body. Thus, when Aurora takes Tithonos away from everyday struggle not only does she weaken his body from lack of required exercise but she also weakens his mind. The body contains the mind much like the mind contains the spiritual connection to God. And this weakened spiritual connection to God is shown by Aurora’s increasing isolation from Tithonos. The story of Tithonos and Aurora, warn of the possible weakening of the spiritual connection between Adam and Eve and God that could be brought on by a perpetual life of ease in the Garden of Eden

Instead of submitting to life on its own terms, Aurora and Eve take rash measures to live within an equal partnership with their spouses. Aurora attempts to raise Tithonos up as an equal to herself, and Eve attempts to raise herself up to an equal to Adam. Aphrodite says that Aurora’s mistake was asking Zeus simply for Tithonos to gain immortality when she should have asked for eternal youth (Aphrodite 223-224.) Yet, Aphrodite finds herself in love with a mortal man and instead of having him granted immortality and eternal youth, she opts to except life on its own terms and allow her lover to live and die as a mortal (239, 244-245.) Aphrodite’s choice to let nature work itself out through its own means is backed up by Raphael’s conjecture on the ascension from man to angel. In conference with Adam and Eve, Raphael says that if they obey God they will eventually be raised up to angles. He says:

And from these corporal nutriments perhaps

Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit,


If ye be found obedient, and retain

Unalterably firm [Gods] love entire […]. (Milton V.496-497, 501-502)

While Aphrodite’s actions on their own seem to show that movement up from one’s station in life is impossible, Raphael’s conjecture overturns this belief and shows that differences of rank can be overcome by long suffering and obedience.

The story of Aurora and Tithonos shares many of the same characteristics of Homer’s story of Odysseus on Calypso’s island, and, therefore, the story of Adam and Eve bears resemblance to Homer’s story as well. In the story of Odysseus and Calypso, the idea of paradise is refigured as a type of prison: Tithonos is abducted by Aurora, held in her palace and eventually locked away in her chamber; Odysseus is shipwrecked on Calypso’s island and is not allowed to leave even though it is in her power to allow him to leave; And Adam and Eve are held by God within the bounds of the paradise of the Garden of Eden. While the story of Adam and Eve differs in the fact that they are not held against their will, they are held under threat of death.

While it is hard to know what Tithonos is thinking due to his point of view being ignored in the story as told by Aphrodite, it can be assumed by his unending and unanswered cries that he wishes to return to his life outside of paradise. In the Odyssey, Homer lets Odysseus act out the longing to escape paradise that Tithonos is never allowed to show. Homer’s narrator says:

[Hermes] found [Odysseus] there on the headland, siting, still,

weeping, his eyes never dry his sweet life flowing away

with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home […]

But all the days he’d sit on the rocks and beaches,

wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish,

gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears. (Odyssey V.167-169, 173-175)

Adam’s longing for more than what paradise has to offer is not quite as obvious as outright weeping. After God parades the animals past Adam so they can receive their names, Adam Says, “[I]n these/I found not what methought I wanted […] (Milton V.354-355.) Even though it turns out that what Adam feels deprived of is a mate and God provides Eve for him, Adam’s desire for more than what a direct relationship to God and life in paradise has to offer shows that paradise is not fulfilling in and of itself. Adam goes on to say:

Which must be mutual, in proportion due

Giv’n and received; but in disparity


[S]oon prove

Tedious alike […].” (V.385-386, 388-389)

Adam’s complaint about the unequal relationship between him and the animals will eventually hold true between him and Eve. While it is true that Eve has qualities that make up for her being of lower rank than Adam, Eve’s inferiority is pointed out several times within the text.

The connection between Aurora and Tithonos and Adam and Eve emphasizes the difficulty finding happiness in paradise. The possibility of unhappiness in paradise should not be particularly surprising as according to Quint, “[Human Freedom] must be contingent in order to be free. This contingency makes the way constantly difficult, rather than ready and easy, for man and women to stand in godliness […]” (Quint 300.) Therefore, the inclusion of Aurora as a Classical reference foreshadows the loss of paradise as Adam and Eve could not have maintained a fulfilling and happy life without the struggle and unhappiness that comes from life outside of the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s Classical reference to Aurora and all the other Classical connections that come along with it do help add texture to the story of Paradise Lost, but at the same time the constant back and forth of Classical and Christian references creates a disorienting reading experience. The large number of Classical references contained within a story that takes place at the beginning of time creates a temporal distortion yanking the reader back and forth through time as well as in and out of Christian and Classical thought. The level of disorientation achieved, at times, matches those as found in books like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or Jorge Borges’ Labyrinths. Whether or not Milton intended such an innovation, Paradise Lost looks back at the beginning of time using the literary techniques of a future time.

Works Cited

Clarvoe, Jennifer. “Poetry and Repetition.” Antioch Review, vol. 67, no. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 30–41. EBSCOhost,

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1973.

“Epithet.” New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics, Jan. 1993, pp. 378–379. EBSCOhost,

Himes, John Andrew, and University of Virginia. Milton’s Angels. Generic NL Freebook Publisher, 1997.

Homer. Hymn to Aphrodite. Translated by Gregory Nagy, Hymn to Aphrodite,

—–. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Hunter, William Jr. “The Meaning of ‘Holy Light’ in Paradise Lost III.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 74, no. 7, 1959, pp. 589–592. JSTOR,

Lemprière, John, 1765?-1824. Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary of Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors Writ Large: With a Chronological Table. Routledge & K. Paul, 1984. EBSCOhost,

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Minchin, Elizabeth. “The Poet Appeals to His Muse: Homeric Invocations in the Context of Epic Performance.” Classical Journal, vol. 91, no. 1, Oct. 1995, pp. 25–33. EBSCOhost,

Rivers, Isabel. “Chapter 2: The Pagan Gods.” Classical & Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry, Taylor & Francis Ltd / Books, 1994, pp. 21–33. EBSCOhost,

Rovira, James. “Gathering the Scattered Body of Milton’s Areopagitica.” Renascence, vol. 57, no. 2, Winter 2005, pp. 87–102. EBSCOhost,

Quint, David. Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton. Princeton University Press, 1992.

The Nat Turner Excuse

Of all of the slave narratives we have read up to this point, I like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl the best. Jacobs’ Incidents seems a much more mature literary work than the others. Instead of detailing the author’s life as a perfect linear narrative as the other slave narratives have done, Jacobs writes her narrative episodically. Each episode tells about a particular segment of the life of Linda Brent, but, at the same time, each episode is written to demonstrate a particular theme common to the lives of all slaves. In particular, chapter 12, “Fear of Insurrection” demonstrates how slave masters used the power allowed through the institution of slavery to upset the daily lives of the entire community.


While the events of this chapter happen in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave revolt, the daily tension and animosity between the white and black residents of the slave states caused by the institution of slavery is shown (albeit at an exaggerated level) in the interaction between Linda and the party of militia that searched her grandmother’s house. Linda says, “I knew the houses were to be searched; and I expected it would be done by the country bullies and the poor whites. I knew nothing annoyed them so much as to see colored people living in comfort and respectability […]” (Jacobs 511). When the militia searches Linda’s grandmother’s house they destroy her property and attempt to steal any valuables they find as well as offer general insults to the inhabitants of the house. Were it not for the laws that defined one people as inferior to the other, the poor whites would not feel the envy that compels them to exercise such cruelty against fellow residents of their own town. In fact, the poor whites shared many of the same problems as the enslaved population, and if it were not for the rifts caused by the institution of slavery the two poor populations could work together to make each other’s lives better.



Work Cited

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Signet Classics, 2012.

Education and a Revengeful Stick

Equiano concludes the final chapter of his narrative by reiterating the importance education has made in his life. He offers the theme of education as a tool for understanding his narrative as well as a life tool for those who have read his narrative. He asks, “What makes an event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God?” (Equiano 242). While Equiano’s reiteration of the importance of education is wrapped up with his reiteration of the importance of authentic religion, the actual effects of his education on the outcome of events can be seen in many of the encounters he illustrates in his narrative including the time that he was nearly re-enslaved while in the colony of Georgia.

When two white men approach Equiano and tell him that he matches the description of a runaway slave, he is saved both by his experiential education (street smarts) and by his more formal education. Equiano says,

I told them to be still and keep off, for I had seen those tricks played upon other free blacks, and they must not think to serve me so. At this point they paused a little and one said to the other, “It will not do;” and the other answered that I talked too good English. I replied I believed I did; and I had also with me a revengeful stick equal to the occasion; and my mind was likewise good. (Equiano 165)

Equiano had experienced harsh treatment from whites in the past; therefore, he knew that were these men to forcefully restrain him, not even the local authorities would have vouched for his claims of being a free man. Previously, on that same trip to Georgia, Equiano had been illegally detained by the town guard, and he was only released when Dr. Brady was sent to vouch for him. Through this experience and many others like it, Equiano had learned that he must not simply submit to the wills of bad men as he will be given no recourse. While his resistance was an important part of escaping harm at the hands of these two kidnappers, Equiano’s formal education was what finally saved him. When Equiano rebuked these men in his proper English grammar, they decided that it would be hard proving that they owned a slave who spoke better English than they could. Equiano was safe because he “talked too good English.” Therefore, Equiano’s freedom was maintained by his education and two hands gripped tight on a large stick.

Work Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Gates, Signet Classic, 2012, pp. 13–247.

Booker T.  Washington, Virtue Signaling, and the White Man’s Burden

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the white man’s burden is “the task, believed by white colonizers to be incumbent upon them, of imposing Western values and culture on the non-white inhabitants of European colonies” (OED). Hidden within the concept of “the white man’s burden” is the belief that Western values are superior to those of other peoples and cultures. Washington clearly states he believes that Native American values are inferior to Western values. Washington writes,

How often I have wanted to say to white students that they lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others, and the more unfortunate the race, and the lower in the scale of civilization, thee more does one raise one’s self by giving the assistance. (Washington 47)

Washington finds glee in helping the Native American students that were admitted to the Hampton school indoctrinate themselves into Western culture.

Washington writes,

Few people then had any confidence in the ability of the Indians to receive education and to profit by it. […] [General Armstrong] secured from the reservations in the Western states over one hundred wild and for the most part perfectly ignorant Indians […]. At first I had a good deal of doubt about my ability to succeed. [T]here was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure. All this made me proceed very cautiously, for I felt keenly the great responsibility. (Washington 46-47)

Of course, there is nothing wrong with helping people. There is nothing wrong with indoctrinating people into another culture. The problem comes in with the reasons for the indoctrination is because you believe that the people may not be able to be helped because they are “wild” and “perfectly ignorant.” Even then, Washington’s beliefs over the fitness of his students to learn due to his perception of their inferiority if he is helping them to achieve something that they wish to achieve.

However, it would seem that some of the things that are being taught to the Native American students are not the things that they would like to learn. Washington Writes,

The things they disliked the most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion. (Washington 47)

While Washington is giving these Native American students an education that will presumably help them to succeed in life, he is also systematically forcing them to give up their own culture. It is obvious that—despite it not being listed in the text—Washington had heard the complaints from the Native American students about having to give up the things that they felt defined them as a culture, yet he gives simply counters with what the white man will and won’t accept from civilized people. Therefore, Washington exerts his power over his Native American students to impose Western values on them even against their own wishes.




Works Cited

Washington, Booker Taliaferro. Up from Slavery. Dover Publications, 1995.

“white man, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019.

Debunking the Myth of the Happy Slave

While many of the most damning scenes of slavery happen after Mary Prince is sold away from the Williams family, her earlier experiences of life as a slave still show the negative effects of slavery even for happy slaves. While Mary Prince remembers her days as a child owned by the Williams family as happy, early on she indicates that things were not as rosy as she remembers them. She states, “Those days were too pleasant to last. My heart always softens when I think of them” (Prince 255). But while those days seemed idyllic to her, she was being steadily degraded simply by living under the laws of slavery.

Despite the fact that Mary Prince loved the family that owned her during this short period in her youth, and they seemed to love her back, her humanity is being denied from her even in her most fond memories. For example, when Mary Prince recalls the fun times she had with the girl she was meant to be the playmate of, she states, “I was made quite a pet of by Miss Betsey, and loved her very much. She used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger. This was the happiest period of my life” (Prince 253).

The language she uses to relate her fond memory shows the dehumanizing effects of being enslaved even by kind masters. Instead of stating that she was like a friend or a sister to Miss Betsey, she says that she was made Miss Betsey’s pet, and she recalls that her playmate used to call her by a racial epithet. While “pet” can be used as a term of endearment, its connection with a much more offensive term highlights the more common definition of the word pet as a tamed animal. Therefore, Mary Prince’s choice of the word “pet” shows that both she and Miss Betsey did not recognize each other as equally valuable human beings. Therefore, even Mary Prince’s happy memories are darkened by the specter of slavery.




Work Cited

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. reprinted in The Classic Slave Narratives. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor. Signet Classics: New York, 1987. 187-238.

480 Acres and a Mule

At 87 years old, Henry Jenkins lived in a four bedroom frame house on a 480 acre farm that he owned. Jenkins has become surprisingly wealthy in the years since slavery ended and he was free. Although he could not have been much more than 16 years old when slavery ended in the United States, Jenkins credited his former master with teaching him the hard work and discipline that allowed him buy such a large farm over his life time. However, his sarcastic tone showed that the lessons that his master had taught him was just as brutal as it was useful. Jenkins said, “You bet yo’ life, my white folks was de bestest in de land. They wasn’t mealy mouthed; they made everybody work, sun to sun, seven days in de week. But didn’t de good Lord set de ‘zample? Yes sir, he made us all work, women in de perils of child birth, drapped cotton seed and corn kernels” (Federal Writers’ Project). Jenkins draped the inhumanity of the situation of his time in captivity with ironic praise to his former masters when he referred to them as “the bestest in the world” and said “de good Lord set de ‘zample” while he explained that his masters were so inhumane that even child birth could not get one of the slaves a day of rest. He also recounted his many beatings with the same sense of faux-appreciation. He said, “Dere’s not much to a boy,  white or black, dat don’t need a whuppin’ sometime on de way up” (Federal Writers’ Project). He then deepened the sense of inhumanity of his masters by referring to himself as his masters might have by referring to himself as if he were an animal rather than a human. He said, “When you break a wild spirited colt, they make de best hoss or mule” (Federal Writers’ Project). And while it probably was true that he did learn how to run a successful farm from his time as a plantation slave, his lessons were brutal and dehumanizing even if he can find a way to be grateful the lessons.




Work Cited

“Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3, Jackson-Quattlebaum.” The Library of Congress,

Becoming a Man

While Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is mainly concerned about demonstrating the evils of slavery, this narrative is also a demonstration of how a person learns to become self-reliant. Because slavery was the main reason that his journey to self-reliance was stunted, Douglass sees his personal growth as a rebellion against slavery Douglass states, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (Douglass 389). While a modern audience might expect Douglass’ ascension into self-reliance to be the story of him learning to read, Douglass relates a story that is much more animalistic. Douglass’ becoming a man comes as a result of a life and death struggle against Mr. Covey. Douglass states, “[F]rom whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (Douglass 393). Douglass connects self-reliance with becoming a man because for many reasons; however, the one that best fits the antislavery message of the narrative is that slaves were considered little more than animals and showing a slave becoming a man highlights the evils of treating humans like cattle.

It is interesting to note that to become a “man” Douglass is required to give in to his most animalistic of instincts. Douglass must give in to his violent impulses to become a human being in the eyes of the world. However, it is not the animalistic violence that proves his humanity. Douglass becomes a man when he holds Mr. Covey by the throat and keeps hold of him for two hours without giving in to the impulse to kill him. Douglass demonstrates his humanity, and the dual nature of humanity itself, by tapping in to this animalistic instinct while maintaining his reason and compassion. Douglass’ compassion for Mr. Covey—the compassion that kept Covey alive—not only shows Douglass to be a man but also shows him to be a man more human than his animalistic masters.



Work Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. in The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, editor. Signet: New York, 1987.