Book review, David W. Blight, A Slave No More


David W. Blight. A Slave No More : Two Men Who Escaped to
Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
First edition published by Harcourt, 2007, hardcover, 320 pages
(Paperback reissue)

Wallace Turnage (1846-1916) and John M. Washington (1838-1918) never met each other.

During the Civil War, the two young men escaped from slavery, Turnage departed from Alabama and Washington from Virginia. They made their way to Northern military units and freedom. Then they educated themselves and wrote their true stories.

Yale history professor David W. Blight, possibly the leading expert on the slavery resistance and abolitionist movement, brings us these two recently discovered documents, to which his commentary is appended.

Slave narratives are relatively rare, with less than a hundred accounts having been recorded by the four million emancipated slaves. The writings of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are two that are well-known. The rarity of this type of historical record makes these two additions all the more appreciated.

John M. Washington wrote, "For it is positively forbidden by law to teach a Negro to Write. So I had to fall back on my own resources." [Page 173]

This new volume by includes typed transcriptions of "Memorys [sic] of the Past" by John Washington [pages 165-212] and "Journal of Wallace Turnage" [pages 213-260]. Dr. Blight's analysis accompany them. Additionally, there is an insert reproducing 23 blacka nd white photographs, maps, and their captions [between pages 148-149]. The frontispiece is a facsimile of Washington's first two handwritten pages.

The irregular spelling and grammar in the original manuscripts have not been edited.

The narratives of the two heroes are autobiographical, and therefore begin with their childhood and their captivity. They go on to describe their clandestine travels northward, attempting to find anything to eat and anywhere to sleep, ducking whenever a sound was heard, and being attacked by dogs. Both men reiterate their faith in God. Three times Turnage was recaptured and whipped until he had no skin on his back, until his fourth escape was successful. [234-237] Upon reaching the Northern troops, the two men were now free to volunteers their labor for the Union military. Later in life, they were wage workers, subjected to racial discrimination, but at least they were working for wages and not in chains.

John W. Washington wrote: "I might now go and come when I please So I wood remain with the army until I got Enough money to travel further North. This was the First Night of my Freedom. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I ever had ever seen Thank God -- xxxx -- ...." [Page 195]

Conscious that their writings were destined to become part of the evidence to indict the institution of slavery, Washington and Turnage chose to include facts that make the horrors of slavery unmistakable. Turnage describes how he got a chance to make his escape while his master was preoccupied with the task of giving a woman two hundred lashes of the whip because her daily quantity of cotton didn't weigh enough. [217]

Dr. Blight's commentary offers information about the slave narrative as a genre of literature. The general form, he says, involves describing the horrors of slavery, and the escape from and the abolition of it, in terms of "contests between good and evil." [12]

The author also includes the results of his genealogical research about the two heroes. Events that took place several years after emancipation are reported more in the author's commentary than in the two first-person narratives.

In addition to being an American history professor, David W. Blight is also the director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. In 2001 he published a previos book entitled Race and Reunion : The Civil War in American Memory

Book review by M. L. for, Nov. 29. 2007

First edition, hardcover, ISBN-10: 0151012326, ISBN-13: 978-0-15-101232-9