Hannah Crafts and The Bondwoman's Narrative: rhetoric, religion, textual influences, and contemporary literary trends and tactics
The 2002 discovery by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of a manuscript titled The Bondwoman's Narrative, written by a woman identifying herself as Hannah Crafts, presents a unique opportunity to examine the unpolished writing of an African American woman who had been a slave. The Bondwoman's Narrative, incorporating both novelistic and seemingly autobiographical elements to present Craft's rhetorical appeals against the injustices of slavery, has many similarities with more canonical works of antebellum African American literature, including Harriet Jacobs's Incidents, Frederick Douglass's Narrative, and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig. Among the most significant of these similarities are those involving the prefaces of the respective works as meta-text, in which the authors directly address the audience outside of their narratives' frames of reference, and those involving the attitudes of the authors and their protagonists toward Christianity and the attempts of the authors and their black characters to retain faith while rejecting the perversions of religion for which the institution of slavery was responsible. To date, critical attention paid to The Bondwoman's Narrative has been largely concerned with proving Crafts to have been "white" or "black" in a perhaps oversimplified static racial binary that Crafts actually critiques within her text. Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence within the text of The Bondwoman's Narrative suggests that Crafts is best identified as black. This evidence includes the aforementioned similarities with her African American contemporaries, her treatment of black characters within the text, and her adherence to common black religious beliefs and attitudes of the day. Other critical attention has focused on Craft's literary influences, most notably Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Some critics believe Craft's use of Dickensian material to be tantamount to plagiarism, while others feel that it is inappropriate to apply 21st century definitions of plagiarism to Crafts due to her intents and writing context. The concept of intellectual property itself plays an intriguing role in this debate, both because of the antebellum pro-slavery notion that human beings could be property and because of disagreement by literary theorists such as Hirsch and Barthes on the relation of an author to his or her text.