“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” Response by Erin K

The more I read E.B. Browning, the more amazed I become with her work and her liberal, avant-garde approaches on the flawed events in history. In our class text “The Victorian Era”, it states that this piece was one of the great dramatic monologues and political protest poems written in the 19th century. Browning steps into the mind of a female African-American slave, one who is struggling to find a sense of freedom and refuge like the Pilgrims have at the same geographical point. However, even the name “Pilgrim’s Point” illustrates an unfair advantage that white settlers held over the black population. Browning attends to the contradictory statement of America, “the land of the free.” The white colonizers may thank God for liberty (line 4), but for the black slaves, they suffer endlessly from “liberty’s exquisite pain” (249).

As we read in “The Cry of the Children”, Browning addressed the young children’s injustice in comparison to all other young entities: the young lambs, the young birds, the young flowers, etc. A parallel comparison takes place in this poem. The “dark bird sits and sings”, “the dark frogs chant in the safe morass”, “the sweetest stars” pass over the face of the darkest night. Yet, the “ones who are dark” receive no justice, and the only relatable dark entity is the prison bars, shutting them out from freedom, liberty, and a sense of self.

The concept of colour is addressed further with the comparison of light and dark. In the eyes of the narrator, the angels are white, while she states repeatedly “I am black, I am black!” The pilgrims approach a land of spirits “pale as dew” (10), while the narrator is forced to run to freedom in the night, which is “as dark” as her skin.

Again, Browning examines God’s role versus the role of the white colonizers, questioning who truly holds the power. The narrator states:

God made me, they say:

But if He did so, smiling back

He must have cast His work away
Under the feet of His white creatures

With a look of scorn, that the dusky features

Might be trodden again to clay.

The “dusky features” of the black population have been trod on, worn away into the ground.  The narrator feels skeptical, implying, “What kind of role does God have in such an unjust world, when one race is far favoured over the other?”

As we are aware, in the 1850s, African Americans had faced and continued to face the long struggle of discrimination and slavery. Many black slaves lacked freedom or security of any kind. In reading this poem, one can gather that she is attempting to escape, most likely from her master, and she carries a child with her. She receives a look from a fellow slave, a look “so tender and full.” Before they can connect and feel a collective struggle, one day “her cold hands are wrung from his and he is dragged away”.

It appears that this moment was the narrator’s breaking point: not long after this event, she kills the child she is carrying, a child “too white.” We can gather that this child was not conceived out of consent; when she looks upon the child’s face she sees “the master’s look.” She commits infanticide, possibly so the child would not have to face a life of slavery, since all children born out of the master-slave relationship were. However, she may have killed the child solely because seeing her master’s face in the child caused too much pain, falling onto her soul like his lash…or worse (145).

This tragic poem permits us to step into our narrator’s mind, possibly allowing us to understand how such a horrid act can be commiserated. Unlike the fellow slaves, whose “countless wounds pay no debt,” the narrator ended the child’s life rather than bring it into a world similar to her own.

2 thoughts on ““The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” Response by Erin K

  1. Reading “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” in class, as well as your response, reminds me of this passage from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”:

    “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.
    “They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young—almost a boy—but you know with them it’s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held—there was no other movement and no other glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck—Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge—an ornament—a charm—a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.”

    The contrast between dark and light here, as in Browning’s poem, is obvious. What interests me, however, is how the position of the speaker, Charles Marlow, who is the captain of a river-steamboat for an ivory trading company, compares with the position of the speaker in Browning’s poem. Despite being a Caucasian man, I find Marlow a much more compelling speaker than Browning’s runaway slave because of the perspective he offers: he is as much an Other to witnessing the death of the Africans as the Africans are an Other to him, and a morally conflicted man who must fulfill an economic obligation.

    Browning’s audacity to assume the voice of an African woman is problematic, as third-wave feminist would argue Browning’s race limits her understanding of an African woman’s experience. One could argue that Browning did not need to speak on African women’s behalf as African women: no matter how suppressed African women voices may have been in the early Victorian period (since they were considered more animal than human), these women still maintained a voice. This belief, however, would not have been of its time: not until the 20th century did the voices of African women poets like Maya Angelou effectively alter attitudes towards women of colour by putting into words their own experiences with racism and gender discrimination.

    I’m curious: how appropriate do you think Browning is in assuming the voice of an African woman speaker?

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  2. The mother did kill the child because it was too white for her, and did not want the life for her son that she had, but she also says that while she was suffocating the child, the child reached out as if it wanted liberty: “the master’s right.” And she laughs because of how absurd a child of hers having the rights of the master could be. Just interesting how a child born of two worlds has no place in either.

    With regards to writing as a black woman slave, I thought Barrett Browning’s treatment of her was astonishingly good for that time period when some of her contemporaries used slaves and poc (people of colour) as props and “noble savage” tropes, while EBB wrote this woman as a human being who loved, lost, grieved, and had a horrible life, but still suffered it as a human being. The Runaway Slave was for all ends and purposes a story of human injustice.

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