“The Runaway Slave” Response by Brittany L

 We Are Dark

One of the most tragic effects of black slavery is how it changed the slave’s perceptions of himself or herself as a person. The white man had such a strong influence on many of the slaves that they began to view themselves as inferior to the white man. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s depicts this in her poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point” through her speaker a female slave on the run. In writing this poem, Browning target is the empathy of her reader, getting him or her to sympathize with the plight of the slave narrating the poem from a slave’s perspective. Browning uses sympathy and sentimental language to point out the wrong committed against the slaves, specifically how it skewed the slave’s perception of their value.

Having suffered at the hands of her slave masters for many years the narrator of the poem reflects that she knows God made her, but “he must have cast his work away under the feet of his white creatures.” She feels abandoned by her creator. She believes God has cast her and her fellow black slaves away because he does not care about them, allowing the race he cares for, the whites, to force the blacks into slavery because the white men are the superior race. Not only does she feel inferior to the white men, she also believes that God sees her as inferior to the whites.

At the mercy of the whites who abuse her and tell her that she is not fully human she has come to see herself and her race as lower and inferior to the whites that force them to work. Constantly being repressed by another race has changed the female slave’s perception of who she is. Mores specifically what her soul is like. From all the abuse and suppression she has suffered and witnessed at the hands of white men, she has come to believe that she is lesser than they are; that she is subhuman compared to them. She cries out, “but we who are dark, we are dark! Ah God, we have no stars! About our souls in care and cark our blackness shuts like prison bars,” showing that she believes her soul is dark. She sees herself as dirty, as if her soul is stained by darkness.

To further illustrate how the slaves are in the “white man’s violent system” which is divided by women, and black by whites she describes nature. How the bird as “little dark bird”, the frogs and streams as “dark frogs” and “dark stream ripple.” Through the use of diction, the narrator conveys to readers that in the natural world, unlike the human one, there is no dark with bad and light with good, and no discrimination between black and white people. However, since this distinction exists she cannot separate herself from this perception of being dark, not only physically, but also spiritually. She believes her soul matches the colour of her skin. She has come to accept the discrimination placed upon her by white men.

Browning through her sentimental and empathetic diction calls for her readers to understand that the damage inflicted on the black slaves was so much more than physical and that it was also psychological. For many, the slave’s perception of themselves as a people was marred until they began to see themselves through white men’s eyes.

Brittany L.

2 thoughts on ““The Runaway Slave” Response by Brittany L

  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. Browning’s choice to voice the pains of an African woman was understandable in her time. The literacy rates amongst African slaves were extremely low, making it nearly impossible for them to find a literary voice within their own group. That being said, I am in agreement with your skepticism as to whether or not it was appropriate for Browning to assume the voice herself. It’s easy for us to examine these works in a modern context because of our ability to compare these works with those of other, more objective writers. Which leads me to thinking about some of the groundbreaking African writers who have emerged over the past century to give a voice to those once silenced.

    While many regard Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a moving depiction of African life in relation to imperialism, there are many African literary critics who would beg to differ.
    Chinua Achebe, who is considered to be among the founding fathers of African literature, has expressed his views on Conrad’s novel on many occasions. He writes in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness” that:

    “Whatever Conrad’s problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as “among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” And why it is today the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English Departments of American universities.
    There are two probable grounds on which what I have aid so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.
    Secondly, I may be challenged on the grounds of actuality. Conrad, after all, did sail down the Congo in 1890 when my own father was still a babe in arms. How could I stand up more than fifty years after his death and purport to contradict him? My answer is that as a sensible man I will not accept just any traveler’s tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself. I will not trust the evidence even off man’s very eyes when I suspect them to be as jaundiced as Conrad’s. And we also happen to know that Conrad was, in the words of his biographer, Bernard C. Meyer, “notoriously inaccurate in the rendering of his own history.”

    The question of whether or not it was appropriate for Browning to assume the voice of an African woman should be extended to whether or not it is appropriate for us to regard certain literary works pertaining to this subject as better or worse than one another.

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