A History of a Life with its Deepest Intentions: The Analog/Digital After-life of Moses Grandy’s Narrative of Enslavement

***long read excerpt

Today those voices out of bondage seem to transmit what is now meant by “soul.”[1] Arna Bontemps

For the longest time the intellectual arbiters of the slave system were those who profited from it, their friends, and relatives. – William Loren Katz

The first time I read Moses Grandy’s narrative of enslavement I cried for ten minutes. I wept for the loved ones he lost and the suffering he endured. At that moment I knew that my scholarly focus would center on expanding his legacy of struggle within the public mind. Such a visceral interaction with a text is not altogether uncommon for many readers and I could not help but feel fortunate in having access to such a rare book because of the technological advances of digitization. The memory of Moses Grandy’s life is part of the richness of the American Slave Narrative genre.

In the recent past slave narratives were difficult to locate due to their isolation in scattered library special collections, in used book stores at high prices or on difficult to read microfilm. In this the project of digitization is an act of recovery in itself that makes available and amplifies the voices of African American memories in slavery that were historically cast aside as falsehoods of abolitionist propaganda. Enslaved people’s narratives reveal a cultural inheritance that the enterprise of digitization has made accessible to anyone capable of connecting to the World Wide Web. Jerome McGann reminds us that humanist scholars “are the long-recognized monitors of cultural memory” and exposing the richness of American slave narratives is “precisely the office of the scholar.” [2]

This essay will highlight the recovery work stimulated through accessing the traces of enslaved experience in reading Grandy’s digital text. I begin my approach to illuminating recovery efforts by briefly sketching the development of the North American Slave Narratives digital collection. I then shift my focus to the critical reception of American Slave Narratives as a historical source while tracing the contours of their re-emergence thus capturing the attendant evolving interpretative frameworks of their influence in the twentieth century.[3]This exploration is necessary in order to highlight the challenges in bringing American Slave Narratives to the forefront as an important field of scholarship. Having established the foundational scholarly engagements with American Slave Narratives broadly, I then turn my attention to the Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America discussing how authors and readers have consulted Grandy’s narrative in print as well as in digital format. Drawing on the recovery efforts that have emerged from readings of Grandy’s digital text, I then emphasize the need for interested readers to involve themselves in community engagement practices beyond the confines of the academy in order to amplify and recover enslaved people’s lives illuminated within them. These practices stem from “cultural heritage rooted in the social, political and economic elements” of American Slave Narratives.[4]These engagements “evoke powerful emotive associations about the past and present as well as progress and decay.” From this scholars and cultural workers alike may develop a “complex mosaic of artifacts, images, monuments and customs demanding our attention while giving meaning to them. Ultimately this essay argues that the digitization of North American Slave narratives has promoted expanded reading engagements with rare texts in ways that enrich scholarly inquiry and cultural recovery.

The Narrative of Moses Grandy  is part of the North American Slave Narratives digital collection within the Documenting the American South electronic publishing program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Library. North American Slave Narratives “holds the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.” Also comprised within this collection are autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. The collection represents the best of possibilities in textual scholarship, institutional collaboration, and funding possibilities within a digitization enterprise.

Slave narratives formerly accessible only through a scattering of repositories are now reachable via the digital realm and as a result, readers interested in slave narratives may analyze, collect, and visualize these texts at a scale previously unseen.  The recovery, sharing, and witnessing generated through close readings of slave narratives digitized within North American Slave Narratives promotes a remarkable extension from digital space for further discovery in African American history.

Such engagements are part of a living culture created and sustained via digitization efforts. In working with Moses Grandy’s narrative I have encountered ample opportunity to observe the breadth and range of recovery activity stemming from these engaged practices of reading his digital narrative of enslavement.

In close reading Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, scholars and cultural workers have created promising alliances in an effort to expand understanding of his life and deepest motivations. These efforts have provided new vistas into Grandy’s legacy as well as the slavery regime itself. From self-published works to digital spatial narratives and experimental film, Moses Grandy’s narrative has inspired a breadth of recovery work that highlights the importance of preserving the history of cultural memory through digitizing rare and forgotten texts.

The digitization project that produced North American Slave Narratives collection began in 1991 when several librarians wrote the vision statement for Documenting the American South. Driven by a concern for the complex and contested construction of identity within the southern region the librarians felt that a digital collection with a broad range of research materials would “describe the diversity of the American South.”[5] As the project team acquired materials for the collection, they quickly realized the central role of African Americans in shaping the construction of southern historical identity and began working on compiling American Slave Narratives to include within Documenting the American South. Several questions arose in these early stages of acquisition: Should every slave narrative be collected or just the ones in local holdings? If a slave narrative was located at a repository outside of the UNC system, how could delivery and scanning take place without damaging an already fragile rare book? Lastly, how could such a large scale digitization project be publicized effectively?[6]

Initially the team sought to digitize the slave narratives based on locally held texts with relatively high circulation rates within UNC holdings. Such a decision was rooted in a utilitarian mode of operations planning. The team began to see the drawbacks in such an approach as some of their editions of their titles creating a problem of authenticity for the final digitized version. The team also began to understand the importance of acquiring slave narratives that were lesser known. These obstacles forced the team to revisit their approach to gathering slave narratives for DAS. A more systematic, global approach was needed to identify the range of North American Slave Narratives. While the UNC library team indicates that they had not found a “standard bibliography” of American slave narratives to guide their search, the work of literary historian Marion Wilson Starling and that of Charles Nichols provide an extensive list of American slave narratives.[7] In spite of this oversight, the arrival of noted historian of African American Literature William Andrews in 1992 helped to guide the team in their search for an exhaustive list of American Slave Narratives. Andrews, who joined the faculty of UNC as the E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, had been locating and editing slave narratives for over twenty years. Andrews quickly signed on with the DAS team to compile a bibliography of slave narratives and serve as editor for the digital collection of North American Slave Narratives.[8]

Andrews has written that “the most popular and lasting African American literary contributions to the movement for freedom were the autobiographical narratives of American slaves.”[9] This distinction is undoubtedly true as American Slave narratives served as rich firsthand sources of the realities of plantation life while establishing a literary genre that inflamed antislavery sentiment during their time of publication. In a nation “divided politically and geographically by the institution of slavery, narratives of enslavement possessed a unique rhetorical status as witness participants” for interested audiences.[10] In spite of this special authority, early historians of slavery and the Civil War ignored slave narratives as documentary sources. In Slave Community, historian John Blassingame tells us that the majority of historians refused to accept the slave narratives as true testimony because enslaved people were aided by abolitionist editors or amanuenses. Yet those historians who refused to acknowledge the veracity of the American Slave Narratives had never bothered to read them.[11]

Ulrich B. Phillips speaking in 1929 expressed the prevailing historiographical consensus regarding slave narratives by indicating that “ex-slave narratives in general…were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful.”[12] In Slavery a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life Stanley Elkins wrote of Phillip’s influence in the early twentieth century as the “undisputed” special authority on studies of slavery- an “authority” whose work emphasized the “genial view of the institution.”[13] Phillips the son of a Georgia merchant was “reared in an atmosphere of reverence for the values and standards of the old planter class.”[14] To this end his interpretation of American slavery mirrored the tenets of the Lost Cause tradition-one where American slaves are painted as “happy darkies” that benefitted from the institution of slavery. Such an interpretation reduces black people to a racial stereotype devoid of agency and autonomy. Implicit in Phillips’ assertion that American Slave Narratives lacked authority was that enslaved people were incapable of truthfully authoring their experiences, even if dictated to an amanuensis. Phillips’ assertion can be seen as symptomatic of the prevailing racial beliefs of his day –one that was white supremacist to its very core.

In this light, we can then think of the digitization of American Slave Narratives as an act of recovery on a much deeper level-one where the expansion and promotion of access to once derided testimonies are made available and in so doing redresses the wrongs of early historians who rejected slave testimony.

The early efforts to collect American Slave Narratives began in the 1920’s alongside the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance through the tireless searches of historian Arturo Schomburg and early Civil Rights leader Arthur Spingarn.[15] Schomburg’s expansive collection of cultural materials resulted in the establishment of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in New York City while Spingarn’s was purchased by Howard University to become the Moorland Spingarn Research Center. The collective achievements of Schomburg and Spingarn in amassing African Americana cannot be understated as bibliographies of early African American literature were “minuscule, scarce and the books, once identified and located, were generally non-circulating.”[16] Spingarn and Schomburg’s energies in collecting African American slave narratives and other important works of African American consciousness demonstrate the resolve these leaders had in preserving cultural memory. Schomburg speaking to a crowd in New York City proclaimed that, “[African Americans] need a collection or list of books written by our men and women. If they lack style let the children correct the omission of their sire. Let them build upon the crude work.”[17] It is evident here that Schomburg and others like him were determined to create a vast archive of African American contributions to literary culture.

Marion Wilson Starling would take up Schomburg’s challenge by writing her dissertation The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History in 1946. Starling’s research culminated in a bibliographic guide to the location of 6006 narrative records extended from 1703-1944. Starling discovered these narratives among judicial records, broadsides, private printings, church records and more. [18] Starlings work laid the foundation for an expansive bibliographic list of American Slave Narratives.  In reading Starling’s pioneering work one is acquainted with a vast amount of raw historical material unearthed for generations of scholars to study as a guide. Starling’s dissertation was not published until 1981, nonetheless her work represents an invaluable contribution to historical and literary scholarship of the American Slave Narrative.

Charles Nichols follows in 1963 with the publication of Many Thousand Gone drawing on the testimony of seventy-seven published slave narratives. Sponsored by the American-Institute of the Free University of Berlin and published by a Netherlands printing house, and written during his time spent in Germany, Nichols work represented a global interest in attempting to understand how American slavery shaped African American intellectual life.[19] In using slave testimony Nichols was the first published author incorporating enslaved people’s experiences as documentary evidence in accessing historiographical issues of slavery.  The book revealed for readers the connections between the history of American slavery, the lived experience of enslaved people as observed through their experienced outlined in the slave narratives, and the continued struggle for political and social equality from Jim Crow through the era of the book’s publication. Historian Kenneth Stamp in reviewing the work, wrote:

“Nichols is aware of the limitations of slave narratives as historical sources, especially of those that were written for illiterate fugitives by white abolitionists. Yet he does not always use the narratives as critically as he should.”

Here Stamp’s response to Nichols’ use of American Slave Narratives as a source of evidence reveals the lingering skepticism American historians had of their utility in interpreting slavery. This review was published in The American Historical Review in 1964 with Stamp ultimately concluding that Many Thousand Gone was “an unsatisfactory volume.” In spite of Stamp’s unfavorable assessment Nichols’ work pioneered the use of American Slave Narratives as documentary evidence in studies of slavery in the United States.

It was from this collective journey of archival excavations that John Blassingame was able to produce The Slave Community which helped change the course of American slavery historiography by highlighting the experiences of enslaved people to speak for the historical record on a critical level. Blassingame wrote:

“By concentrating solely on the planter, historians have in effect been listening to only one side of a complicated debate. The distorted view of the plantation which emerges from the planter records is that of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which strips the slave of any meaningful and distinctive culture…”[20]

Blassingame revolutionizes the historical canon by utilizing enslaved people’s testimony to understand the history of slavery. The book is as a path breaking study that  provides a basis of  understanding enslaved people’s response to plantation life. Blassingame consults a broad range of sources from American Slave Narratives to plantation journals to articles related to psychological theory. This pivotal study exemplified a triumph on Blassingame’s part as he undoubtedly “had to fight the pressure of a white historical establishment that interpreted slavery in a less than critical way” and was resistant to incorporating the testimony of black voices.[21]

 Blassingame’s analysis of the slave family is particularly revealing and he uses the Narrative of Moses Grandy shed light on the hardships enslaved men faced when they attempted to maintain monogamous unions.  Drawing on the testimony of several American Slave Narratives Blassingame helps the reader to understand why enslaved men preferred unions to slave women on other plantations. Because of the power dynamics of ownership inherent in the institution of slavery that allowed slaveholders to violate slave women on a routine basis, enslaved men shielded themselves from seeing these injustices by living “abroad” at another plantation. Though Blassingame indicates that some sources show a that certain slaveholders “encouraged stable monogamous families in order to make escape more unlikely” this practice was not the case for Moses Grandy

In Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America we observe how slaveholders often “paired” enslaved people together while instructing them to live partnered until the vagaries of the market or death of a slaveholder and eventual division of property meant severing this precarious bond. Moses Grandy spoke of how his wife cried out “I am gone!” as the slave traders marched her off to be sold away. “My God have you bought my wife?”  Moses cried out- he was not even allowed to hug her upon departure.[22] 

Consulting enslaved people’s testimony and embarking on reading practices that consider silences as well as acknowledge the epistemological violence on which slave regimes verified forms of information serves to illuminate multilayered perspectives previously hidden from the historical record.[23]

What scholars have found in exploring narratives of enslavement are the ways enslaved people fashioned themselves as they “wrote themselves into being”[24] The rhetorical gestures employed in enslaved people’s narratives highlight an affirmation of personhood while providing information to readers on modes of resistance as well as daily life on the plantation. Whether written by him or herself, or dictated to an amanuensis enslaved people’s “figuration of freedom” prevailed on the page.[25]

 Historian Heather Andrea Williams has written on Narrative of Life of Moses Grandy Late a Slave in the United States of America informing us that the heart of Grandy’s narrative is the silences that persist in his humble self-portrayal. This humble self-fashioning was the result of a life filled with trials. Grandy’s narrative highlights a lived experience that is rife with innumerable trauma including witnessing torture, being cheated out of his purchased freedom twice, repeated physical abuse, disease, loss of family members, and more. Grandy at one point considered committing suicide, but decided against it.[26]

Williams also points out Grandy’s construction of personhood through attributes which signified his piety, his industriousness, and deep intentions to keep his family intact against all odds. These traits sought to confront proslavery characterizations of enslaved men as idle, treacherous and subhuman.

Comprised of episodic vignettes, Grandy’s narrative indicates no deliberate mode of special design.[27] The narrative begins with a heartwrenching memory- the details of how his older brother lost his life in the woods. It was this description of the swamp landscape that drew me to  Moses Grandy’s narrative. The setting of the narrative takes place in the Great Dismal Swamp region of northeastern North Carolina and Grandy’s dynamic reminiscences provided a way for me to conceptualize space and place as I read the words of his narrative on the computer screen. I decided that a digital narrative that emphasized the spatial dimensions of landscapes of trauma within the Great Dismal Swamp would help readers of Moses Grandy’s narrative conceptualize the role of


[1] Venture Smith et al., Five Black Lives (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Pr., 1971).

[2] Jerome Mcgann, “A New Republic of Letters,” 2014, , doi:10.4159/9780674369245.

[3] P. Gabrielle Foreman and Cherene Sherrard-Johnson. “Racial Recovery, Racial Death: An Introduction in Four Parts.” Legacy 24, no. 2 (2007): 157-170. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed June 15, 2018).

[4] Neil Silberman, “Chasing the Unicorn?: The Quest for “essence” in Digital Heritage,” in  New Media and Cultural Heritage,eds. Yehuda Kalay, Thomas Kvan, and Janice Affleck (London: Routledge, 2008), 81-83.

[5] Patricia Buck Dominguez,  and Joe A. Hewitt. “A Public Good: Documenting the American South and Slave Narratives.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 8, no. 2 (2007): 106-124

[6] Ibid, 111.

[7] The team indicated that there was not a standard bibliography of slave narratives at the time. Ibid 109-11.

[8] Ibid, 109-110.

[9] William L. Andrews, North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005),1.

[10] Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 9.

[11] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1981), 234.

[12] Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 13.

[13] Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutionaland Intellectual Life. 2d Ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 9-15.

[14] Ibid,

[15]  Venture Smith et al., Five Black Lives (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Pr., 1971),  ix.

[16] Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979)

[17] Vanessa K. Valdes, Diasporic Blackness: The Life and times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (S.l.: STATE UNIV OF NEW YORK PR, 2018), 79.

[18] John Ernest, The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.

[19] Prince E. Wilson “Slavery through the Eyes of Ex-Slaves.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 24, no. 4, 1963, pp. 401–402. http://www.jstor.org/stable/273385.

[20] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1981), i.

[21] Jessica Marie Johnson, “Black New Orleans: A Panel discussion on Blassingame’s Classic,” Youtube video, 1:50:28, April 2017, https://youtu.be/QWCvnYXneGU

[22] MOSES GRANDY, NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF MOSES GRANDY: formerly a slave in the united states of america (classic… reprint) (S.l.: FORGOTTEN BOOKS, 2015)

[23] Aisha K. Finch, Rethinking slave rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the insurgencies of 1841-1844 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 10-12.

[24] William Loren Katz, Flight from the Devil: Six Slave Narratives (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1996), xvii.

[25] Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 11.

[26] After purchasing his freedom Moses Grandy traveled back to Virginia to arrange to purchase his enslaved son. The slaveholder refused to take Grandy’s payment demanding a larger sum. Because Grandy and other enslaved people freed in southern states were considered “spoiled” from freedom and that there were laws against freed slaves reentering Virginia he could only remain in the Commonwealth for less than ten days. As the deadline approached for him to leave Virginia Grandy sees a party of white men and fears they will commandeer him back into slavery: “I thought they were officers coming to take me; and such was my horror of slavery, that I twice ran to the ship’s waist, to jump overboard into the strong ebb-tide then running, to drown myself, but a strong impression on my mind restrained me each time.” 45

[27] Heather Andrea Williams in North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005), 138.

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