In 2001, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. purchased a remarkable novel—purportedly written by an African-American woman who’d escaped slavery— at auction. Gates attended the annual auction by The Swann Galleries in New York City, which offers artifacts and memorabilia of African-American history, and paid about $8,000 for a 300-page manuscript believed to be the first novel penned by an African-American woman. The unpublished book—“The Bondswoman’s Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts”—had spent years languishing in an attic in New Jersey before historian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley bought it. After Wesley’s death, the literary treasure found its way to the eager and excited Gates.
Gates had the book scientifically authenticated and confirmed it had been written sometime in the late 1850s. He edited and published the book in 2002, and it immediately became a bestseller. But the mystery remained: Who was Hannah Crafts?
Enter Winthrop University English professor Gregg Hecimovich. The South Carolinian scholar meticulously reconstructed the life story of this remarkable African-American woman. He spent nearly a decade combing through primary source documents to positively identify Hannah Crafts as an escaped slave named Hannah Bond. As a trained historian myself, I have spent hundreds of hours relishing dusty yet delicious old documents. I got chills when it was announced that Hecimovich will publish a book next year that reconstructs the life of this intriguing woman: “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts”.
Hecimovich was not the only scholar who found the mystery of Hannah Crafts absolutely tantalizing. Hollis Robbins—Chair of the Humanities Department of the Peabody Institute and Director of Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins—and Gates set out to trace the author’s literary influences, which included the works of: Charlotte Brontë, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens and many other literary giants. They concluded that Bond must have been an enslaved house maid in the residence of John H. Wheeler of Murfreesboro, North Carolina. She’d left a riveting clue in her text: The master in her book serves as the United States Minister to Nicaragua. Wheeler did just that, and his library included all the literature that Bond references in her writing—except one: Dickens’ “Bleak House”.
How had Hannah Bond learned passages of “Bleak House” if it was not in Wheeler’s library? Hecimovich’s painstaking detective work reveals that girls from a nearby school boarded with the Wheeler family, and their school’s curriculum required them to read and memorize passages of the Dickens novel. Hecimovich’s plausible explanation is that Bond either heard the girls’ recitations of passages or borrowed a copy from one of the girls, with her consent or without. All’s fair in love and art.
The forthcoming book will reconstruct the lives of seven enslaved individuals in the Wheeler house who had both the means and the opportunity to write the manuscript. Hecimovich sets his detective work against the rich cultural background of mixed-race society in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
I can’t remember when I’ve been so excited about a book release, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” included. This book will be a welcome antidote to the scourge of racism that emboldens citizens to disparage and discount our president, like the abhorrent C-SPAN caller on “Washington Journal” who recently referred to President Obama as “that n*gger”.
Hecimovich explains the powerful impact his research will have, not only because of its relevance to African-American history and the literary canon, but because it tells us so much about ourselves as a nation : “Crafts’ life endures through her art, a voice rediscovered, unmasking and challenging the racial bigotry and greed that divide people and nations – then and now.” He aptly concludes, “[L]iterature can still transcend the divisions of race, gender, class, and time to imagine and substantiate justice and freedom.”