By Jeremy Mahr
From the founding of the Thirteen Colonies, to the close of the American Civil War, slavery remained as a fixture of American society, driving the economy while leaving deep divisions between anti-slavery abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates. Under the institution of slavery, enslaved blacks were systematically marginalized from society, forced to survive and work under some of the most brutal conditions known to mankind. Yet, it would be a mistake to claim that enslaved persons were simply passive victims to the whims of their masters. Although their means were limited, enslaved persons had the agency to choose to resist the horrors of slavery through various means. This is reflected by Jacob D. Green’s account of his life as an enslaved African-American, in his autobiography “Narration of the Life of J.D. Green, a Runaway Slave.” Presented as a transcription of various lectures spoken to abolitionist audiences, the narrative presents Green as emblematic of many enslaved blacks who, without legal or social recourse to openly fight back, still found ways of resisting the injustices of the system. This was accomplished through direct means, such as his repeated attempts to run away as a fugitive slave, as well as indirect means, such as Green’s clever uses of trickery to get what he wanted and avoid punishment from his master.
Green’s autobiography begins by describing his early life on the plantation of Judge Charles Earle in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. From the start, his life is marked by tragedy: his mother is sold to another master in Woodfork, never to be seen by him again. The theme of family breakup is repeated through the entirety of the piece. Not only does Green lose his mother, but over the course of his life, he also loses his wife and children to slave purchasers, and witnesses the families of other enslaved persons being torn apart as family members are sold to different traders.
The sense of powerlessness among enslaved black families was especially magnified in black women, who are described by Green as being often victims of the lecherousness of their white masters. When Green’s wife, Jane, gives birth five months after their marriage to a light-skinned child, she informs him that the child is not his, but the master’s. In spite of this revelation, Green settles into his family life, and notes
It is only when his wife is sold, without his knowledge, by the master’s jealous wife, that Green harbors thoughts of fleeing slavery. In one especially gruesome moment, an enslaved woman named Mary is raped in a barn by William, the young son of her master, and is saved by the intervention of her lover, Dan, who accidentally kills William in the process. Following the incident, Mary commits suicide out of fright and shame. After the master’s sons catch Dan, Green graphically describes Dan’s punishment at the hands of their master: being chained to a large tree and getting burned alive.
These terrible scenes are described in vivid detail, yet Green manages to keep his tone matter-of-fact and nonchalant throughout. During Dan’s painful demise, for example, Green writes:
“The unearthly sounds that came from the blazing pile, as poor Dan writhed in the agonies of death, it is beyond the power of my pen to describe. After a while all was silent, except the cracking of the pine wood as the fire gradually devoured it with the prize that it contained. Poor Dan had ceased to struggle–he was at rest” (21).
The neutral tone, coupled with the graphic imagery, captures not only the brutality of the institution, but also how slavery normalized violence against the enslaved: under slavery, barbaric acts such as burning people alive became accepted as mere punishments towards rebellious enslaved persons, instead of as the gross abuses of human rights that people would rightly see it as today. It also served the purpose of the genre by highlighting the inherent contradictions and injustices in American society. While elites stressed the values of liberty and Christian morality, Green dismantled such pretensions by showing how those same values– God, family, and liberty– were undermined by the practice of slavery. Dan was not free to save his lover from rape and sexual assault. Green’s mother, while deeply religious and loving, found that her family was doomed to be split apart, regardless of her piety. Green remarks upon the unfairness of the system, especially in how blacks often faced harsher punishment than whites for the same misdeed. In one particular incident, J.D. Green catches a white boy in the act of stealing Green’s marbles and toys. Mr. Burmey, one of the overseers on the plantation, catches Green and the boy mid-fight. Almost immediately, Burmey takes the side of the white boy and attempts to punish Green for physically striking a white person.
“[Mr. Burmey] kicked me away from the white boy, saying if I belonged to him he would cut off my hands for daring to strike a white boy; this without asking the cause of the quarrel, or ascertaining who was to blame” (7).
In spite of these troubles, Green found subtle ways of fighting back against the system. Throughout the text, Green presents himself as a trickster figure, of sorts. Striving to get his revenge on Mr. Burmey, Green realizes that Burmey, and another man named Roger, were both secret lovers of the master’s wife. Knowing Burmey to be a voracious smoker, he fills Burmey’s pipe with gunpowder, causing the pipe to explode and disfigure Mr. Burmey. Although Burmey ends up suing Roger in open court, Green himself is never suspected of the act. At times, Green’s scheming comes at the expense of other slaves, but he always finds new and ingenious methods of insulating himself against the injustices of slavery. In many respects, Green’s actions could be read as practical resistance and rebellion, against an oppressive system that otherwise robs him of few other options and opportunities. Despite threats of harsh punishments, Green also makes the choice to escape, not once, but three times, at times taking him all the way north to places such as Utica and Philadelphia before he finally prevails and lives the rest of his life as a free man in Toronto, Canada. These scenes show Green as someone who, in spite of personal tragedies, gives himself the agency to rebel and forge his own path any way he could.
This sense of rebellion is particularly important to Green, because it marks his growing development as an independent agent. Through his entire life, Green is taught to be powerless and submissive: his family life is forever insecure and threatened by the possibility of separation, and he does not expect to receive equal treatment in society. Even his Christian faith is carefully selected by his master to emphasize the superiority of slavery. According to Mr. Cobb, the minister of Green’s church:
“when we were in our native country Africa, we were destitute of Bible light, worshipping idols of sticks and stones, ones, and barbarously murdering one another, God put it into the hearts of these good slaveholders to venture across the bosom of the hazardous Atlantic to Africa, and snatch us poor negroes as brands from the eternal burning, and bring us where we might sit under the droppings of his sanctuary, and learn the ways of industry and the way to God” (6).
In other words, the elites of Southern society, mediated by the power structures of the Church and the Plantation, argued that blacks were the beneficiaries and not the victims of slavery, because enslaved blacks were far too ignorant and uncivilized to strike out on their own. Green’s attempts at resistance, first through tricking his masters and later through running away from slavery, serve as attempts to establish his own destiny, away from the domineering influences of the larger society.
The presentation of the narrative as a series of transcribed lectures also furthers the idea of resistance, becoming an act of rebellion in its own right. Because he was speaking to a friendly audience, Green probably had the privilege of being candid about his experiences, showing both the good and the bad sides of his character without fear of backlash. Furthermore, Green’s accounts of the injustices, murders, and rapes that occurred under slavery would have shocked the audience, whose abolitionist ideas were usually guided by Christian impulses, and who also would have bristled at these violent accounts under slavery, and the Southern Christian ministers who helped enable them. Beyond simply deconstructing the idea of slavery, Green’s later career as a successful lecturer for the abolitionist cause was another rebuke to the Southern slaveholders, showing that blacks could still rise to excellence without the guiding hands of masters.
The autobiography of J.D. Green, although relatively short, is useful in the insights that Green permits into the everyday workings of slavery, and the actions that some slaves took to fight back in big or small ways. Slavery as an institution fundamentally contradicted the language of liberty and freedom that defined American society, but that did not mean that enslaved blacks passively gave in to their lot.