MANA's BLACK LIT ALIVE! Featuring Henry Bibb and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—Segment #6

MANA's BLACK LIT ALIVE! is a special segment of MANA, which will have podcasts on literature produced by African American writers in the 18th century and beyond. 

Through literature, the writers, whether free or slaves, realized their identity and expressed their individuality at a time when African Americans were only viewed as mere property. 

In this podcast, MANA’s DR C continues the discussion of Henry Bibb (May 10, 1815 - August 1, 1854), who was born to Mildred Jackson, an enslaved woman on a Cantalonia, Kentucky plantation. His people told him his white father was James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator, but Henry never knew him. Henry Bibb had six younger brothers who were all sold. 

He later became an abolitionist after escaping from slavery and into Canada. Bibb founded the abolitionist newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive. He returned to the United States to lecture against slavery. Bibb details his life history in his book, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written By Himself. 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 - February 22, 1911) was one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she became an abolitionist, suffragist, teacher, public speaker, poet, and writer. Harper's short story, "Two Offers" was published in the Anglo-African in 1859, making literary history as the first short story published by a black woman. 

Listen to DR C's podcast where she reads excerpts from Bibb's narrative and Harper's poem, "The Slave Mother": 

Follow along with DR C as she recites excerpts from Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written By Himself and the poem "The Slave Mother"

"The greatest of my adventures came off when I arrived at Jefferson City. There I expected to meet an advertisement for my person; it was there I must cross the river or take a steamboat down; it was there I expected to be interrogated and required to prove whether I was actually a free man or a slave. If I was free, I should have to show my free papers; and if I was a slave I should be required to tell who my master was. 

Henry Bibb, copper engraving
by Patrick H. Reason
I stopped at a hotel, however, and ascertained that there was a steamboat expected down the river that day from St. Louis. I also found that there were several passengers at that house who were going down on board of the first boat. I knew that the captain of the steamboat could not take a colored passenger on board of his boat from a slave state without first ascertaining whether such person was bond or free; I knew that this was more than he would dare to do by the laws of the slave states—and not to surmount this difficulty it brought into exercise all the powers of my mind. 

I would have got myself boxed up as freight, and have been forwarded to St. Louis, but I had no friend that I could trust to do it for me. This plan has since been adopted by some with success. But finally I thought I might possibly pass myself off as a body servant to the passengers going from the hotel down.

So, I went to a store and bought myself a large trunk, and took it to the hotel. Soon, a boat came in which was bound to St. Louis, and the passengers started down to get on board. I took up my large trunk, and started along after them as if I was their servant. My heart trembled in view of the dangerous experiment which I was then about to try. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to bear me up in view of my critical condition. 

The white people that I was following walked on board and I after them. I acted as if the trunk was full of clothes, but I had not a stitch of clothes in it. The passengers went up into the cabin and I followed them with the trunk. I suppose this made the captain think that I was their slave...

By this time the porter came around ringing his bell for all passengers who had not paid their fare, to walk up to the captain's office and settle it. Some of my Irish friends had not yet settled, and I asked one of them if he would be good enough to take my money and get me a ticket when he was getting one for himself, and he quickly replied "yes sir, I will get you a tacket." So he relieved me of my greatest trouble. When they came round to gather the tickets before we got to St. Louis, my ticket was taken with the rest, and no questions were asked me. 

The next day the boat arrived at St. Louis; my object was to take passage on board of the first boat which was destined for Cincinnati, Ohio; and as there was a boat going out that day for Pittsburgh, I went on board to make some inquiry about the fare, and found the steward to be a colored man with whom I was acquainted. He lived in Cincinnati and had rendered me some assistance in making my escape to Canada, in the summer of 1838, and he also very kindly aided me then in getting back to a land of freedom. 

The swift running steamer started that afternoon her voyage, which soon wafted my body beyond the tyrannical limits of chattel slavery. When the boat struck the mouth of the river Ohio, and I had once more the pleasure of looking on that lovely stream, my heart leaped up for joy at the glorious prospect that I should again be free..."

The Slave Mother 
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 

Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem'd as if a burden'd heart
Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
Were sweeping through the brain...

His love has been a joyous light
That o'er her pathway smiled, 
A fountain gushing ever new,
Amid life's desert wild...

She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide. 

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother's pains; 
He is not hers, although her blood 
Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her beaking heart...

His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart,
Their lives a stremlet blent in one—
Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,
Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then these bitter shrieks
Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
Is breaking in despair.

Have you written poems that you would like to self-publish? MANA can help. Contact MANA today at

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