Date of Award

5-2014

Degree Type

Honors College Thesis

Department

English

First Advisor

Sherita L. Johnson, Ph.D.

Advisor Department

English

Abstract

Slavery in the United States was an evolving institution that lasted nearly 400 years. To understand the colonial era of slavery within the United States, I examine the life and times of Venture Smith, as documented in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa (1798), and that of Phillis Wheatley using The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (1988). Both Smith and Wheatley were African-born slaves brought to America during the eighteenth century. In Smith’s narrative, he concludes by proclaiming “my freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal” (31). This statement is used as the title of this project because it shows that Smith and Wheatley understood that freedom is not an abstract concept. Living in a society that relied on slave labor, Wheatley and Smith write extensively about their experiences of being treated as inferiors in America. Having been born free is what distinguishes their experiences from African American slaves’ writing later in the nineteenth century. Most of what is known about American slavery is based on the first-hand accounts recorded in such fugitive slave narratives, a genre that developed from the latter generation and influenced by abolitionists. Early African slaves were an integral part of the American colonial society, and they were not just simply house servants or field laborers as they commonly appear in abolitionist literature. Revisionist scholarship guided my study as I examine three themes throughout this research project: society, identity, and the literacy of colonial America slaves.

In this essay, I show how Wheatley and Smith wrote freedom narratives and poetry to protest against slavery. I argue that Wheatley, specifically, identified with the black experience of slavery though she lived an exceptional life. More importantly, by using African American literary theory, I explain how Wheatley’s and Smith’s writings reconstruct a black identity in early America, where blackness signified an inferior social class status, though these writers combatted such claims. Also, by using feminist theory and gender studies, I examine Wheatley’s experiences as a black woman and how she claimed her womanhood (essentially her humanity), even though she was classified as slave property for most of her life and writing career. I also use gender theory to examine Smith’s masculinity, as a slave and a free man. With such inquiries, I present a comparative analysis of the difficulty that Wheatley faced to gain her freedom because she was a woman and black slave, whereas Smith’s freedom journey was less arduous considering the patriarchal culture of colonial America.