The Vexed Position of the Black Secret-Bearer Concealments and Revelations in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative

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Hannah Crafts’ 1850s novel eschews attaching a simple binary of good/evil and desirable/undesirable onto either concealments or exposure. For Crafts, the moral and functional value of both is contingent on the workings of the slave state. Hannah, the novel’s eponymous slave narrator, proudly dubs herself “the repository of secrets” (11) early on in the text, willingly taking on the secrets of her slave community. However, she becomes increasingly aware of the vexed position of her role as a secret-bearer. While she initially uses secrecy to facilitate relationality with other slaves and resistance against slavery’s dictates, Hannah becomes increasingly hesitant towards bearing the secrets of others. At the same time, this does not mean that Hannah rejects secrecy altogether. While she is wary of shared secrets, Hannah still uses personal secrets for her own survival. In the end, her freedom is not only tied to her legal status but also to freedom from the burden of secrecy and its concomitant consequences in the slave-state. Crafts shows us that while secrecy can be used for resistance, this is not always such a simple solution for those trapped in slavery. In using secrecy—at once necessary and enslaving—as the central framework undergirding her protagonist’s life, Crafts narrativizes a central, often neglected condition of the slave’s life and shows its multiple affordances for the racial subject.

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