The American Anti-Slavery Society originally published Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave in 1838 to much fanfare, describing it as a rare slave autobiography. Soon thereafter, however, southerners challenged the authenticity of the work and the society retracted it. Abolitionists at the time were unable to defend the book; and, until now, historians could not verify Williams’s identity or find the Alabama slave owners he named in the book. As a result, most scholars characterized the author as a fraud, perhaps never even a slave, or at least not under the circumstances described in the book.
In this annotated edition of Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave Hank Trent provides newly discovered biographical information about the true author of the book—an African American man enslaved in Alabama and Virginia. Trent identifies Williams’s owners in those states as well as in Maryland and Louisiana. He explains how Williams escaped from slavery and then altered his life story to throw investigators off his track. Through meticulous and extensive research, Trent also reveals unknown details of James Williams’s real life, drawing upon runaway ads, court cases, census records, and estate inventories never before linked to him or to the narrative. In the end, Trent proves that the author of the book was truly an enslaved man, albeit one who wrote a romanticized, fictionalized story based on his real life, which proved even more complex and remarkable than the story he told.
Hank Trent is an independent scholar focusing on antebellum American history. He resides in Ohio and is the editor of Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave.
Praise for Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave
“Trent’s well-researched edition succeeds in presenting James Williams’s narrative as a skillful performance by an enslaved author that served to secure his passage to freedom. This annotated edition provides a strong addition to the literature on slave narratives, which will be of interest to historians and literary scholars alike.”—Journal of Southern History
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