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An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's " Uncle Tom"). Buy DocSouth Books The basic story of Henson's life in Uncle Tom's Story of His Life is similar to the . Mass: Applewood Books, , ; Vicary, Elizabeth Zoe, "Henson, Josiah," African American National Biography, ed.
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An Autobiography of the Reverend Josiah Henson

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Slave narrative

Penetration of the Mind Without Consent. Courtney C Filomena Lee. Rather than enter deeply into that question, no matter how interesting, what I must underline is how this entire debate over cultural appropriation diverts us from the Henson text in its own right.

This is a twenty-first century recapitulation of a nineteenth-century debate in which the focus lies on a white-authored text that defines the reception of a black-authored text. It is long past time to stop. We do not need Stowe in order to discuss Henson. One of the most important themes of this autobiography lies in its mediation of racial experience through his religious faith.

Henson reports a moment of conversion at age eighteen, standing in front of a church in Newport Mills, Maryland, listening to a charismatic preacher named John McKinney. He stands outside because as a black the church would not admit him. For Henson, a perceived universalistic message is more important than the conditions under which he is permitted to hear that message.

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Rather than find means to resist that exclusion, as did Richard Allen a generation earlier when he founded an independent black congregation and the African Methodist Episcopal church movement after being excluded from a white church outside Philadelphia, Henson treats it as an occasion to wish for the enlightenment and salvation of Isaac Riley, his master. I thought it was justifiable, and even praiseworthy. All at once the truth burst upon me that it was a crime. It raises the question of the degree to which Henson seeks to please white readers with quiescence rather than action.

After supposedly listening to plans for a bloody rebellion, Henson says -- I could not agree with the leaders, and yet I felt that the evils of slavery could not be exaggerated, and that we had a right to our freedom. Little by little the light came to my soul, till I was convinced that it was not a feasible or Christian plan of procedure; so I began to raise doubts and queries, to discuss the subject, and finally, I had the moral courage to speak my mind plainly. On the one hand, Henson uses references to Christian belief to justify obedience and pacifism because there were no effective practical alternatives available to most slaves.

Shared suffering within a common religious faith was better than atomized individual suffering without a community to rely upon. I could no longer pray or trust. I thought He had abandoned me and cast me off forever. I looked not to Him for help. I saw only the foul miasmas, the emaciated frames of my negro companions; and in them saw the sure, swift, loving intervention of the one unfailing friend of the wretched,--death! Yes; death and the grave! Yet the narrative becomes one of reaffirmation, as in moments of sustenance during his escape from Kentucky or gratitude for arriving in Canada, when Henson declares "I'll use my freedom well; I'll give my soul to God.

From his early steps towards literacy forward, as where he sells apples to buy a spelling book and suffers punishment, Henson pushes the limits of the horizons permitted a slave. A lack of knowledge was part of the burden of slavery. Together with another fugitive, the well-known Henry Bibb, Henson established the Refugee Home Society in Canada in to support black self-uplift through agriculture Harrell The self-emancipation that leads Henson and his family to escape becomes the drive to establish a successful sawmill, and then returns in the assistance he provides to the Underground Railroad.

The abolitionist Benjamin Drew visited the settlement in and gave a cautious description tinged with dubiousness , The narrative is one of energies unleashed and the triumph of entrepreneurial freedom. Like other nineteenth-century US slave narratives, the establishment of an equal citizenship provides a central unifying theme. Yet this is a Canadian story as well as an American one, so the story becomes one in which Henson establishes himself and his family as loyal subjects of the British Crown.

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If denied equality in the United States, where he remained a fugitive slave before the Civil War and a member of a subordinated class after the war, Henson seeks to claim equal status in his accounts of being presented to Queen Victoria during his first and third visits to Great Britain. Henson becomes a cosmopolitan: a Canadian citizen and still tied inevitably to his identity as a former slave in the United States.

It is in this paradox between new citizenship and identity that we meet Josiah Henson as a citizen of the world. All page citations are to this edition. There are several reasons. Given limited syllabus space, teachers choose the famous text and leave Henson unread. Occasionally a well-annotated edition may carry a selection from Henson as background reading.


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While teachers may be familiar with the back-story of Henson, it is unusual that any have actually read the text. The persistence of this textual prioritization speaks to a continuing greater valuation of white-authored interpretation over black-authored reports of experience. Good pedagogy does not simply accept such racialized textual hierarchies; rather, it seeks out original voices and exposes students to unmediated primary sources. Teachers tend to avoid potential risk where they do not enjoy academic freedom and job security. Such reluctance can lead to historical distortion through classroom avoidance of more difficult topics and texts.

According to self-report he appears be of impeccable character, someone who embodies the virtues of hard work and piety.