Book cover of Juan Francisco Manzano, the poet slave Autobiography and other writings

Book cover of Juan Francisco Manzano, the poet slave Autobiography and other writings

Narratives of slavery, which date back to before the 18th century, were a literary form created from the experiences of certain slaves during the colonial period. This literary form helped a great deal in promoting abolition, which was closely tied to anti-colonial trends. One of the best known texts in the genre is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, an anti-slavery novel in the United States that is one of the most widely read books of all time. The Caribbean, however, had Sab, a popular anti-slavery novel published in 1841, some 10 years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written.

Sab, by the Cuban writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, was banned in Cuba because of its theme and the novel’s unconventional representation of Cuban society. In the text, Avellaneda presents situations that were considered scandalous by society of that era, such as interracial love and social divisions, to show the moral superiority of a slave in comparison to the corruption and avarice of a white man.

The text tells the story of a brief period in the life of a slave, Sab, who died from an impossible love. Sab is in love with Carlota, the white daughter of his owner, but she is engaged to marry Enrique, an English businessman who is interested in the marriage because of the sugar mill the girl will inherit from her father. Through this love triangle (Sab – Carlota – Enrique), the novel juxtaposes the black slave’s pure and noble love with the predatory qualities of the white Englishman.

Gómez de Avellaneda presented to readers in the Spanish Caribbean a slave with noble values and a sophisticated and civilized way of expression. It is therefore not surprising that a predominantly white community of readers were scandalized by the idealization, if not superiority, of a subject — the slave — that was considered an object, a working machine, a beast of burden. Sab also brought into relief a fact that the white Cuban society had tried to ignore for a long time: that the notion of what is Cuban would inevitably have to consider and represent black slaves.

It was the autobiography, the paradigm of the genre called slave narratives, which allowed the slave to think and to represent himself. Like the novel, there were various examples of these autobiographies in the United States that were widely read and circulated. Thus the abolitionist and anti-colonial struggle was supported by autobiographies that defended those causes.

The first and only slave narrative from the Caribbean and Latin America, titled Autobiografía (1937), also comes from Cuba. Its author, Juan Francisco Manzano, tells of the difficulties he experienced as a domestic slave in Matanzas and Havana. His story’s purpose is to explain the reasons he fled the Cuban capital in search of freedom. Manzano also used the opportunity to show his self-taught abilities and his wisdom by learning to read and write, just by imitating his owners. The importance of Manzano’s Autobiografía is unquestionable as it is the only text that testifies to the life experiences, suffering and the historical and social perspective of a Caribbean slave.

Author: Thelma Jiménez-Anglada
Published: January 28, 2012.

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