Slave's story still wields power today
An 1845 narrative of an escaped slave is in print again, thanks to University of Washington Press and the author's great-grandson, Carver Clark Gayton.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sometimes Lewis Clarke would be asked: "Do you think it was right for you to run away and not pay anything for yourself?"
Clarke fled slavery in 1840, when he was about 25 years old. He helped other people get north, too, and traveled the Northern states speaking out against the system.
"I would be willing to pay," Clarke would say, "If I knew who to pay it to. But when I think it over, I can't find anybody that has any better right to me than myself."
He told his story in an 1845 narrative that is in print again (University of Washington Press, 2012) thanks to his great-grandson, Carver Clark Gayton.
Gayton is an educator, a former FBI agent, a former Boeing employee and first director of the Northwest African American Museum.
Clarke's story helps the modern reader understand a pivotal part of American history. Knowing history from the perspective of an enslaved person who fought the system can be an antidote to apathy, Gayton said.
"One thing I'm concerned about with young black males is that they will give up," he said. He said his great-grandfather never gave up despite burdens almost impossible to imagine today. "He looked toward a better day," Gayton said. "He never wavered."
In the narrative, Clarke tells the story of his years in bondage and his escape with enough humor to keep a reader from turning away from the brutality of slavery, and to illuminate the absurdities it inflicts on a society.
Even the title is clever: "Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, During a Captivity of More Than Twenty-Five Years, Among the Algerines of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America."
Americans of the time would have gotten the reference to Algerines. For centuries Algeria had been the primary base for the Barbary pirates who plagued European shipping, capturing and enslaving Christians.
The message: Real Christians don't enslave Christians.
Clarke was born on his white grandfather's plantation. His grandmother was an enslaved woman believed to be half white.
Their daughter, also a slave, married a Scottish weaver named Daniel Clarke; and their children, including Lewis, continued in slavery.
Clarke was separated from his family at 7, and worked for a series of masters before escaping when he heard rumors he might be sold farther south to Louisiana.
His escape was made easier than some, because people along the way assumed he was white.
Once free, Clarke dedicated himself to the fight against slavery, and later to improving the lot of African Americans.
The two sides of Gayton's family had different approaches in dealing with their history.
"My grandfather Gayton wanted to leave slavery behind and become part of the mainstream," he told me.
Gayton's grandfather was a founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle in 1890.
Gayton's mother, though, talked about history with her children. Gayton said she used to read to him from a chapter in Harriet Beecher Stowe's book about the writing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her character George Harris is modeled on Clarke.
Gayton has just finished writing a book that will pick up where this one leaves off and trace the Clarke family forward from Clarke's escape.
"I bear an immense amount of pride in what he did," Gayton said.
In his reintroduction to the narrative, Gayton writes that when he was a child in the 1940s, his family would talk about the prominent role black Americans played in every aspect of the country's development, information that was left out of his lessons at school.
That is the stuff that can give a young person a sense of identity on which to build.
But anyone who wants to understand America better would get from this book a better feel for the complex relationships created by slavery than he might get from many history textbooks.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jerrylarge
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
email@example.com | 206-464-3346