Racism and slavery were considered norms during the Victorian era. So for English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing the poem The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point was considered as taboo during her time. Browning was a stark abolitionist. She denounces the treatment of slave owners towards slaves and the act of slavery in general. Browning’s aim was to induce sympathy for slaves from the readers and persuade them to share her passion to abolish slavery in her poem. This essay will describe and attempt to analyze the poem The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.
When the Emancipation Act was signed in 1833, as an abolitionist, Browning rejoiced for the “virtual freedom” of the slaves. Despite the Emancipation Act beginning to take effect, Browning wrote The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point as a way of portraying the wickedness of systematized slavery during that time. She also wanted to draw attention to the vigor of the slave’s spirit towards freedom in an empathetic and compassionate depiction. The poem was first published in 1848 in The Liberty Bell, an annual compilation of abolitionist literary works and published by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair at the time of the poem.
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point deals with racism using American literature. The poem is a monologue whose narrator is a black female slave who escapes from her master to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, which was referred to in the poem as Pilgrim’s Point. She professes her sorrow and frustrations from the horrors that she experienced: her husband had been taken away from her; she had been raped by her master, and; as result of the rape she gave birth to a baby with a white skin.
In much of the poem, the narrator asks for clarity for she lives in a world of full of absurdity and she cannot fathom why they, black slaves, have to live such a cruel fate. Why is there, after all, slavery in the land of the free or Free America as was referred to in the poem? Why does a loving God allow human beings to subject each other to cruelty? Why does it have to be the blacks who have to experience this cruelty? Why do blacks have to be associated with the word mad just because of the color of their skin?
One of the hallmarks of The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point is the development of the narrator throughout the poem. This development is clearly indicated by the narrator herself. She was once an innocent village girl who fell in love with a fellow black. Come the slavers, who took away her lover by killing him and, with no sympathy, took advantage of her in her tearful grievance.
She then proceeds to narrate that she bore a child who takes more after her masters with skin that is “too white.” She recognizes that she is unable to love the child because the child’s features remind her too much of the cruel fate that befell her. She curses her situation and questions God for permitting such evils to exist. That though black people and white people are made equally beautiful, black people are cursed to an existence of suffering while white people become white angels in their own stars.
The sweetest stars are made to pass
O'er the face of the darkest night,
but we who are dark, we are dark!
Ah God, we have no stars!
Yet, despite her embittered outlook in life due to everything that she has experienced, the narrator proceeded to make peace with her situation. While she still, ruefully, acknowledges the fatalistic situation of black slaves, she does not resort to cursing her own existence. Instead, she indignantly proclaims and basks in her own identity as a person of black complexion.
Whether she wishes to no longer be black is absent in the poem itself. Subtly empowering her belief of being black as not a mere matter of skin tone and, even less so, a marker of inferiority. That no matter how much suffering her white oppressors deal upon her, she will never utter a sound of weakness - she will never give them the satisfaction of superiority. She is determined to be strong and not let anyone break her spirit no matter how much pain and suffering they inflict on her.
The following lines surely elicited a strong feeling of admiration from the readers because a black slave woman refuses anguish to take over her. Even if she doesn’t fight back physically, her spirit and determination is insult enough to the slave owners.
I am not mad: I am black.
I see you staring in my face—
I know you staring, shrinking back,
Ye are born of the Washington-race,
And this land is the free America,
And this mark on my wrist—(I prove what I say)
tied me up here to the flogging-place.
You think I shrieked then? Not a sound!
I hung, as a gourd hangs in the sun;
I only cursed them all around
At peak, the narrator defies this marker of inferiority during a point in the poem that takes a dark turn. The narrator commits infanticide on her own child. While it was gruesome in concept, its significance lies in its symbolism. It is inevitable for black slaves to experience horrible, excruciating pain and suffering from their captors or masters.
It follows that the narrator would have wanted to inflict the same to the baby in vengeance. Instead, she makes the infant suffocate with a handkerchief on its face - a kind of peaceful death, juxtaposing the violent pain that black slaves face in reality. The infant does struggle for its own life, but Browning here shows how inflicting suffering on another is cruel regardless of severity. To inflict pain on another is never justified.
However, the narrator did reconcile with her being a mother at the end as she recognizes the child as hers. At first, the reason why she committed infanticide on her own child was because she is unable to love the child. But it can be deduced that she has also saved the child from a cruel fate similar to hers because even if the child has skin that is “too white,” the child is fated to live the life of a slave if allowed to live.
Browning ingeniously ends The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point with an ultimatum on the situation of slavery through the narrator. Despite the evils that the whites subjected her to, she does not bear ill will to them. The demise of the white infant from her hands symbolizes her desire to end the overbearing reign of the whites who take advantage of the blacks and bear themselves children from their suffering – metaphorically and literally in the poem.
It is not a violent end; she envisages not only liberty for her fellow blacks but also camaraderie with the whites. She takes her own life in the end not only as a way of achieving freedom in her death. She takes her own life as a way of ceasing the current oppression, as she herself is a product of it. The narrator concludes with a call to her own people to continue what she did and a call to the whites that she dies:
leaving them all curse-free
in my broken heart’s disdain!
Perhaps, if Browning ended The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point on an angry note, the reader’s would’ve withdrawn all the sympathy that was built up in the course of the poem. Instead, the narrator takes on a forgiving toe and refuses to condemn the slave owners. The ending of the poem is a crucial part for it is a turning point on whether the readers would want to support abolitionism or not. It was handled elegantly with a strong conviction that the narrator really does wish for unity and the end of racial disparity.
What may be brought into scrutiny about The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point is the authenticity of its substance. It was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, an Englishwoman in the Victorian era, whose family were slave owners themselves. Though she empathizes with the slaves, she herself was not a slave. Browning created the poem through the eyes of an empathetic spectator, not those of a slave. This does, somewhat, detract from the focal value of the poem. Nonetheless, it still exudes a passionate empathy for the slaves and an understanding of their spirit to be free - both physically and spiritually.
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point is an invaluable read and should be recommended as one of the best poems for college students to read because it delves on experiences of discrimination on more than one level. As discussed, there is the suffering of black slaves during the tempest of slavery. On another level, there is the suffering of women, a phenomenon which permeated all classes of society and which manifested in the worst way to black woman slaves. Browning, in vigor and passion, wrote a dynamic character that encompasses - and defies - both aspects of discrimination. Most of all, Browning wrote The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point out of utmost compassion and empathy.
While herself a woman, she did not experience the same violent, deplorable life as the black woman slave. She could only bear witness to it from a bird’s eye view, at best. Despite this difficulty, Browning took it as her own goal to descend from the safe, blue skies where she took comfortable refuge, to the rough, putrid grounds where discrimination and suffering are rife. Amid the ability to take flight returning to the skies whenever she wished, Browning chose to stay in the ground, to speak through the eyes of the discriminated, to empathize and to empower them.
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Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. 1848.