Samuel Williams and His World: Before the War and After the Union

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Williams's Memoir as a Slave Narrative

The long tradition of African American writing includes many genres, but it is perhaps the nineteenth century autobiographical tradition that most influenced the course of contemporary African American literature. Within this autobiographical tradition, the writing of “slave narratives” dominates the popular imagination and cultural understanding of the black experience in the United States from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century.

As a first-hand account of his life shaped by the system of slavery, Williams’s memoir ultimately falls into a traditional definition of the “slave narrative” – particularly that of the postbellum era. It is particularly intriguing to speculate as to whether he was familiar with Booker. T. Washington’s enormously successful memoir Up From Slavery (1901), which chronicled a similarly ascendant life arc, framed by optimism and confidence in the rightness of the American people and the promise of a new century. In later years, when Williams moved in with his daughter Susan, who had successfully married into the professional class (she married a prominent Boston dentist and lawyer who lived in a townhouse in Cambridge), we can see the astonishing way in which Williams’s hard work and sacrifices could be framed into a story akin to the well-known saga of Booker T. Washington’s ascendancy.

Whether wholly original or somewhat stock, Williams’s life story was told with a relentless emphasis upon community and how an individual’s story could only be understood as part of a whole. Hence this exhibit seeks to honor that impulse: by contextualizing and building out his life story and that of his family, not only can we better see what life was like for enslaved and formerly enslaved people during his lifetime, we can also better understand how individuals who had to depend upon one another to survive interlocked their stories with one another.

Though he was emancipated as a young teenager, Williams demonstrates that his life story could never be separated from his own bondage, nor separated from the impact that slavery had on the people around him. Williams tells his own story, but he dedicates even more space to telling the stories of the people who did not have the opportunities that he had. He bears witness for those who died in slavery or soon afterwards, shares stories of people who were illiterate and destitute, and recounts a story of slavery that decentralizes himself in favor of a broader community that he identified with.