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Reviving America's first slave autobiography


Genealogy is becoming an easier field to navigate these days, with websites and organizations encouraging people to discover their family heritage.

That’s what Oakland’s Regina Mason did, but on her own. In the upcoming film Gina’s Journey, Mason chronicles her adventure in searching for her family history. Being an African American, that meant she would surely encounter slavery, which she did.

Her 15 years of research took her through libraries, documents, and city and county registries. She made visits to relatives, and consulted a family Bible. And eventually, Mason discovered that her great great-great-grandfather, William Grimes, was not only a slave, but the probable author of the first unedited, autobiographical slave narrative in American history, The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, in 1855. The “unedited” is important, Mason says; most slave narratives were put out by publishing houses, mostly owned by whites. Grimes was the first slave to self-publish.

In his book, Grimes details life as a slave in great detail, as well as his escape and life after slavery, and commentary on the contradictions he saw between the institution of slavery and American ideals like liberty and equality for all. Two hundred years later, Regina Mason revives his narrative in an annotated book, and upcoming film.

REGINA MASON: It was a painful but triumphant book, because the audacity of this man to write his story and to fiercely get in published at a time when reading and writing were a rare and sacred privilege for white people and then for his book to say 'written by' himself, it was just a bold, revolutionary statement to make. That is probably why this book lay dormant for almost 200 years because scholars didn’t know what quite to do with this narrative because it reads so bitterly. It is the first time white people read a slave narrative written by a slave.

Thanks to KALW’s David LaTulippe, who read passages from the book in the above story.

Click the player above to hear the full interview.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.