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“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, written in 1846 and first published in 1848 in The Liberty Bell, which was sold at the Boston National Anti-Slavery Bazaar of 1848 (Taplin 111). It is a first-person narration of a black slave woman. It is a horrifying story told from the point of view of a dying Negro slave, who is standing at the place where the first band of pilgrims landed in search of liberty. She had fallen in love with another slave, who had been killed by the overseers. Then, she had been tied up and flogged, was forcefully raped by a white man, gave birth to a white child whom she strangled out of hatred towards the white man (Taplin 194). “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is a dramatic monologue in ballad form.
The speaker, a young black slave woman, begins her narrative a day after her escape from the plantation to a place called Pilgrim’s Point, where “exile turned to ancestor” (Browning 30). She addresses “the pilgrim-souls” at Pilgrim’s Point, those who first came to America as a land of freedom, and whose descendants now are slave owners. The poem unfolds her story in three parts. First, (1-8), the slave reflects on what it means to be born black in a world where white people were considered as God’s “white creatures” (Mermin 365). Second, the slave, in a flashback (9-28) narrates her story to these “pilgrim-souls.” Finally (29-36), she addresses the “hunter sons” of the original pilgrims who have pursued her to stone her to death.
The poem begins on an assertive note – “I stand”. This positive phrase sets the tone for the entire poem. The speaker steadily and clearly presents the tragic position of herself – a woman, a black and a slave – born into a white man’s oppressing system. She recognizes that the social system divides women into black from white, “As white as the ladies who scorned to pray / Beside me at church but yesterday” (17). Ultimately she dies; – but not before she succeeds in liberating herself out of the system and shaping her own destiny.
The style of writing is simple yet vivid. As she describes the “pilgrim-souls” clustering around her “round me and round me ye go” one can feel the dizziness and exhaustion of one who has “gasped and run / All night long from the whips” (Hayter 105). Her purpose is to address the pilgrim-souls: “lift my black face, my black hand, / Here, in your names, to curse this land / Ye blessed in freedom’s” (Cooper 115). She claims her racial identity, “I am black, I am black,” and describes how such an identity imprisons her: “About our souls… / Our blackness shuts like prison-bars” (Cooper 115).
In this poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning skillfully employs metaphors, especially those which she had used in her letters to Robert Browning. She uses the metaphor of her invalidism to dramatize imprisonment behind a dark skin in a world where God’s work of creating black people has been cast away “under the feet of His white creatures” (Cooper 116). She uses simple imagery to add color to the poem. She celebrates that the “little dark bird sits and sings”, the “dark stream ripples out of sight”, the “dark frogs chant in the safe morass”, and the “darkest night” is host to the “sweetest stars” (Cooper 116).
Browning, points out to equality in the natural world compared to discrimination in the real world. In the natural world, she points out that there is no equation of dark with bad and light with good, and no discrimination between black and white people: the sun and frost “they make us hot, they make us cold,” while the “beasts and birds, in wood and fold, / Do fear and take us for very men” (Cooper 116).
Denoting the central theme of the poem, Browning powerfully asserts “I am black, I am black”. The slave argues for the equality of black and white before detailing her particular oppression. She felt that love was universal and the same for black and white people. It made her feel closer to the white people – “unsold, unbought” (Cooper 116). Her white owner however did not accept the love of the slaves and declared that as black people they had “no claim to love and bliss” (Cooper 116). This denied them the right to basic human emotions. Browning compares this brutality to the actions of God who was like a silent witness to this unfair act. God, silently and “coldly… it’s behind the sun” (Cooper 116). Imagery such as “blood’s mark in the dust” (Cooper 116) add to the power of the poem.
The white men do not allow the slave the freedom to grieve because it seemed the slaves did not deserve the right to grieve: “Mere grief’s too good for such as I” (15). The total command enjoyed by the owner over the slaves is dramatized by the beating of the man and the raping of the woman: “Wrong, followed by a deeper wrong!/… the white men brought the shame ere long / To strangle the sob of my agony” (15).
Barrett Browning links the action of rape with racism by skillful deployment of words. She describes rape tactfully and explicitly. The word “wrong” is immediately followed by “I am black, I am black! / I wore a child upon my breast” (16), a child who was “far too white, too white” for her (17). The repetition of ‘black’ and ‘white’ emphasize the differences that existed between the two races. According to the slave woman, the violation and control inherent in rape is “worse” than the “lash” (21).
The slave also talks about her maternal sorrow as she carries the child as an “amulet that [hangs] too slack”; Here amulet is used to symbolize the child whose life was about to slip away. Neither mother nor child can rest—they go “moaning, child and mother, / One to another”; and there is an ominous note in “all ended for the best” (16). The speaker’s complex maternal feelings dramatize a conflict between her love for her child and her hatred of the way he was conceived and of what he represents.
From birth he was different so that she “dared not sing to the white-faced child / The only song [she] knew” (19), the song of her black lover’s name, feeling that “A child and mother / Do wrong to look at one another / When one is black and one is fair” (20). Once she has seen her child, she can never forget his conception:” “Why in that single glance I had/ Of my child’s face,… I tell you all, /I saw a look that made me mad! / The master’s look, that used to fall/ On my soul like his lash… or worse!” (21) (Cooper 118).
Her “far too white” (17) son resembles his father and this makes her see him as a symbol of oppression: “the white child wanted his liberty— / Ha, ha! he wanted the master-right” (18). She fears that even though the baby is her child, because of his white skin, he will scorn his dark mother as much as the “white ladies” in church do. The white male child, even as an infant, proclaims his mother’s dispossession.
The speaker gradually unfolds her child’s story, building the climax to the tragedy by references to “little feet that never grew” (19) and to how he lies now between the mango roots (20). She kills the child to protect herself from the rapist she sees in him: “I twisted it round in my shawl” because of the “master’s look, that used to fall / On my soul like his lash… or worse” (21), till the child lay “too suddenly still and mute” (22). The slave then escapes from the plantation talking about God’s discrimination against the black people. God’s “angels far, / With a white sharp finger from every star, / Did point and mock” (26). The poet thus sees her as a black person, marginalized by the white God, angels, and people.
She puts the blame of the infanticide on the “fine white angels (who have seen / Nearest the secret of God’s power)” who “sucked the soul” of her child (23). The “white angels” are murderers claiming “the white child’s spirit.” The fact that she involves angels and Gods, shows that the slave woman felt marginalized even by God. Though she kills him, the speaker has an instinctive love for the child and addresses him as “My little body,” and running till “I felt it was tired” (26) indicating her own exhaustion in terms of the child’s fatigue (Cooper 119). This merging anticipates the union that becomes possible once the white child is buried in the dark earth: “And thus we two were reconciled, / The white child and black mother, thus;”
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Although the speaker knows her death is at hand, she is courageous. As the white men armed with whips approach her “in a ring,” she shouts, “Keep off” (30). She is brave enough to counter the white people, “the Washington race,” who, “staring, shrinking back,” are now afraid of her. Facing her death, the slave imagines being rendered into a Christ-like martyr: “Not a sound! / I hung, as a gourd hangs in the sun” (33). Her initial desire “to curse this land,” strengthens into leaving the white men “all curse-free / In [her] broken heart’s disdain” (36).
In this poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning shows that though each woman is held accountable for her actions, the issues have actually stemmed from larger-scale problems. The runaway slave has run away seeking freedom, but finds none and will be killed for her insolence. The poem shows that many of the factors leading to the woman’s decisions are based on the outside influences of her world. She could not make a better choice because there was none (Goggins 1). Thus through this poem, Barrett Browning was able to incorporate rape and infanticide into the slave’s denunciation of patriarchy.
Goggins, Jen (2007). A Question of Personal Freedom: “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and “A Castaway”. Web.
Taplin, B. Gardner (1957). The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 1957. 111.
Browning, B. Elizabeth (1848). “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”. Liberty Bell. Boston. pp. 29-44.
Cooper, Helen (1988). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman & Artist. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC.
Browning, Barrett. Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy. p. 30.
Mermin. “Female Poet,” pp. 363-65.
Hayter. Mrs. Browning, p. 105.