English professor digitizes historic slave manuscript in Library of Congress

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Katherine Bassard, a professor of African American literature in the Department of English, found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Bassard will for the first time turn the Cook manuscript into a digitized file in its original form. She is not the first to discover and publish a digital version of the Cook manuscript.

Fields Cook was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1817, and though he died more than 100 years ago, his life and most intimate thoughts survive and were recently revived.

“A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” is one of the few, if only, surviving manuscripts written before the Civil War by a slave still in bondage. The historic document recently was re-discovered by Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., senior vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of African American literature in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

With the help of Joshua Eckhardt, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and two dedicated graduate student workers, Bassard is for the first time turning the manuscript into a digitized, searchable, and freely downloadable file in its original form. 

“It’s the first enslaved writer of an autobiography, the first slave narrative with manuscript provenance, and the first African American writer writing primarily for an audience other than white northerners,” Bassard said. 

The text, which begins without a capital letter and ends without a period, was written in 1847 and differs from other slave narratives because of the unique position Cook was in when he wrote it. Unlike other, more famous accounts of life in slavery like “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave” or “David Walker’s Appeal,” “A Scetch of My Own Life” focuses more on Cook as an individual than on the institution of slavery.

It really gives us a window into enslaved people as agents of their own destiny. 

“There’s a level of intimacy to this narrative that you cannot find in an abolitionist slave narrative, which has obviously a very political work to do which is changing people’s minds about slavery and getting them politically engaged,” Bassard said. 

As an enslaved person, writing at all was a dangerous undertaking for Cook. He risked punishment if his autobiography was ever discovered, especially if it were to contain anything that spoke against those who owned him. Cook was therefore forced to censor his own recounting of life as a slave, though he found ways of signaling his feelings about slavery to the reader. 

“I maintain that this writer does have a decidedly anti-slavery bend, but he never comes out and says that,” Bassard said. “He finds these oblique ways to signify the institution of slavery without coming out and actually naming it.” 

By focusing on the personal rather than the political, Cook offers readers a rare glimpse into the private lives of enslaved people. This style of writing forces the reader to consider Cook’s role as a slave to be incidental to the man himself, involved in the common ventures of life like courtship, eroticism, and coming of age stories. 

Though his autobiography ends while Cook is still enslaved, he was able to buy himself and his two sons out of slavery in the early 1850s. Cook went on to become a successful Virginia entrepreneur working as a barber, leech doctor, real estate owner, bath house proprietor, and pastor. He even ran for Congress as an independent candidate in 1869, but received less than 1 percent of the vote. 

“He was so forward thinking, you know he knew how to make deals and he did all of it with the purpose of securing his freedom and the freedom of his family,” Bassard said. “It really gives us a window into enslaved people as agents of their own destiny, that even within a situation of bondage they were doing all they could to strike the best deal for themselves under the circumstances, so there’s something very heroic about him.” 

“A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” will be digitally published by British Virginia. Bassard is also looking into making a print edition of the manuscript that would include biographical information on Cook and some primary documents from his life after slavery.  

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