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Slave work involved much more than mere labouring in the fields. Indeed, slaves undertook the most varied of working tasks, from the simplest of labours through to the most skilled of crafts, everywhere in the Americas. Each of the major American export crops required its own particular skills, in cultivation, crop¬ping, processing and transportion. And each slave settlement required that range of artisans whose abilities made possible the functioning of local economic and social life. Carpenters and masons, factory foremen, distillers, nurses and transport slaves all added their skills and working experiences to the well-being of local slave society. The domestic life of whites was dominated by slave domestics. Visitors, again, were struck by the huge numbers of black servants working in and around the homes of white people in the slave colonies. Nannies and nurses, cooks, and washers, gardeners and cleaners, each and every conceivable domestic role was undertaken by slaves. Overwhelmingly women, slave domestics faced different problems from their contemporaries in the fields. Though perhaps better-off materially, domestic slaves often had uncomfortable relations with their white owners. They faced all the potential aggravations of close proximity, from sexual threats through to white women's dissatisfaction and anger. But it is surely a sign of the domestic slaves' superior station that a standard threat and punishment was to dispatch troublesome domestics to field work. Female domestic slaves generally wanted their daughters to follow them, rather than be trained up for manual labour outside.
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Precipitating the narrator’s decision to escape is usually some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale or death of a loved one (Box Brown), insults and cruelties too great to bear (Pennington), a dark night of the soul (Henson), or simply a rare opportunity too inviting to forego (Jacobs). Many readers were fascinated by the harrowing accounts of flight featured in some of the most popular slave narratives, such as Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide (1849) and Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860). Douglass, on the other hand, refused to disclose the means by which he made his escape, thereby directly contradicting the expectations of the form he himself had adopted. Why would Douglass make such a decision, knowing his readership wanted to read these kinds of escape accounts (in his post-Civil War Life and Times of Frederick Douglass , he explained how he made his way to freedom)?
Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories