Lannan Visiting Lecturer Tope Folarin reviews “The Life and Times of Hannah Craft” by Gregg Hecimovich
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Probably the most significant moment in my literary life — indeed, one of the most significant moments in my life — is the time my first-grade teacher introduced me to the poet Phillis Wheatley. I was living in Bountiful, Utah, and I was an inveterate reader. I had never read a book by a Black person before; though no one had ever told me as much, I had come to believe that Black people simply didn’t produce literature. There was certainly nothing in my environment to disabuse me of this notion — apart from my Nigerian immigrant parents, I was surrounded by Whiteness. I can still remember the surge of emotion I felt as my teacher described how Wheatley had been born in slavery in the 18th century and somehow managed to learn to read, and then, eventually, wrote poetry about her life that was admired by the leading artists and statesmen of her day, including George Washington.
In the years following Wheatley’s literary triumphs, a few other African American women wrote books that chronicled their lives and struggles, including Harriet Wilson (whose “Our Nig (new window)” was published in 1859) and Harriet Jacobs (whose “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (new window)” was published in 1861). Gregg Hecimovich’s latest book, “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative (new window),”is the riveting story of Crafts, a Black woman who wrote a novel based on her life in the same era as Wilson and Jacobs, and the circuitous path her novel took to publication, long after her death. It is also an engrossing account of Hecimovich’s efforts to verify Crafts’s authorship of her novel and the startling details he uncovers along the way.