Summary of "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" Poem
Since there are two days left for Black History Month, I decided to review another poem from The Norton Anthology: English Literature . The poem is called "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", written during the Victorian period by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Similar to the works of Anna Letitia Barbauld, Browning also used literature to protest the institution of slavery among African Americans. How she felt about racism and injustice is colorfully portrayed in this poem. For an in-depth reading of "...Pilgrim's Point", click here.
The main character of the poem is a female African slave, who is running away from her master to escape the pain and agony of slavery. Pilgrim's Point actually refers to Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims landed in November 1620. The slave also has an infant along with her, in which she is ashamed of bearing a child [for her master]. This is vividly described starting at line 115: "And the babe who lay on my bosom so, was far too white, too white for me..." During slavery, female slaves were constantly subjects of sexual exploitation by their masters. This scenario could have happened to the main character; thus, producing a baby from it.
One of the "laws" of slavery was if a female slave bore a child (either for a male slave or her master), the child was automatically born into slavery; the child was not exempt from harsh labor and racial injustice. Later on in the poem (line 120-154), the slave describes how she hated looking at the child's face because it was so white. She knew if she kept the child, it would experience the ills of slavery and would not enjoy freedom. Therefore, she commits infanticide by suffocating the child with her kerchief.
Throughout the poem, the main character occasionally shouts, "I am black, I am black!" It could be an expression of contempt for why she's mistreated. In other words, she's answering her own question as to why her counterparts had a good life; yet, African Americans could not relish in freedom. She does, however, reminisce about happy life was in Africa before becoming enslaved; lines 58 & 59 states, "But once, I laughed in girlish glee, for one of my colour stood in the track..." The statement could indicate that Africans were happy and content with their lives.
The main character could have had a relationship with another slave before it came to a gruesome end. Starting with line 64, she describes how happy she was with this unknown male slave. Whether or not he was a runaway slave, or if both him and the main character labored on the same plantation is unknown. However, the description of their solid relationship moved her to sing "his name instead of a song, over and over I sang his name" (lines 78 & 79). This joyful relationship came to an abrupt end, as the slave recalls: "They wrung my cold hands out of his, they dragged him--- where? I crawled to touch his blood's mark in the dust...not much, ye pilgrim-souls, though plain as this !" (lines 95-98). Based on her account, her counterparts found the male slave and dragged him away from her. It's a possibility they could have severely punished him. As a result, she felt pain and misery because she involuntarily lost her beloved one.
After reading the entire poem, it made a lasting impression upon me. Personally, I did not know that some slave mothers murdered their own infants. However, during the enslavement period, African women had a "legitimate" reason for committing infanticide--- so their offspring would not have to suffer from harsh labor, racism, and injustice. Enslaved Africans had absolutely no freedom; everything they did was micro-managed by their masters and overseers.