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Collections >> Titles by Friday Jones >> Introduction to Days of Bondage. Autobiography of Friday Jones... by W. L. Andrews

The Spirit of Friday Jones

Greenville, N. C.: J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina Universiy, 1999


Used by permission of the author.

Friday Jones, born a slave in Wake County, North Carolina, in 1810, was a plain, hard-working man of faith, the kind of person whose vision and labor are essential to the progress of a community or a people. Although the vast majority of slaves in the American South labored in historical anonymity, Friday Jones was not absent from the official records of his native state. We know that he participated in the building of the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh during the 1830s and worked as a night watchman there after the Civil War. After the war he became a founding member and trustee of the First Colored Baptist Church in Raleigh. He moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1880s, where he dictated his autobiography, Days of Bondage, and saw to its publication in 1883. His death on August 10, 1887, occasioned an obituary in the Raleigh News and Observer, which noticed his active role in local politics. The fact that one of the most influential newspapers in North Carolina considered the death of a former slave worthy of an obituary suggests the standing that Jones enjoyed not only among black people but among whites too. Clearly Friday Jones was an unusual man. His recently discovered autobiography makes an unusual and notable contribution to history, especially to an African American history of slavery as chronicled through the nineteenth-century American slave narrative.

Autobiography has been called the most democratic of literary forms. Still there can be little doubt that most autobiographies are written by people in the middle and upper classes of society, rather than by those who occupy less prestigious social and economic positions. In nineteenth-century America, the typical autobiographer was a white male whose primary reason for writing was to announce to the world a story of personal achievement most often measured according to traditional notions of masculine success. By writing autobiographies, successful men like Benjamin Franklin, Davy Crockett, P.T. Barnum, and Ulysses S. Grant capitalized on their public identities and fashioned a lasting image of greatness in the American mind. Although not altogether denied to African Americans, comparatively few nineteenth-century black people had the education, the encouragement, or the opportunity to write and publish their life stories. Today we remember a handful of men and women of African descent who were able to break into print in the nineteenth century and win a hearing for their autobiographies. For the most part these autobiographies were produced by fugitive slaves such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs who, in addition to talent and determination, also enjoyed the sponsorship of the antislavery movement in the crisis years of the 1840s and 1850s in the United States. The inspiring life-story of a slave who overcame his bonds and seized his freedom was not inconsistent with traditional autobiographical celebrations of male struggle and heroic triumph. Reform-minded white readers throughout the English-speaking world thrilled to stories of this kind and helped make a few male fugitive slave narrators internationally famous. After publishing his best-selling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself in 1845, Douglass went on to publish an expanded autobiography in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom, and an even longer memoir, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in 1881 and an expanded version of that book in 1892.

No one, however, should take Frederick Douglass's success in autobiography as representative of white American interest in the autobiographical expression of African Americans in the nineteenth century. While embracing a small group of celebrated fugitive slave narrators and orators, antebellum Americans in the North paid comparatively little attention to anything else black people wrote. For instance, a number of African Americans in the nineteenth century wrote spiritual autobiographies and narratives of Christian conversion, which often developed into accounts of ministerial careers. But these conversion narratives and accounts of ministry had little circulation outside of black church communities. One of the most widely read African American narratives of conversion and ministerial calling, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), details its protagonist's slave experience and her attainment of freedom before recounting her religious visions, her call to preach, and her itinerant career as an evangelist and reformer

After the abolition of slavery in 1865, fugitive slave narratives lost their vogue. Instead of delivering fiery antislavery speeches, Frederick Douglass went on the lecture circuit with a new theme, "Self-Made Men." This, not the story of his escape from slavery, became Douglass's most popular and most often-requested speech, especially by white audiences. Emancipation did not suppress the black American appetite for autobiography; the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century saw more African American autobiographies in print than the first sixty-five. Nor did former slaves fail to lend their voices to the post-Civil War outpouring of autobiographical expression by black Americans. Between 1865 and 1930 at least fifty former slaves wrote or dictated book-length accounts of their lives. Again, however, only a small minority of these postbellum slave narratives found a sizable, let alone national, readership. Most former slaves had neither the education and writing opportunity nor the connections in the white-controlled publishing world that are so often necessary to the successful publication of a book. In 1868 Elizabeth Keckley secured a well-established commercial publisher in New York to bring out Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Keckley's narrative of her rise from Missouri slave girl to self-emancipated Washington modiste. But had Keckley not been Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker during the Civil War, a role that gave her a "behind the scenes" viewpoint sure to attract a white reading audience fascinated by the assassinated president's life, it is doubtful that Keckley's slave narrative would have found a major publisher. Ten years later slave-born Henry Flipper secured a New York publisher for his The Colored Cadet at West Point. Autobiography of Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper. But the identification of Flipper in the subtitle of his book as the "First Graduate of Color from the U.S. Military Academy" helps explain why this African American autobiography was read and reviewed with interest by whites. In contrast, even Frederick Douglass himself, when he wrote his Life and Times in 1881, was disappointed with the meager sales reports that his Hartford, Connecticut, publisher sent him. After having "pushed and repushed" the Life and Times for almost a decade, the Park Publishing Company concluded in 1889 that "the interest in the days of slavery was not as great as we expected" (Quarles, 337).

Given that most white Americans in the post-Civil War era seem to have considered slavery past, gone, and better off forgotten, and since commercial publishers were skittish about bringing out slave narratives in such a climate unless the narrator could demonstrate some other striking feature of his or her life, a former slave who wanted to write about his or her experience of bondage had to be prepared to publish such an account with personal funds. The large majority of ex-slave narratives after 1865 were financed this way. These narratives were produced by job printers in small printings with very limited circulation. Some ex-slaves tried to augment the appeal of their stories by giving them Algeresque titles that signified the narrator's allegiance to rugged individualism and a progressive outlook on life. Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901) is the most famous exemplar of this vein of ex-slave narrative, a book that, because of Washington's national prominence, had no difficulty finding a national publisher. Additional, though for the most part unstudied, ex-slave narratives of this type are: Robert Anderson, From Slavery to Affluence (1927); Henry Clay Bruce, The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man (1895); Thomas William Burton, What Experience Has Taught Me (1910); William H. Heard, From Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E. Church (1924); Joseph Vance Lewis, Out of the Ditch: A True Story of an Ex-Slave (1910); and Peter Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit (1893). These titles articulate a determination on the part of their authors to be identified as men who had left slavery behind and who were steadily climbing the ladder of success in the new era of freedom. This theme of upward striving and socioeconomic progress also underlies a number of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American autobiographies whose authors were never enslaved.

When we examine Friday Jones's Days of Bondage in the context of the slave narrative as it evolved from the antebellum antislavery era to the postbellum era of uplift, we can see from the title page itself that Jones had his own agenda for his autobiography that makes it a blend of antebellum and postbellum slave narrative. Days of Bondage makes the focus of this narrative clear--it will be about the slave past. The remainder of the narrative's title is equally instructive. Autobiography of Friday Jones, Being a Brief Narrative of His Trials and Tribulations in Slavery announces that although this is Friday Jones's autobiography, its purpose is to review his "trials" and his "tribulations" in slavery. Nothing is promised with regard to his life as a free man. The linkage of "trials" and "tribulations" rather than a more upbeat and just as alliterative phrase such as "trials and triumphs" informs us that this narrative will concentrate on the trouble Jones had seen in the past rather than on his progress beyond such troubles. "Trials and tribulations" is also a formulation often evoked in African American sermons to describe the rigorous spiritual testing that the faithful must undergo on their path to salvation. Choosing such a phrase suggests that Jones aimed to present himself as a man of faith for whom slavery itself presented the strongest test of his spiritual commitment. It is also worth noting that the title page contains bibliographical data--Washington, D.C., Commercial Pub. Co., 1883--that indicate that this text was printed in a major American city, indeed, the nation's capital, that the publisher was "commercial" (though likely a job printer) and not personal, and that it appeared in 1883. In 1883 the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed to African Americans equal access to hotels and inns, public accommodations, theaters, and other places of amusement. If Days of Bondage was published after the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Jones's choice of "trials and tribulations," rather than more optimistic language, may reflect his anxieties about the sociopolitical prospects for black America in general in a future that might portend new "days of bondage."

One of the most familiar phrases to appear on the title pages of antebellum slave narratives is the subtitle "Written by Himself." The phrase, which was featured prominently on the narratives of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and, as "Written by Herself," on Harriet Jacobs's narrative as well, signified both the literacy of the author and literary authority of a given text. This phrase does not appear on the title page of Days of Bondage. Although Days of Bondage is narrated in the first person, it is doubtful that Jones actually wrote this autobiography, particularly since it ends with a postscript stating that "the author of this book is uncultured and unlearned--can neither read nor write." Nevertheless, though Jones admits to being "unlearned" and illiterate, he and the amanuensis he must have engaged still refer to him as "the author" of Days of Bondage. A reading of just the first paragraphs of Days of Bondage confirms that Jones, "uncultured and unlearned," is indeed its author. The authority of this text lies not in the usual earmarks of literary and stylistic accomplishment, few of which appear in the unpolished prose of Days of Bondage. Jones's autobiography derives its authority from its vocal immediacy, its authentic transcription of the voice of an "uncultured and unlearned" man in the act of recalling a succession of poignant and painful events in his past. These events do not follow chronological order, and they do not culminate in a conventional climactic moment in which a problem is resolved or a fulfilling understanding or achievement of a goal is recorded. Instead, Jones speaks to his reader as though he were reciting a long-standing grievance or giving a deposition against slavery. "I want to show you, readers, what I had to endure as a man," (15) Jones insists. Yet it is not simply his sufferings at the hands of mean-spirited and unjust slaveholders that motivate Jones to tell his story. He has a spiritual purpose that lends added authority to his narrative. "To show you readers how important it is to trust Almighty God, you will readily see by the way I have been tried," (11) Jones announces. Thus although Days of Bondage comprises a series of indictments of slavery and slaveholders' actions twenty to thirty years in Jones's past, the moral authority of this autobiography depends much less on the author's reciting of his grievances in the past than on his acknowledgment in the present of God's sustaining support during the most difficult time of his life, the years between 1851 and 1865 when as a slave husband and father, Jones saw his family continually threatened by sale.

"I was born in North Carolina in 1810, the property of Olser Hye, within 15 miles of the capital of the State--Raleigh," Jones begins, in a fashion recalling the openings of many antebellum slave narratives. "My mother's name was Cherry and my father's, Barney. I was taken away from them when I was small and hired out to Sim Alfred, who lived about two miles from where I was born. My mother was traded for a tract of land and sent to Alabama" (1). This laconic, matter-of-fact recitation of a heart-rending experience for a boy of no more than ten years establishes from the outset of Days of Bondage the theme of ever-present sale and family dissolution, which haunted Friday Jones from his childhood through his adulthood, and which is the burden of his narrative of his "trials and tribulations in slavery." Victimization, humiliation, and helplessness repeatedly tempt Jones to seek answers to his problems in alcohol, violence, and escape. Yet Jones is convinced that his salvation, both earthly and heavenly, demanded that he renounce escape and violent resistance as solutions to the injustices slavery visited upon him. Instead, he must trust in God for the inspiration and guidance that will lead him to deliverance from his oppressors.

To Friday Jones deliverance did not mean escape to the free states of the North. Unlike famous fugitive slave narrators like Douglass and William Wells Brown, Jones seems never to have tried to escape slavery via flight to the North. Douglass, Brown, and almost all the other famous fugitives of the antebellum slave narrative tradition were single men largely unencumbered by emotional ties to loved ones in slavery. Jones, by contrast, was a family man. His ties to his wife, Milley, and their nine children were strong, and they kept him from seriously considering abandoning them for freedom on his own elsewhere. When Jones found a master intolerable, therefore, he chose a form of escape that was much more prevalent in the slave community than outright flight to the free states. Jones chose to "stay out"--that is, he refused to work. During the summer of 1854 he recalls "staying out" for a month rather than allow several white men to whom he was hired to whip him. Prior to going on strike, we might call it today, Jones coolly bids his overseer farewell and then takes his leave. Exactly where he went is not clear from Days of Bondage, but the only reason he returned, Jones explains, is because the voice of God told him to do so. Expecting violence from the whites he has fled, Jones returns with a hatchet vowing, "If you put your hands on me I will not save one of you" (4). But the same voice that demanded his return asks, "I thought you were going to put your trust in God; you are putting it in your hatchet." In obedience to God, not his white oppressors, Jones puts down the hatchet. God rewards Jones's obedience: "God would not let them touch me."

Repeatedly in Days of Bondage, Jones is tempted by the cruelty and capriciousness of a succession of masters to do violence to them rather than to submit to their rule. "I was raised poor and hard as any slave," Jones recalls in a significant passage, "but the Lord had elevated me and made me feel that I was more of a man" (7). Jones expresses his sense of manhood in a variety of ways, most of them testifying to his refusal to abide by accepted standards of slave behavior in the antebellum South. As a family man, Jones does not tamely submit to the law of slavery that made his children the property of their white masters, to do with as the whites please. Jones makes it a practice to hire his family out to masters whom he believes are suitable, and, from all appearances in Days of Bondage, he was able to negotiate such arrangements with impunity. When one of his own masters attempts to hire him to a white man to whom he objects, Jones says that he informed the master, Calvin J. Rodgers, that "I was not going to Miller's" and that instead Rodgers would have to "let me pick my own man" (5). Rodgers grants Jones that freedom, and Jones promptly finds an acceptable white man to work for. In the matter of choosing a wife Jones also portrays himself as an agent of his own destiny. Once he has set his mind and heart on Milley, nothing his master, Colonel Tignal Jones, does--neither threats ("I'll sell you to a trader") nor bribery ("I'll buy you a wife")--can deflect Friday Jones from his purpose (6). He gets Milley's master to agree to the match, unbeknownst to Tignal Jones. When Tignal Jones tries a few years later to separate Friday and Milley, Friday verbally defies Colonel Jones and, when the white man tries to tie him up for a whipping, Friday physically resists the attempt. On the brink of violence both Tignal and Friday back down, assuming an uneasy truce. Colonel Jones does not give up the idea of selling his self-willed slave, but every time the master puts his slave under this kind of pressure, or the threat of sale of his family, Friday finds a way to hold on, even if he has to follow his family to Raleigh and secure a purchaser for them who will allow him his rights as a father and a husband.

In 1863, when Joshua James, the Raleigh Baptist minister who purchased his family, decides to sell them, he gives Friday notice "that he might get some one to buy them." This sets in motion a remarkable series of events, which Jones recalls in absorbing detail. That Jones had a reputation for being an enterprising slave is signaled in the fact that the owner of his family was willing to give this slave a chance to see to their purchase. Jones's strategy in the face of this crisis is striking. He goes directly to James to plead his case, keeping him up half the night and convincing him to accept his promise of "a large amount of money for their [his family's] next year's hire" (11). Readers should note that Jones did not convey any money to James during this negotiation. But James evidently had sufficient respect for Jones's resourcefulness that he felt confident that the "large amount of money" would be forthcoming. On what would James have based this confidence? In part on the fact that Jones came to see him driving his own horse and buggy! Or perhaps he had heard Colonel Jones's complaint, which Friday records in Days of Bondage, that "I [Friday] was dressing my wife finer than he was his wife" (7). Friday's reply to Tignal Jones--"Master, that is my money; I work for it. If I don't give it to my wife and children, what am I to do with it?"--provides more evidence of Friday Jones's unusual status in slavery and of the ability of a black man who felt "I was man enough to take care of myself" (3) to carve out a place in slavery that allowed him to preserve a measure of his dignity and his responsibility to his loved ones.

That dignity was not the product simply of Jones's sense of inviolable manhood. Rather, Jones's sense of manhood was itself an outgrowth of something deeper in his spirit, a trust and faith in God that gave him the fortitude to endure his trials and tribulations not just by passively waiting on divine deliverance but by asserting continually his God-given rights and responsibilities as a husband and a father. From the outset of Days of Bondage Jones predicates the story of his struggles in slavery on his conversion to Christianity. As a young man in his early 20s, Jones tells his reader, "God put it in my heart to believe the Gospel. His spirit has forever found me"(2). When tempted to violence, when faced with a seemingly hopeless task of preventing the sale of his family, Jones credits God's intercession with providing a way out. That way does not lead out of slavery itself, but it consistently gives the slave an alternative to defeatism and despair. It consistently reinforces his individual spirit of resistance and self-determination and gives this distinctly non-slavish behavior a justification that sustains Jones against the most formidable odds. His example of resistance inspires his children as well, as we see when we read how his oldest daughter fought back against an unjust whipping and succeeded in whipping her master. Looking back on "all these troubles" in slavery, Jones proclaims in 1883 the faith that made him proud before his white persecutors and humble before his God. "Man never dictated at all," he contends. "It was my God and me" (11). By refusing to take his earthly master's word as final, and by listening always for the voice of his heavenly Master within, Friday Jones was able to keep his faith, endure slavery, and emerge in the end a free man with a liberating story to tell.

"Bretheren, what a blessing it is to dwell together in the spirit," Jones exhorts his reader at the end of his text (17). Here he seems to be speaking to black readers, whom his testimony to "the spirit" that upheld him in slavery was no doubt intended to encourage. "Have you forgotten the life we lived when we were slaves? . . . Oh, how hard were the lives we led in those days" (17). Many an ex-slave narrator in the late nineteenth century expressed a similar concern that in their desire to put slavery behind them, African Americans would fail to learn the lessons that their trials and struggles in slavery had taught them. Friday Jones insists that "these trials were good for me" (17). One of his strongest motives in producing his autobiography seems to have been to show how his struggles in the past could be instructive to those who, knowing little or forgetting much of what slavery meant, would also not be prepared for the responsibilities of freedom and citizenship. For Jones the greatest responsibility he had was to God and to his family. His plea at the end of Days of Bondage is for African Americans to dedicate themselves "to love one another and be the best friends and citizens in America" (17). This exhortation to his "brethren" to love one another extends his idea of the family of faith to the entire African American community, whom he charges to be "the best friends and citizens in America." The linkage of friendship and citizenship encapsulates, we might say, the vision of Friday Jones for the future. African Americans must be citizens, an important assertion from a black man in the South in the wake of Reconstruction. But African Americans must also be "best friends." This is certainly a plea for black solidarity, as black people faced an uncertain future under the gathering clouds of segregation and disfranchisement. But the call for friendship may very well extend to whites as well and would be consistent with Jones's advice to African Americans that "all that we can do is to live close to the cross as a race" (18). This, Jones unquestionably believed, is the way he lived in slavery and the way he ultimately survived to tell his story in freedom. In this spirit of Christian brotherhood and citizenship, Jones hoped his story would survive to inspire others. The republication of his narrative after more than a century of neglect testifies to the validity of Friday Jones's faith in that spirit.


Suggested Reading

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Boston: The Anti-Slavery Office, 1847.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Antebellum Slave Narratives. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Franklin, John Hope. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: Published for the author, 1861.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1948.

Titles by Friday Jones