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CSU student uncovers overlooked slave narrative

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton State University student, and Jonesboro resident, Sibongile B.N. Lynch, spent the majority of her adult life running away from her origins in St. Louis, Mo.

"I've been in Georgia for 17 years," said Lynch, a non-traditional, English Literature major. "When I left, I said that I would never go back to St. Louis ... I thought that there was nothing there for me."

As her writing matured, Lynch began looking back at her past, discovering that she came from a city of rich literary history.

She went to elementary school at Mark Twain Elementary, which was in walking distance to Bellefontaine Cemetery -- where such notables as playwright, Tennessee Williams, author, Kate Chopin, poet, Sara Teasdale, and Dred Scott, the first slave to sue for his freedom -- are all buried.

"I've always been surrounded by all of this literary history and I never knew it," Lynch said.

After realizing the great number of literary works that originated from St. Louis, Lynch began researching the work of African-American, female authors from the area. In her research, she stumbled across the lost work of Lucy Ann Delaney.

Delaney was the daughter of Polly Crocket, a free, black woman born in the state of Illinois, who was kidnapped and sold in St. Louis. Delaney was born while the both of them were in captivity.

Crocket was later able to escape to Chicago, but returned to the slave state of Missouri to fight for the freedom of her daughter.

Knowing that her master would soon sell her to another plantation in spite, Delaney escaped and met up with her mother secretly. Keenly aware of the law, Crocket, accompanied by a sheriff, delivered Delaney to the city jail, where she would be safe from her slave captors until Crocket could win her daughter's freedom through the court system.

At only 12 years old, Delaney sat in jail for 17 months, while her mother battled the St. Louis Circuit Courts, eventually winning her daughter's freedom in 1844, on the grounds that a free woman could not give birth to a slave.

Delaney described her time in jail and the struggles her mother faced against the St. Louis court system in her slave narrative "From the Darkness Cometh the Light or Struggles for Freedom," published in 1891 by the J.T. Smith Publishing House in St. Louis.

On Sept. 29, Lynch presented a paper on the little-known slave narrative at the Seventh Biennial Southern Women's Writer's Conference at Berry College in Rome, Ga.

Many successful female writers from the southern region gathered for the conference, including Barbara Ewell, Kaye Gibbons, and Vertamae Grosvenor. Poet Maya Angelou offered opening remarks during the conference.

Lynch said that Delaney's narrative was unique in that it strays from the story of the "tragic mulatto," often the bastard offspring of slave and master who were trapped between the worlds of black and white. While tragic mulatto stories were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, Lynch said that Delaney's narrative asks for sympathy from no one.

"What makes her story different from Harriet Jacobs is that she doesn't have any incidents of a master brutalizing or raping her," said Lynch. "To me, its more of a bootstrap story, rather than, 'look how bad they did me.' It's interesting to see how the court system interacted with this young, black woman in the antebellum period."

Lynch said that she plans to continue her research on African-American authors from St. Louis and pursue a doctorate degree focusing on American Literature of the 19th and 20th century.

"[Delaney's slave narrative] answers the question ... can black people succeed if they are given a chance," Lynch said.