F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Belinda's Sutton's Petition

The readings from Black New England prompt us to continue our interrogation of genre, which we discussed previously with the Muslim slave narratives. Not only did enslaved and emancipated individuals in new England develop “slave narratives,” but the also influenced and produced a fascinating body of legal texts, including petitions, court cases, and confessions. I found the most fascinating of these to be Belinda Sutton's petition.

Historically, there is no definitive evidence of who wrote Belinda’s petition—scholars widely believe that it was probably written by unknown amanuensis. Still, the petition provides evidence of emancipatory writing before what we might think of as formal “literature” emerges. Belinda’s petition, which asks the Massachusetts General Court to award her a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr., to which she claimed she was entitled on account of her fifty years of service to the deceased Royall. The petition relies on a sentimental appeal and uses emotion to evoke cruelty of enslavement. The petition was ultimately successful, and although the awarded pension was only paid for one year and Belinda had to renew her claim five times over the course of a decade due to missed payments, the petition offers an invaluable perspective of 18th century notions of the responsibility of a slave owner to an enslaved individual. The petition follows the pattern of lawsuits for emancipation and points to the instability of the institution of slavery during the pre-Revolutionary War era when there were more free Blacks. The possibility of earning freedom was the norm, and there were not yet legalized Black Codes that equated Blackness with chattel servitude. Notably, the petition, skillfully engages all three forms of rhetoric: deliberative (asking those in power to take action), judicial (appealing to law court), and epideictic (using language of praise and blame). The petition also demonstrates how early writers against slavery were not as gracious as later emancipatory writers, and how new law codes and the demands of publication meant that emancipatory writing eventually shifted from demands for payment to recounting acts of horror. It also complicates the notion of “literature” and compels readers to re-consider our understandings of genre and early African American print culture.

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