Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is narrated by a female slave who has fled from the abuse and cruelty she has experienced. The speaker describes being separated from a fellow slave with whom she was in love. After this traumatic incident, she becomes pregnant and has a child as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of her white master. Fearing discovery, the speaker flees with her son. She notes that he is “too white for me” and is troubled by his resemblance to her tormentor; tragically, the speaker chooses to smother the child to death. Throughout this ordeal, she considers the relationship between God and slaves; while the speaker appears to believe that everyone is a child of God, she has difficulty reconciling this with the realities of slavery. It is also important to note the importance of Pilgrim’s Point within the work as a symbol of the hypocrisy of the founders who came seeking freedom from oppression but allowed for the establishment of slavery in the United States.

The speaker first reflects on the Christian belief that all people are by God (“I am black/And yet God made me, they say”). However, this seems inconsistent with the abuse and cruelty slaves experienced. To the speaker, it is as if they have been abandoned by their creator and are being crushed beneath “His white creatures.” She says:

“But if he did so, smiling back

He must have cast His work away

Under the feet of His white creatures

With a look of scorn, that the dusky features

Might be trodden again to clay.”

Slavery at this times was race based; African and those of African descent were reviled for their dark skin. The speaker responds to this attitude by pointing out things that are dark but are also seen as being beautiful and good. This includes “a little dark bird” that “sits and sings,” “a dark stream” that “ripples out of sight,” “dark frogs” that “chant in the safe morass,” and even “the sweetest stars are made to pass/O’er the face of the darkest night.”

She goes on to say:

“Ah, God, we have no stars

About our souls in care and cark

Our blackness shuts like prison-bars

The poor souls crouch so far behind

That never a comfort can they find

By reaching through the prison-bars.”

The prison cell imagery is appropriate when discussing slavery, as slaves were virtually prisoners and unable to do what they wished.

In spite of the speaker’s experience of slavery, she argues that we are all children of God. She states

“That great smooth Hand of God stretched out

On all His children fatherly,

To save them from the dread and doubt

Which would be if, from this low place,

All opened straight up to His face

Into the grand eternity.”

As God’s children, we are all treated equally before Him. The speaker uses an example to illustrate this when she notes that “still God’s sunshine and His frost,/They make us hot, they make us cold.” The speaker also notes the seeming inconsistency of the founders coming to the United States to escape oppression but bringing the institution of slavery with them.

The speaker begins the poem by stating:

“I stand on the mark beside the shore

Of the first white pilgrim’s bended knee,

Where exile turned to ancestor,

And God was thanked for liberty.”

She later notes her pursuers “are born of the Washington-race,/And this land is the free America.” It appears hypocritical and consistent to the speaker that the pilgrims, who left England to obtain religious freedom and the county’s Founders, who dedicated themselves to the principal of liberty, would support the institution of slavery; this included the enslavement of follow Christians, such as the speaker and the young man from whom she was separated.

http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/LB/gallery.html

An engraving from The Liberty Bell. It would have brought Thomas Paine’s poem “The Liberty Tree” to mind for readers. This helped to emphasize the abolitionists’ patriotism.