In a discussion of the concept of the “good slave” in her book Reconstructing the Slave: The Image of the Slave in Ancient Greece, Kelly Wrenhaven rightly argues that “representations of good slaves are as much a part of the rationalizing ideology of slavery as bad slaves, as both help to justify and reinforce the institution.” Examining enslaved nurses depicted on Athenian tombstones, Wrenhaven points out that, out of a total of 15 extant tombstones for nurses, nine include the word chreste. Other inscriptions further confirm the association between the adjective chrestos and enslavement. On a 4th-century tombstone from Thasos, a shepherd named Manes is described as chrestos tais despotais (“useful to his masters”). Enslaved people are also described with this adjective in Menander as well as in Greek tragedy.
To say that there was such a thing as racism in classical antiquity would strike most modern readers as odd. However, if we examine what racism means, it is not as striking. The modern connotations of “racism” often instantly call up differences in biological features such as skin color. Historians of antiquity, such as Frank Snowden, have examined ancient evidence in search of racial hatred, working from these modern assumptions about what “race” is. Given those assumptions, Snowden concluded that the ancients did not have an idea of racism or hatred of black people more specifically.
Harriet Jacobs, born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, was the first formerly enslaved woman to write a narrative of freedom: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, first published in 1861, now widely recognized as a masterpiece and a seminal part of the genre of 19th-century African American narratives of freedom. Incidents pseudonymously details Jacobs’ early life in slavery, her exposure to grievous harm and sexual violence at the hands of a cruel master, her marriage to and bearing of children by a different white man, her efforts to get her children out of the South, and her own flight from slavery — first hiding locally for seven years in her grandmother’s attic, and then fleeing to New York and eventual, hard-bought freedom.