The Slave Narrative
Beginning in the mid-18th century and continuing through the twentieth, slave narratives were published in the United States and England. The slave narrative became a popular literary genre in the antebellum United States with the growing political movement known as abolitionism. The slave narrative, then, is the primary antebellum genre for African American writers. Thus, slave narratives are an essential part of American literary history, but also provide social commentary, powerful political critiques of 19th century culture. Originally intended as tools for the abolitionist press, slave narratives were used to encourage whites in the North to join the abolitionist cause, to bring about the end of slavery.
Because of extreme racial prejudice, both in the South and in the North, slave narratives were often published with letters or prefaces, attesting to the authenticity of the work, typically from white northern abolitionists. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, wrote the preface to Frederick Douglass’s original Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. And Lydia Maria Child, another New England abolitionist, wrote the preface to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Contemporary audiences read personal accounts of an escaped slave’s journey from the horrors and deprivations of slavery to a liberated life in the North. Slave narratives typically employ common appeals: they describe southern life and culture; they depict emotional scenes and images of horror, such as abuse of women and children or the break-up of families; they use allegorical or symbolic names; and they utilize religious imagery or symbolism as a didactic tool. Other themes include the quest for literary, the hypocrisy of slave owners and the slave system, and, of course, the journey to freedom. For example, Frederick Douglass stresses literacy as a liberating tool for slaves, perhaps more powerful than physical strength. In his Narrative, Douglass describes literacy as his “pathway from slavery to freedom.” Typically, slave narratives do not provide the details of a slave’s escape. In order to protect family members or abolitionists who helped slaves escape, the method of escape is left to the reader’s imagination. Douglass, for instance, does not describe his escape in his Narrative.
Examples of other slave narratives:
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1798)
Narrative of William Wells Brown, An American Slave by William Wells Brown (1849)
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901)
For More Information:
Click on the links below for more information on the slave narrative:
• Gutenberg’s link to the book, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28973/28973-h/28973-h.htm
• Documenting the American South’s links to slave narratives: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/slave_images.html
• The Library of Congress’s links to slave narratives: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/
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