“The slaves we saw on board the ship were chained together by the legs, so close they could not move. They were flogged very cruelly. I saw one of them flogged till he died; we could not tell what for.”
—“Narrative of Louis Asa Asa,
A Captured African” 1831.
The slave narrative is among the most powerful and compelling contributions to the American literary canon. As the foundation of African-American literature, the construct of these volumes has served as a function of dialogue between Black and White America around the institution of slavery. It is a distinct literary genre that recorded the experience of slavery from the perspective of those in bondage.
The ‘voice’ of the enslaved person
Most historical slave narratives were written in the mid-1700s through the late 1800s. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 90 narratives were published around the recurrent themes of American slave auctions, the break-up of families, slave revolts and, on rare occasions, accounts of persons who made their way to freedom.
The timeline of the slave narrative largely coincided with the abolitionist movement which was gaining a foothold in the American north. And while the slave narrative often centered on the “voice” of the enslaved person who suffered through centuries of captivity, the volumes were neatly confined between the “opening and closing” authority of White representatives who officially determined their reliability.
Slave narratives profess progress. Slave narratives recount redemption. Most importantly, slave narratives are tales of transformation. The first narratives told the stories of fugitive or freed slaves in a time of abject racial prejudice. The freed slaves who wrote narratives can be considered historians today, by virtue of the confluence of “memory” and “history.” These accounts link elements of the slave’s personal life and destiny, often associated with key historical events such as the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. The slave narrative also gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption.
The ‘talking book’
William Andrews, professor emeritus of English at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has described the slave narrative as the “rosetta stone” of literature in its presentation of urgency, conscience and insistence
“These are the hallmarks of the slave narrative,” Andrews said. His university houses the nation’s largest repository of slave narratives. He explained that White writers initially wanted to “reshape” the image of the narrative (i.e. William Lloyd Garrison overseeing the work of Frederick Douglass) because the latter “didn’t sound” like a slave and people wouldn’t believe him.
“The slave narrative served as a ‘talking book’ of sorts in that the Black person sees the White person reading and believes that the book is ‘speaking’ back to them,” Andrews said. “All slave narratives tend to hold the author as ‘inspired,’ ‘chosen’ and ‘lucky.’ African-Americans in these stories also define the character of their White oppressors.” Andrews pointed to the great sentimentality in these stories such as the work of Phyliis Wheatley who wrote to a White audience in an appeal to their collective consciousness.
Becoming ‘Black’ through
Other notable literary scholars, such as Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have described the slave narrative as “literature of escape” in depicting the overwhelming horrors of human bondage.
“These narratives served the abolitionist movement not only as evidence of the slaves’ degradation, but also their intellectual capacity,” Gates said. “This literature has elicited a wealth of analysis–and controversy–from its initial publication right up to the present day. The slave autobiography was not just a life’s account. It served as a means of achieving equality. The Black person could become a human being by an act of self-creation through the mastery of language.”
Gates explained further that in the slave narrative the author had to learn how to “represent Blackness” and the fact of slavery in context.
“You’re not born with that information. It’s a manifestation of the art of representation,” Gates said. “In every Black [autobiography] there is a moment at which the Black person learns that he or she is Black. And you usually become ‘Black’ through a painful experience. This tradition comes out in the slave narrative because in every slave narrative the child is innocent. They learn later that they are a slave. Being Black and a slave entails a deprivation that ends childhood innocence.”
Arguably the first noteworthy slave narrative was “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Also Known As Gustavus Vassa, the African” published in London in the late 1780s. Equiano’s writing was typical of the Romantic Era with his vivid description of his captive journey through the hot, dark and dank jungles of (present-day Nigeria) on to the pristine white sands of what is now the Gulf of Guinea. Once there he described “giant white birds” (ship sails) floating on the “crystal blue sea” (Equiano had never seen the ocean).
Equiano’s book was notable because he could write about his childhood in West Africa before he was captured. The arguments Equiano made in his book against the slave trade were used by British reformers who eventually succeeded in ending it. Before his death in 1797, Equiano would become a member of the Court of Queen Victoria.
“Narrative of the Interesting Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself” (1845) is probably the most famous slave narrative. By the 1840s, Douglass had come into contact with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and became a lecturer entertaining audiences about the practice. The book, featuring introductions by North American 19th-century anti-slavery activists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, was a sensation. It made Douglass famous as he would become one of the most famous figures in the anti-slavery movement.
The book would be enlarged as “My Bondage And My Freedom.” In the early 1880s, Douglass would publish an even larger autobiography “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself.”
Harriet Jacobs was enslaved from her birth in 1813 in North Carolina. One night in 1835 she sought her freedom. She spent seven years hiding and eventually found a job as a domestic in New York. Fearing the Fugitive Slave Law, Jacobs made her way to Massachusetts and in 1862, under the pen name Linda Brent, she published her memoir “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.”
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia. With sheer determination and a network of supporters, she became an outstanding dress designer and eventually made her way to Washington, D.C. to establish her own dressmaking business. That’s where she met First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Just after Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, Mrs. Lincoln hired Keckley as her personal dressmaker. In 1868, Kerckley published a detailed account of her life in “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.” You can find a few of Keckley’s designs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history, including a Mary Todd Lincoln inauguration dress from 1865.
Author Francis Foster Smith revealed in her 1994 book “Witnessing Slavery” that, unique within the female slave narrative (e.g. “The History of Mary Prince”–1831), is the description of an “idealistic life,” a “struggle for survival,” “providential help” and an “arrival in the promised land” while fully acknowledging that “freedom is not free.”
“Life of James Mars, A Slave, Born and Sold in Connecticut” (1868) stands as one of the most important accounts of the cruelties and uncertainties of life for the enslaved in New England. Mars’ later life as a free man, political activist, churchman and autobiographer speaks passionately to the importance of historical “memory”–or remembering the ugly truths as well as accomplishments of the past.
Mars took great pride in voting twice for Abraham Lincoln. His small pamphlet not only helped to correct the memory of his beloved state, but aided him financially as he traveled door–to-door selling his powerful testament to an earlier inhumanity.
Paul Jennings’ “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison” (1865) recounts the story of a slave who served the “Father of the Constitution,” co-writer of the “Federalist Papers” and the nation’s fourth president. He served as Madison’s personal manservant and found himself in the unique position to observe the goings-on of influential statesmen.
Jennings was with James and Dolly Madison from their days at Montpelier to time spent in Washington, D.C. His narrative is considered by historians to be the first memoir about life at the White House and is a rich, firsthand account of the relationship between a slave and slaveholder. It holds even more value for its insight into a system that was at odds with its perpetrators’ values.
William Parker was born a slave, lived as an abolitionist and died a free man. In “The Freedman’s Story” (1866) he recounts his leadership role in the “Christiana Resistance” of 1851 in which Parker and his band of runaway slaves and abolitionists beat off slaveholder and federal marshall Edward Gorsuch in seeking to reclaim four of Gorsuch’s slaves.
Parker’s autobiography is similar to other slave narratives as it was specifically written to enlighten White readers about slavery, and to showcase the humanity of Black people. The reality of slavery is revealed by his detailing of his deep fear of being sold, and the humanity demonstrated by earning his “rights as a freeman” with his “own right arm.”
“Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself” (1847) tells the story of a runaway slave who became one of the most important Black activists of his time. The book was so popular it went through four editions in the United States and several British editions.
Brown later traveled to England to lecture–and stayed there when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. While in London, Brown wrote the novel “Clotel; or the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States” which played on the incessant rumor that President Thomas Jefferson had fathered a daughter who had been sold at an auction of enslaved people.