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Philosophy Born of Struggle. Slave Narratives as The Origins of Africana and Black Philosophy in the Americas Lecture delivered by Sharifa Wright, PhD Candidate in Social and Political Thought. History of Black Slave Narratives.

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Philosophy born of struggle
Philosophy Born of Struggle

Slave Narratives as The Origins of Africana and Black Philosophy in the Americas

Lecture delivered by Sharifa Wright, PhD Candidate in Social and Political Thought

History of black slave narratives
History of Black Slave Narratives

  • Slave narratives, written by persons of African descent who were enslaved during the trans-Atlantic slave, first appeared in the late 18th Century.

  • A Narrative of the Most remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince was published in England in 1772

  • The Interesting Narrative and the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African was published seventeen years later in 1789, the same year as the French Revolution and 13 years after the American Revolution of 1766.

  • The first known narrative in the Americas was published Connecticut in 1798 entitled A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture Smith, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself.

  • The majority of these narratives were published in North America between 1830 and 1865 in conjunction with the American abolitionist movement.

  • It is believed that over 6,000 slaves from North American and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives—roughly 150 of these have been published and authenticated.

Some elements of slave narratives
Some Elements of Slave Narratives

  • Written by Himself/Herself— The Importance of Freedom through Literacy

  • Autobiography as a Cultural and Political Manifesto

  • Rigorous critique of the institution of slavery and the rationales for slavery

  • Political Texts to motivate and validate the Abolitionist movement

  • Use Judeo-Christian Ethics to highlight ethical contradictions in slave societies and slave masters’ existence

  • Demonstrate the development of syncretic Christianity—origins of Black Liberation Theology

  • Utilize humanist language to assert positive black existence and negotiate the problems of black existence in modernity –(Origins of Negritude Thinking, Black Existential Thought (such as Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask)

Written by him herself
Written By Him/Herself

“In literacy lay true freedom for the black”– Henry Louis Gates Jr.

  • In 1740 South Carolina passed the following law: 

    “Be it therefore Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any Slave to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a Scribe in any Manner of Writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such offense forfeit the Sum of One Hundred Pounds current Money.”

  • Frederick Douglass:

    Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes,(she had then given me no reason

    to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read…Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore

    progress, the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts. Master Hugh was amazed at the

    simplicity of his spouse and …unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar

    rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human

    chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction; telling her in the first place

    that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe and could only lead to mischief. To use

    his own words…”if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;” “he should know nothing but the

    will of his master, and learn to obey it; ””learning will spoil the best nigger in the world;” “if you

    teach that nigger how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him.”

Autobiography as a cultural and political manifesto
Autobiography as a Cultural and Political Manifesto

  • Slave Narratives probed the social and political relationships among black slaves :

    The black slave’s narrative came to be a communal utterance, a collective tale, rather than just an individual’s biography. Each slave author in writing about his or her personal life experiences, simultaneously wrote on the behalf of millions of silent slaves still held captive through the [U.S.]south. Each author then knew that all black slaves would be judged—on their character, integrity, intelligence, manners and morals. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

  • These texts explored race-relations under slave systems -- in particular black-white relationships are studied and discussed from a black perspective and mixed raced existence is provoked in light of the racial politics of slave society.

  • Similarly these texts revealed the nature of white cultural domination:

    “I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I

    had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit and imitate their

    manners. I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement… “

    Olaudah Equiano

Critiques of slavery
Critiques of Slavery

Mary Prince:

“They are not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief. Oh those white people have small hearts who can only feel for themselves.”

Frederick Douglass:

“ It is plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters. “

Henry Louis Gates:

“The slave narrators sought to indict both those who enslaved them and the metaphysical system drawn upon to justify their enslavement.”

Abolitionist texts
Abolitionist Texts

British Abolitionist Movement

  • First British Abolitionist group was formed by Quakers in 1783.

  • In 1787 the Committee of the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established and it also included Baptist and Methodist.

  • Equiano’s text , published in 1789, was an official pamphlet of the organization , prefaced by White abolitionist

  • In 1820 the Anti-Slavery society was formed to target the institution of slavery after the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807.

  • In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed and was attributed in part to the lobbying work of these groups.

    American Abolitionist Movement

  • Up until 1806 Society of Friends, The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and the New York Manumission Society worked to abolish slavery in northern states. Slave importation to America was banned in 1808.

  • Douglass’ text published in 1845 was crucial to the second phase of the abolitionist movement and the civil war. His preface was also written by prominent white Abolitionist. Slavery was abolished throughout the United States after the Civil War in 1865.

Christian ethical contradictions
Christian Ethical Contradictions

Harriet Jacobs:

“They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home. I am glad that missionaries go out to the dark corners of the earth; but I ask them not to overlook the dark corners at home. Talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa. Tell them it is wrong to traffic in men. Tell them it is sinful to sell their own children, and atrocious to violate their own daughters. Tell them that all men are brethren, and that man has no right to shut out the light of knowledge from his brother.”

Frederick Douglass:

“The man, who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week, meets me as a class leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who claims it is a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read from the God who made me. “

The black christian
“The Black Christian”


“He taught me.. to read the bible… I was wonderfully surprised to see the laws and rules of my own country written almost exactly here; a circumstance which I believe, tended to impress our manners and customs more deeply on my memory. I used to tell him on this resemblance…In short he was like a father to me and some even called me after him name: they also styled me the black Christian… As I could not get any right among men here, I hoped I should hereafter in Heaven.”


“No wonder slaves sing—

Ole Satan’s church is here below,

Up to God free church I hope to go.”

James Cone :

“What is Black Theology? Black Theology is that theology which arises out of the need to articulate the significance of black presence in a hostile white world. It is black people reflecting religiously in the black experience attempting to redefine the relevance of the Christian Gospel for their lives.”

From “Black Consciousness and the Black Church”

Humanism in slave narratives
Humanism in Slave Narratives

Humanism, generally speaking, refers to the ethical understanding that all human beings have the capacity to appeal to universal values and are therefore equal.

The fundamental assumption of all slave narratives is that black people ought to be included in an understanding of humanity and thus these texts served to critique theories of being which ontologized racism by declaring blackness outside of the human.

Sojourner Truth:

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud- puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”

Interesting narratives not just stories
Interesting Narratives: Not just stories…

Basic Definitions:

  • Philosophy :the branch of knowledge that deals with ultimate reality, or with existence and the nature and causes of things (Metaphysics)

  • Ontology : the study of being or existence

  • Epistemology: the method of knowing

  • Phenomenology : the study of phenomena (happenings, events, things)

  • Theology (Biblical): the study of the religious doctrines of the Bible– of God, his nature and his relations with humans.

  • Existentialism: the study of the existence of the individual and the human condition (with an emphasis on themes of freedom, liberation, agency )

Philosophy born of struggle1
Philosophy Born of Struggle

What is Black philosophy?

“By black philosophy what is meant is the philosophical currents that emerged from the question of blackness. I distinguish Africana philosophy from Black philosophies because the latter relate to a terrain that is broader than Africana communities. Not all black peoples are of African descent: indigenous Australians, whose lived reality is that of being black people, are an example. Similarly, problems of blackness are but a part of Africana philosophy. The divide is not only philosophical—where black philosophy’s normative and descriptive concerns may be narrower than Africana philosophy’s—but also cultural: although there are Africana cultures, it is not clear what black culture is.”

Lewis Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought

Africana thought
Africana Thought

“Africana Thought…refers to an area of thought that focuses on theoretical questions raised by struggles over ideas in African cultures and their hybrid and creolized forms in Europe, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean. African Thought also refers to the set of questions raised by the historical project of conquest and colonization that has emerged since 1492 and the subsequent struggles for emancipation that continue to this day. .. They are marked by the contrast between how the modern is often characterized in Western academy—through, say, philosophical treatment of ideas, from Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant, or perhaps Michel Foucault’s locating of modernity in nineteenth-century European thought—and how it has been lived by those on its periphery.”

Lewis Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought

Why is this important today
Why is this important today?

“When Afro-Americans are viewed as passive objects in history, Afro-American history is a record of the exclusion of a distinct racial group from the economic benefits and cultural dilemmas of modernity. Politically, this exclusion has meant the white ownership of Afro-American persons, possession and progeny; severe discrimination reinforced by naked violence within a nascent industrial capitalist order; and urban enclaves of unskilled unemployables and semi-skilled workers within a liberal corporate capitalist regime. Culturally, this has meant continual Afro-American degradation and ceaseless attempts to undermine Afro-American self-esteem.”

“When Afro-Americans are viewed as active subjects of history, Afro-American history becomes the story of gallantly persistent struggle, of a disparate racial group fighting to enter modernity on its own terms. Politically this struggle consists of prudential acquiescence plus courageous revolt against white paternalism; institution-building and violent rebellion within the segregated social relations of industrial capitalism; and cautious reformist strategies within the integrated social relations of “post-industrial” capitalism. Culturally, this has meant the maintenance of self-respect in the face of pervasive denigration.”

Cornel West, “Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience” in A Companion to African American Philosophy