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African American Slave Narrative. Equiano's Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) considered as the formative example early in the tradition The book established the emblematic subtitle “written by himself/herself”

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  • Equiano's Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) considered as the formative example early in the tradition

  • The book established the emblematic subtitle “written by himself/herself”

  • Most well-known examples of the 19th century: Frederick *Douglass, William Wells *Brown, and Harriet A. *Jacobs

  • “end of the tradition:” thousands of oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1920s and 1930s


  • Purposes:

    • narratives became virtual testaments in the hands of abolitionists proclaiming the antislavery gospel during the antebellum era in the United States

    • exposed the inhumanity of the slave system

    • Truth/authenticity: proving both the credibility of the personal account and its representative quality for the treatment of slaves in general

    • gave evidence of the humanity of the African American, esp. the intellectual equalities and capacities of African Americans

      • Importance of the narrative as evidence of intellectual acumen


  • Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia

  • “Comparing them by their faculties of memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think once could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. [. . .] But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration: never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. [. . .] Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. [. . .] Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whateley [sic.]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.”


  • Slave narratives were the dominant genre of writings by African Americans during and after the Civil War

  • They reached from a few pages in length to large, independently published volumes (e.g. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs)

  • earliest slave narratives have strong affinities with popular white American accounts of Indian captivity and Christian conversion in the New World


  • first known American slave narrative, African Americans during and after the Civil WarA Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (1760)

  • Most narratives from the late eighteenth century decry the slavery of sin much more than the sin of slavery

  • with the rise of the militant *antislavery movement in the early nineteenth century came a new demand for slave narratives that would highlight the harsh realities of slavery itself


  • abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were convinced that the eyewitness testimony of former slaves against slavery would touch the hearts and change the minds of many in the northern population of the United States who were either ignorant of or indifferent to the plight of African Americans in the South

  • by mid 19th century developed a standardized form of autobiography in which personal memory and a rhetorical attack on slavery blend to produce a powerful expressive tool both as literature and as propaganda


  • Antebellum slave narratives are typically have a center of the slave’s account with a white framing apparatus “authenticating” the slave’s narrative and experience

  • Framing by whites attest to the reliability and good character of the narrator and calls attention to what the narrative will reveal about the moral abominations of slavery

  • former slave's contribution to the text centers on his or her rite of passage from slavery in the South to freedom in the North


  • Influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s the slave’s account with a white framing apparatus “authenticating” the slave’s narrative and experienceUncle Tom’s Cabin

  • Most well-known and most successful: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)

  • Selling more than thirty thousand copies in the first five years

  • Garrison’s preface: focusing on representativeness of Douglass experience, but also acknowledging his individuality


  • Douglass: focusing on the slave as an evolving person who is striving for physical and mental/spiritual freedom

  • Narratives increasingly highlighting rhetorical self-consciousness by incorporating into their stories trickster motifs from African American folk culture, extensive literary and Biblical allusions, and a picaresque perspective on the meaning of the slave's flight from bondage to freedom


  • 1850s and 60s: striving for physical and mental/spiritual freedom

    • Crisis of the Fugitive Slave Law and beginning of the Civil War

    • In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass revealed that his search for freedom had not reached its fulfillment among the abolitionists

    • personal dedication to civil rights activism in the North as well as agitation against slavery in the South

    • Harriet Jacobs: the first African American female slave to author her own narrative

    • shows how sexual exploitation made slavery especially oppressive for black women


  • in demonstrating how she fought back and ultimately gained both her own freedom and that of her two children, Jacobs proved the inadequacy of the image of victim that had been pervasively applied to female slaves in the male-authored slave narrative

  • Quotation: “My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each” (Incidents in the Life of a Slave GirI)


  • After the Civil War: both her own freedom and that of her two children, Jacobs proved the inadequacy of the image of victim that had been pervasively applied to female slaves in the male-authored slave narrative

    • Narratives stress need to establish African American communities and institutions

    • Less focus on individual struggle for freedom

    • emphasizing that slaves not only survived their bondage but were well-prepared by its rigors to take care of themselves both individually and communally

    • slave narrators after emancipation argued the readiness of the freedman and woman for full participation in the new social and economic order


  • Most prominent: Booker T. Washington's both her own freedom and that of her two children, Jacobs proved the inadequacy of the image of victim that had been pervasively applied to female slaves in the male-authored slave narrative Up from Slavery (1901)

  • promotion of African American progress and interracial cooperation

  • Great Depression helped spur the gradual return to autobiography of themes of resistance and struggle against oppression

  • E.g.: Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945)

  • Recent adaptations of the slave narrative:

    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X

    • Toni Morrison, Beloved


  • antebellum slave narrator portrays slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth

  • Precipitating the narrator's decision to escape is some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one or a dark night of the soul in which hope contends with despair for the spirit of the slave


  • Impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable (the slave narrative often stresses) to that of America's founders, the slave undertakes an arduous quest for freedom that climaxes in his or her arrival in the North

  • renaming oneself and dedicating one's future to antislavery activism

  • Sold and circulated at anti-slavery meetings; published and distributed in England; multiple editions


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