The Slave Narrative’s Influence on American Literature

Anti-slavery writings were significant in the abolitionists’ fight against slavery. Using books, newspapers, pamphlets, poetry, published sermons, and other forms of literature, abolitionists spread their message. David Walker’s Appeal, Williams Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star were among the most important abolitionist writings. And then there were the slave narratives–personal accounts of what is was like to live in bondage. These would give northerners their closest look at slavery and provide an undeniable counter to the pro-slavery arguments and idyllic pictures of slavery described by slaveholders.

Slave narratives were often influenced by King James Bible, New England sermonizing traditions as well as rhetoric and aims of abolitionist orators. They attempted to arouse the sympathy of readers in order to promote humanitarianism while usually emphasizing traditional Christian religious ideas. Many narratives were extremely popular because of their vivid scenes of horror and violence that served as an acceptable gratification of the popular appetite for sensationalism and interesting descriptions of life in the South.

Slave narratives as a whole form one of the largest bodies of literature produced by any group of slaves in history and were immensely popular with the public. Frederick  Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860. Many narratives were translated into French, German, Dutch and Russian master or slave. The slave’s narrative has precisely the identical “documentary” status as does any other written account of slavery. Whereas, its presuppositions tend to differ dramatically from those of texts written by non-slaves, both sorts of texts are of the same order as historical documents and literary discourse.

At the conclusion of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved, Toni Morrison sums up her retelling of one slave family’s experience: “It was not a story to pass on.” There are certainly logical reasons why the story of slavery might never have been passed on. One, the reason Morrison suggests, was its sheer horror and trauma, those who lived through it may not have wanted to remember their experiences. A second is more practical: it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, which meant that the act of putting a story on paper was generally prohibited to them. But neither of these reasons kept former slaves from passing on their stories and leaving a record about what living as a piece of property had been like. These slave narratives set the standard for a tradition of African American autobiography that continues today.

Although slave narratives were written in several parts of the diaspora and in a variety of languages, the majority of published narratives by African slaves and their descendants were written in English in what is now the United States. Black literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues that African American slaves were unique in the  history of world slavery because they were the only enslaved people to produce a body of writing that testified to their experiences.

Literary critics have been guilty of ignoring both the historian’s methods of verification of authorship and of events depicted in a text. Nevertheless, scattered literary scholars increasingly aware of the determining influence these narratives have had upon the Afro-American novel, have, at least since the mid-1920’s, devoted various studies to the literariness of these texts.

It is worthwhile to read the narratives closely, watching and listening for unexpected details, unspoken feelings, and hidden meanings. Often the full meanings of the narratives will remain unclear, but the ambiguities themselves bear careful consideration.

Perhaps the nineteenth century’s most known advocate of equal rights, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland’s eastern shore in 1818, the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man. While toiling as a ship’s caulker, he taught himself to read. After he escaped from slavery at the age of 1820, he became the abolitionist movement’s most effective orator and published an influential anti- slavery newspaper, The North Star. In this excerpt from one of his three autobiographies, he describes the circumstances that prompted slaveowners to whip slaves.

A mere look, word, or motion,- – a mistake, accident, or want of power,- – are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high- minded, and should be taken down a button- hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,- – one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself….

Source: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (3rd. English ed., Leeds, 1846)

For many of these authors, writing narratives served a dual purpose: it was a way of publicizing the horrors they had gone through and it was also a method of proving their humanity. One of the common arguments in support of race-based slavery was that blacks were simply an inferior species, incapable of thinking and feeling in the ways whites did. Through their narratives, slave authors were able to display their emotions and their intellects.

Historians estimate that there are approximately 6,000 published narratives by African American slaves. This number includes both book-length autobiographies and shorter accounts published in newspapers or transcribed from interviews, and it spans 170 years’ worth of testimonies from ex-slaves. Most of these narratives were actually published or collected after slavery was abolished in 1865, as slaves who had been emancipated looked back on their experiences. The most famous slave narratives, however, are autobiographies by fugitive slaves that were published before 1865.

During this period, ex-slaves’ narratives were a powerful tool in the fight against slavery. Many abolitionist groups correctly guessed that first-person accounts of the horrors of slavery would be the most effective means of explaining slavery’s evils to a wide audience, and they often helped black authors to find publishers and audiences for their work. Approximately 70 slave narratives were published in the United States in book or pamphlet form before the end of the Civil War and hundreds more appeared in American and British periodicals. Slave narratives often went through multiple editions and sometimes sold thousands of copies in the United States and throughout Europe.

The best-known slave narrative is Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). In it, Douglass describes his childhood separation from his mother, his struggle to teach himself to read and write, the brutal whippings he witnessed and received, and his determination to be free, all the while stressing his own humanity, and the inhumanity of the system that kept him a slave. Douglass’s autobiography was an international bestseller.

After its publication, Douglass traveled the world as a lecturer, implicitly providing a model for just how “civilized” blacks could be, and went on to become the most famous and respected black individual of the nineteenth century (Andrews and Gates 281). His narrative’s patterns and images were repeated not only in many later slave narratives, but also in such diverse works of African American literature as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).

Other famous slave narrators from this period include William Wells Brown, Oluadah Equiano, and Harriet Jacobs. Brown was one of the earliest African American novelists. Equiano’s narrative, which recounts his memories of life in Africa, his capture,  and the Middle Passage, is one of the rare autobiographies in English by a slave who was born in Africa. Jacobs, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the best example of a woman’s slave narrative, discusses the sexual intimidation and abuse and the agony of being a slave mother that made slavery a different experience for women than for men (Davis and Gates 32).

Throughout this period, narrators worked both to give credible accounts of their own individual experiences in slavery and to argue that their experiences were representative, and that thousands of others still suffered just as they had. They strove to convince readers that all of the slaves must be freed, and indeed, the narratives did help to make the end of American slavery a reality.

After Emancipation, the tone of many slave narratives changed. Authors continued to portray their experiences as slaves, but for many, the new purpose in writing was to prove that slavery had been a testing ground from which African Americans had successfully emerged, ready to participate in the larger American society. Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery is the best-known example of this new type of slave narrative. Washington uses many of the same conventions found in Douglass’s slave narrative, but he turns them around so that in his autobiography, slavery becomes the foundation for a classic rags-to-riches American success story.

The last documents classified as slave narratives are the transcriptions of interviews with ex-slaves conducted in the first several decades of the twentieth century.

The largest collection of these was compiled by interviewers with the federally funded Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, which gathered testimonies from 2500 ex-slaves in 17 states. In spite of the skewed sample, the distortions, and the biases, the WPA interviews reveal much about the nature of slavery (Davis and Gates 92).

In the late twentieth century, the slave narratives’ presence is still felt throughout African American literature in both form and function. Many authors have written contemporary retellings of slave narratives, in books as varied as Morrison’s lyrical Beloved (1987), Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel Kindred (1979), and Ishmael Reed’s parody Flight to Canada (1976). Other novels, such as Invisible Man, use the narratives’ themes and structure with very different subject matter.

And throughout the history of African American literature, autobiography has remained a dominant genre. Many African Americans still identify with the need to write about themselves as a means of sharing their common humanity. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou are among recent black writers who continued this tradition of using the written word to pass their stories on.

Narratives of slavery recounted the personal experiences of antebellum African Americans who had escaped from slavery and found their way to safety in the North. An essential part of the anti-slavery movement, these narratives drew on Biblical allusion and imagery, the rhetoric of abolitionism, the traditions of the captivity narrative and the spiritual autobiography in appealing to their (often white) audiences. Some of these narratives bore a “frame” or preface attesting to their authenticity and to the sufferings  described within.

From William Andrews’s “The Representation of Slavery and Afro-American Literary Realism” “Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, autobiographies of former slaves dominated the Afro-American narrative tradition. Approximately sixty-five American slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form before 1865 . . . ” (78).

The slave narrative took on its classic form and tone between 1840 and 1860, when the romantic movement in American literature was in its most influential phase… Douglass’s celebration of selfhood in his 1845 Narrative might easily be read as a black contribution to the literature of romantic individualism and anti-institutionalism. Ten years later Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, deconstructs his 1845 self-portrait with typical romantic irony. (78)

The slave narrative, then has withstood the exigencies so often fatal to occasional genres of literature, and it continues to enjoy it unique status as textual evidence of the self-consciousness of the ex-slave and as the formal basis upon which an entire narrative tradition has been constructed.

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