In this lesson we will look at the ‘Slave Narrative.’ We will discuss the definition and learn more about the genre as a whole.
You will then be asked to take a short quiz to assess your comprehension of the lesson.
What Is a Slave Narrative?
The slave narrative is a genre of literature that was written mostly between the mid 1700s and the late 1800s by African slaves in America. The narratives were either written by the slaves themselves, or dictated by them to someone else who wrote their accounts. Some were even passed orally. These narratives were the accounts of the horrors of capture, sale, and mistreatment as a slave. There is evidence that some of the accounts may have been exaggerated in an effort to aid the abolitionists’ movement.
However, even if this is true, they still shed light on a dreadful time in American history.
Characteristics of Slave Narratives
From around 1760 to the latter half of the 1800s, after the Civil War’s end, about 100 slave narratives were written. These include some of the most well-known narratives, such as those of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, just to name a few. The narrative included many aspects of the slave’s painful life journey. They often spoke of the way they were captured in their homeland, Africa, the despicable conditions of the trade ships that transported them like cattle to the Americas, their sale into slavery, their often atrocious treatment at the hands of their slave masters, and, finally, their escape from the evils of slavery, whether legally or illegally, as runaways.
African Slave Narratives
The first slave narrative was written by Olaudah Equiano in 1789, titled ‘Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.
In this narrative, Equiano relays his tortured plight from being captured in Africa, to his freedom and success in Europe. He includes details of traveling in disgusting, inhuman conditions across the Middle Passage, the name of the slave route across the Atlantic Ocean. He also tells of his treatment at the hands of various slave masters and how he eventually gained his freedom, traveled to England, and achieved notoriety there.There are some sources that have come to light that suggest Equiano was actually born in North America, which calls into question the veracity of his story. However, there are many other stories that are not questioned and have remained in the spotlight to this day. One such narrative is that of Frederick Douglass.
‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, written in 1845, is Douglass’ telling in his own words of what happened to him as a slave. His story has become the archetype of the genre. There are many other narratives by authors such as William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, Sojourner Truth, Soloman Northup (of the movie 12 Years a Slave made in 2013), William and Ellen Craft, and more.
Also, in 1850, the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law, which mandated that captured runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters, created an increased debate over slavery. The narratives were sought as evidence for those who wished to abolish the practice. Male slaves were not the only ones who wrote these narratives.
The first woman to write a slave narrative was Harriet Jacobs, whose ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’, detailed her plight and freedom and that of her two children. She was followed by the likes of Hannah Craft and Elizabeth Keckley.After slavery was abolished, more people were freed up to write their own stories. This is how we were given narratives by the likes of Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, Earnest Gains, and Toni Morrison, which fit into the narrative in their styles, if not all autobiographical in nature.
Now, you may think that this is about all there is to it, but there is more.
Other Slave Narratives
Yes, there have been slave narratives written by people other than Africans. Some narratives have been written by African Muslims who wrote in their native Arabic language.
There have also been slave narratives written by white sailors who were captured by pirates, mostly those off the Barbary coast, and lived to tell their stories. These are fewer and farther between, which is why we don’t hear much about them, but it is interesting to consider that there is more to history than what meets the eye.
Slave narratives are stories written as narratives that tell of the hardships, struggle, and strength of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They are often written by the people who endured the struggles themselves, but were sometimes written by others through dictation and word of mouth. Both men and women wrote the stories, and some of them were even written by non-Africans. These stories served more than just tales of tragedy and suffering. They were life-stories of real people whose sagas helped shape the nation and transform societal values.