True Tales of Bondage and Freedom:
Nineteenth Century Slave Narratives

 
 

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An Inside View of Slavery
(J. P. Jewett, 1855)

The great American melting pot consists of a wide variety of people with divergent histories and cultures. With the exception of Native Americans, no contributor to this melting pot has as troubled a history as the African Americans. Brought to America against their will and held for centuries in bondage, African Americans have a unique story to tell. This story, characterized by both oppression and triumph, achieves a first-person telling in slave narratives.

Slave narratives, which became prominent in the decades leading up to the Civil War, have their roots in eighteenth century autobiography and leave a lasting legacy as the foundation of an African American literary tradition and a valuable primary source for historians. Nearly 6,000 narratives were created in some form between 1760 and 1947. Sixty-five of these appeared as books or pamphlets during the antebellum era, when escaped slaves used their pens, according to Yale Historian David W. Blight, as "an instrument of liberation, when neither law nor society offered the same.”

Eighteenth-Century Roots and Early Narratives

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The Rev. J.W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman
(J. G. K. Truair, 1859)

Literary historians call autobiographical narrative a defining characteristic of early American literature, crediting colonial writers William Bradford and Benjamin Franklin for popularizing self-focused literature. Narratives recounting the humiliation and torment of captivity emerged in the seventeenth century, as Puritans penned stories of imprisoned Native Americans to juxtapose their suffering with their eventual redemption by the grace of God. Although slave narratives resembled the narratives of Indian captivity in some ways, two important differences exist: slaves wrote (or dictated) their own stories, and they reversed the judgment shown in the Puritan writings by making the white settlers the “evil” that surrounded the black slaves.

Slavery existed in America from the early seventeenth century, but the first known American slave narrative, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, was not published until 1760. Nearly thirty years would pass before the next slave narrative would achieve widespread recognition. Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) detailed the author’s years in bondage as well as his career as a seaman after he bought his own freedom. It also advocated for the freedom of other slaves.

     
 

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Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup
(Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1854)

Slave Narratives of the Antebellum Era

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the slave narrative became a means of opening a dialogue between blacks and whites about slavery and freedom. The antebellum narratives of fugitive slaves fueled the abolitionist movement and revealed the racism they experienced in the so-called “free states.” These influential narratives sold in the tens of thousands, many of them becoming best-sellers. Some of this popularity is due to publicity in abolitionist periodicals and sales at anti-slavery meetings, but the works also were widely read because they fit the romantic movement of mid-nineteenth century literature. The most popular antebellum narratives by writers such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northup, and Harriet Jacobs stressed how African Americans survived and escaped slavery and evoked the national myth of the American individual’s quest for freedom.

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The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c.
(Porter and Coates, 1872)

Many former slaves wrote their own narratives; however, a number of them were illiterate and dictated their stories to abolitionists. Because many of these narratives were used as propaganda, and because most whites believed that blacks were incapable of thinking, the reliability, authenticity, and objectivity of slave narratives often were questioned. Those who wrote their own narratives took pains to demonstrate the authenticity of their work, and often inserted phrases such as “written by himself” into the titles. Abolitionist editors who aided in writing narratives for illiterate former slaves were equally concerned that the work be perceived as valid and included letters of endorsement from important whites with the slaves’ words. Historians point out that most narratives contain enough information that they can be verified by independent sources such as diaries and letters, plantation and local government records and documents, census records, newspapers, and the testimony of acquaintances of the narrators. In fact, writers of slave narratives often included such documentation in appendices to their stories.

     
 

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From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit: The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph
(J. H. Earle, 1893)

Linguists, historians, and literary scholars have examined the variety of antebellum slave narratives and determined that most of them have certain characteristics in common. One is the linear narrative structure, focusing on the individual's journey from enslavement to freedom. First, the individual establishes an identity via family history. Then, he or she describes life as a slave. These stories are filled with emotional language detailing the horrors of family separation, the sexual abuse of black women, the inhuman workload, the brutality of flogging, and the severe living conditions of slave life. They also relay fond memories of slave communities, including the love between family members, the respect for elders, the bonds between friends, and the music, folktales, and religion of African American culture.

Eventually, the narrator comes to the realization of what enslavement means and recognizes an alternative. Some sort of personal crisis usually instigates the final decision to escape, which often is affirmed by faith in God and a commitment to liberty. The quest for freedom climaxes in the individual's arrival in the free states, and often is capped by the selection of a new name and a proclamation of dedication to eradicate slavery. The narrative’s close may even include a plea for funds or moral support for the abolitionist cause.

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Up from Slavery
(J. L. Nichols and Co., 1901)

Post-Civil War Narratives and Influence

After the Civil War, former slaves continued to record their experiences under slavery to ensure that the newly-united nation did not forget what had threatened its existence. Many post-Emancipation narratives, including Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), also argued the readiness of freed slaves in the post-bellum economy. Whereas most authors of slave narratives prior to the Civil War were men, a great number of black women entered the genre following Emancipation. Many of the slave narratives of the late nineteenth century were widely read, but they did not achieve the popularity of the antebellum work. The slave narrative tradition finally died out in the early twentieth century.

The stories of extraordinary slaves most often found their way to print in the nineteenth century. A desire to record untold stories of the common slave before all were lost drove the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration to establish the Slave Narrative Collection during the 1930s. Created as part of the New Deal to provide jobs for unemployed writers and research workers, the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed more than 2,000 former slaves, providing a much more diverse representation of slave life than what was available in the narratives published during the nineteenth century .

     
 

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The Story of a Slave
(n.p., 1890)

Other literature of the twentieth century bears the direct influence of slave narratives. Beginning during the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, African American writers eager to celebrate their unique heritage drew on the slave narrative for fictional work, including William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). The slave narrative also has made its mark on modern autobiography, such as Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Visual artists and musicians have drawn inspiration from the slave narrative as well.

Until the mid-twentieth century, historians shied away from using narratives as primary sources for the study of slave life. They eventually realized the wealth of information this genre includes not only regarding the hard facts of living in bondage, escaping to freedom, and experiencing racism in the North, but also about how the former slaves felt about all that happened to them.

Bibliography of Important Nineteenth Century Slave Narratives

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (1825)
Confessions of Nat Turner
(1831)
History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)
Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, a Native of Africa (Rebecca Warren Brown, 1832)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1838)
A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (1838)
Narrative of Lunsford Lane (1842)
Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy (1843)
Life of George M. Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845)
Narrative of William Wells Brown, an American Slave (1849)
Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup, 1853)
My Bondage and My Freedom (Frederick Douglass, 1855)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs, 1861)
The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina (John Andrew Jackson, 1862)
Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman (1863)
Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (Elizabeth Keckley, 1874)
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)
The Narrative of Bethany Veney, Slave Woman (1889)
The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man (Henry Clay Bruce, 1895)

View all of the slave narratives in the PBO database

Slave Narrative Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Slave Narratives, 5-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file.

Guidelines for Book Report, handout: Word document or PDF file.

Suggested Readings

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Andrews, William L., and Henry Louis Gates, eds. Slave Narratives. New York: Library of America, 2000.

Bontemps, Arna Wendell. Great Slave Narratives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. The Slave's Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Govenar, Alan B. African American Frontiers: Slave Narratives and Oral Histories. Santa Barbara,Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Rawick, George P., ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79.

Sekora, John, ed., The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Macomb, Ill.: Western Illinois University, 1982.

Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988.

Related Online Resources

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology, American Hypertext Workshop, University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/wpa/wpahome.html

An Introduction to the Slave Narrative, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/intro.html

Ex-Slave Narratives, The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, Ohio Historical Society, http://dbs.ohiohistory.org/africanam/mss/gr7999.cfm

Nineteenth Century Abolitionist and Slave Narrative Literature in the Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, http://faculty.une.edu/admin/cgurley/blackhist.html

The Slave Narrative, Literary Movements, Washington State University, http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/slave.htm

The Slave Narratives: A Genre and a Source, Looking at Slavery: Going to the Sources, History Now: American History Online, http://www.historynow.org/12_2004/historian3.html

Slave Narratives and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Judgment Day: Africans in American, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2958.html

                       
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