Since the first Africans were brought to North America in 1619 until the last achieved freedom in 1865, African-Americans sought to tell their stories. The majority, who were lawfully denied education, told their stories through the oral tradition within the African-American subculture. Others dictated their life story to abolitionists who used formerly enslaved people's experiences to highlight the cruelty and injustice of the enslaved life. And then there were those like Harriet Jacobs and Fredrick Douglass who were able to write with their own pens for the world to recognize the horrendous plight of those under slavery.
Regardless of the means, the so-called "slave narrative" flows from a long-overlooked and often hidden-away past. Often enduring severe torture, labor exploitation, sexual abuse, and many other horrors, enslaved individuals' narratives are not like Gone with the Wind or any other piece of romanticized literature. They are a raw, unfiltered, look at life and survival by those who lived it. Read below for 21 things you just may have not known about slave narratives.
21 Things You May Not Know About Slave Narratives
- There is often conflict between academics about whether to view narratives as historical or literary works.
- Slave autobiographies, such as those by Fredrick Douglass and William Wells Brown, were extremely popular in the 19th century amongst White Americans. For example, slavery advocates read them for proof of Black inferiority, while abolitionists read them in support of equality, and academics used them to debate whether Blacks could learn and reason.
- The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, published in 1845, sold 30,000 copies in the USA and Britain by 1860. Born free but kidnapped and sold back into slavery, Solomon Northrup wrote a narrative that sold 27,000 copies in its first two years.
- The slave narrative has been defined as the antithesis of the plantation novel.
- At times, White 19th-century writers published faux slave autobiographies under pen names. It was considered a literary feat if a writer could convincingly imagine themself in the life of a slave.
- Research has shown that 90% of ex-enslaved people's speeches, letters, and autobiographies were written by their true ex-slave authors.
- Due to race and gender subjugation, Black women were less likely to become literate post-enslavement and wrote only 12% of former-slave autobiographies. Most of their accounts were dictated and transcribed by someone else.
- Between 1936 and 1938, the last remaining African-American ex-slaves in 10 states were interviewed by the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writer’s Project.
- The WPA narratives encompass 2,300 accounts of slavery and over 200 photographs from 1936–38. Many interviewees were well above 80 years of age and were enslaved during the Civil War.
- It is been argued that the predominantly White WPA interviewers were often untrained, unsympathetic, sometimes racist, and pushed for positive answers.
- Some researchers have charged that the WPA interviewers edited out parts they found unimportant such as enslaved people's religion, cruel traffickers, lynchings, runaway experiences, punishments, and stories about serving in the Union Army.
- Many formerly enslaved people still living in the south not far from the descendants of their traffickers feared White reprisal for telling their stories.
- Research on the 1936–38 WPA slave narratives has shown that formerly enslaved people were most honest when the interviewer was African-American, but few Blacks were hired. They were somewhat more honest if the interviewer was a White woman rather than a man.
- The WPA slave narrative also includes accounts from Blacks held in slavery under American Indians.
- The Oklahoma and Texas WPA narratives, for example, include accounts of slaves held by the Choctaw and Cherokee.
- It is controversial that the WPA narratives of 1936–38 were governed by America’s Folklore Division rather than its Office of Negro Affairs.
- Amazon Kindle has the full WPA narratives for free. Included volumes are Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin, Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland, the Carolinas, Indiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
- Although a typical occurrence that many African-American enslaved women refused to speak about, Harriet Jacobs was the first formerly enslaved woman to write about the sexual abuse she suffered under her trafficker and that he fathered many enslaved children.
- Three formerly enslaved women that produced narratives were Louisa Picquet, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Jacobs.
- William Wells Brown, John Thompson, and Henry Watson wrote narratives about their lives as fugitives from slavery.
- The slave autobiography was not just a life’s account; it served as a means of achieving equality. Henry Louis Gates wrote, “the presupposition went, a black person could become a human being by an act of self-creation through the mastery of language.”
Excerpts From Slave Narratives
The following are exerpts from three different slave narratives.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861
“The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of 11 slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No indeed? They knew too well the terrible consequences.”
Narrative of James Gronniosaw, 1770
"My master used to read prayers in public to the ship's crew every Sabbath day; and when I first saw him read, I was never so surprised in my life, as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it, and move his lips. I wished it would do so with me. As soon as my master had done reading, I followed him to the place where he put the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me, I opened it, and put my ear down close upon it, in great hope that it would say something to me; but I was very sorry, and greatly disappointed, when I found that it would not speak. This thought immediately presented itself to me, that everybody and everything despised me because I was black."
Nancy Rogers Bean, WPA Oklahoma Narrative, (Recorded 1936–1938)
"The fighting must have been too far away. Master Rogers kept all our family together, but my folks have told me about how the slaves was sold. One of my aunts was a mean, fighting woman. She was to be sold and when the bidding started she grabbed a hatchet, laid her hand on a log and chopped it off. Then she throwed the bleeding hand right in her master's face. Not long ago I hear she is still living in the country around Nowata, Oklahoma. Sometimes I would try to get mean, but always I got me a whipping for it. When I was a little girl, moving around from one family to another, I done housework, ironing, peeling potatoes and helping the main cook. I went barefoot most of my life, but the master would get his shoes from the Government at Fort Gibson. I wore cotton dresses, and the Mistress wore long dresses, with different colors for Sunday clothes, but us slaves didn't know much about Sunday in a religious way. The Master had a brother who used to preach to the Negroes on the sly. One time he was caught and the Master whipped him something awful. Years ago I married Joe Bean. Our children died as babies. Twenty year ago Joe Bean and I separated for good and all. The good Lord knows I'm glad slavery is over. Now I can stay peaceful in one place, that's all I aim to do."
- Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. ed., The Slave’s Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
- The United States Library of Congress. “Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936–1938.” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html
- Doveanna S. Fulton. Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women’s Narratives of Slavery (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006).
- Lionel C. Bascom. Ed.Voices of the African-American Experience, Volume 1,2,3 (Greenwood Press, 2009).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Nicole Paschal
Emmanuel Kariuki from Nairobi, Kenya on July 20, 2020:
This a very enlightening article, especially for those most of us who got the history from the 'Slavers' and not the 'enslaved.' I will follow the leads for more on this part of our history.