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Slave narratives

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Slave narratives

See also Captivity narrative

The slave narrative is a literary form that grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets. In the 1930s in the United States, during the Great Depression, more than 2300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration [1] (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.[2]

Some of the earliest memoirs of captivity known in England and the British Isles were written by white Europeans and later Americans captured and sometimes enslaved in North Africa, usually by Barbary pirates. These were part of a broad category of "captivity narratives" by English-speaking Europeans. Beginning in the 18th century, these included accounts by colonists and American settlers in North America and the United States who were captured and held by Native Americans. Several well-known captivity narratives were published before the American Revolution, and they often followed forms established with the narratives of captivity in North Africa. Later North American accounts were by Americans captured by western tribes during 19th-century migrations.

For the Europeans and Americans, the division between captivity as slaves and as prisoners of war was not always clear. A broader name for the genre is "captivity literature". Given the problem of international contemporary slavery in the 20th and 21st centuries, additional slave narratives are being written and published.

North American slave narratives

Slave narratives by African slaves from North America were first published in England in the 18th century. They soon became the main form of African-American literature in the 19th century. Slave narratives were publicized by abolitionists, who sometimes participated as editors, or writers if slaves were not literate. During the first half of the 19th century, the controversy over slavery in the United States led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue.

To present the reality of slavery, a number of former slaves, such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, published accounts of their enslavement and their escapes to freedom. Lucy Delaney wrote an account that included the freedom suit waged by her mother in Missouri for their freedom. Eventually some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets.

Because of the participation of abolitionist editors, influential historians, such as Ulrich B. Phillips in 1929, suggested that, as a class, "their authenticity was doubtful." With increased emphasis on using the slaves' own accounts and the research of broader classes of information, since the late 20th century historians have more often validated the accounts of slaves about their own experiences.[3]

The slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif, such as in Frederick Douglass' autobiographies and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

Before the American Civil War, some authors wrote fictional accounts of slavery to create support for abolitionism. The prime example is Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The success of her novel and the social tensions of the time brought a response by white southern writers, such as William Gilmore Simms and Mary Eastman, who published what were called anti-Tom novels. Both kinds of novels were bestsellers in the 1850s.

Tales of religious redemption

From the 1770s to the 1820s, the slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves, as most were born in Africa.

Examples include:

Tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle

From the mid-1820s, writers consciously chose the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasms for the abolitionist struggle. Some writers adopted literary techniques, including the use of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families, and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful. As this was the period of the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South through the slave trade, the experiences of auctions and break-up of families were common to many.

Examples include:

Tales of progress

Following the defeat of the slave states of the Confederate South, the authors had less need to convey the evils of slavery. Some gave a sentimental account of plantation life and ended with the narrator adjusting to the new life of freedom. The emphasis of writers shifted conceptually toward a recounting of individual and racial progress rather than securing freedom. Frederick Douglass's second biography is, for example, more sentimental about his early boyhood in slavery (which was generally a less oppressive time than the working years of a slave).[6] Slaves interviewed as part of the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression noted the relative advantages of slavery in terms of better medical care and food supplies, regular festivities, lack of financial concerns, a "double sense of belonging," being taken care of, less gambling, drunkenness and violence, greater stability, care in their old age, and the advantages of rural life over the urban environment into which many ex-slaves moved.[7] Economically, the slave economy with efficient division of labor was highly productive; its abolition, extensive property damage from the American Civil War, and over-reliance on agriculture contributed to economic weakness in the South for at least 20 years.

Examples include:

WPA slave narratives

Main article: Slave Narrative Collection

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal Works Projects Administration (WPA) employed writers and researchers from the Federal Writers' Project to interview and document the stories of African Americans who were former slaves. Most had been children when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. Produced between 1936 and 1938, the narratives recount the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves. Some interviews were recorded; 23 of 26 known audio recordings are held by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.[2][8] The last interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949.[2] He was a grandson of a slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

North African slave narratives

In comparison to North American and Caribbean slave narratives, the North African slave narratives were written by white Europeans and Americans captured and enslaved in North Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They have a distinct form in that they highlight the otherness of their Islamic enslavers, whereas the African-American slave narratives call their fellow Christian enslavers to account.

Some captives used their experiences as a North African slave to criticize slavery in the United States, such as William Ray in his book Horrors of Slavery. Slaves in North African suffered from many of the same conditions as their African counterparts in the United States, including hard labor, poor diet, and demeaning treatment. But, unlike those in America, slaves in North Africa could often escape their condition by converting to Islam and adopting North Africa as their home. Converting to the dominant religion to attain freedom was not an option for American slaves.

Examples include:

  • The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, In South Barbary, 1740.
  • A Curious, Historical and Entertaining Narrative of the Captivity and almost unheard of Sufferings and Cruel treatment of Mr Robert White, 1790.
  • , Philadelphia: Printed by J. Parker for M. Carey, No. 118, Market-street, 1794.
  • , 1797.
  • A Journal of the Captivity and Suffering of John Foss; Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers, 1798.
  • , 1803.
  • , 1804.
  • , 1808.
  • , 1810.
  • . Boston: Printed by J. Belcher, 1812.
  • History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs Lucinda Martin who was six years a slave in Algiers, 1806.
  • , 1815.
  • The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor who was wrecked on the West Coast of Africa in the year 1810; was detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, 1816.
  • , 1817.
  • , 1818.
  • , 1818.
  • (American edition). Boston: Printed for J. Walden, 1823.

Other historical slave narratives

As slavery has been practised all over the world for millennia, some narratives cover places and times other than these main two. One example is the account given by John R. Jewitt, an English armourer enslaved for years by Maquinna of the Nootka people in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls his memoir a "classic of captivity literature"[9] and it is a rich source of information about the indigenous people of Vancouver Island.

  • Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives. Middletown, Connecticut, printed by Loomis and Richards, 1815. Full digital text available here.[10]

Contemporary slave narratives

A contemporary slave narrative is a memoir published now, written by a former slave, or ghost-written on their behalf.

Examples include:

  • Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity – and My Journey to Freedom in America (2003) by Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan.
  • Restavec by Jean-Robert Cadet vividly recounted his life as a restavec in Haiti.
  • "Peter's story", by Peter Doyle, in A tribute to The Lost People of Arlington House, The National Archives, London, 2004.
  • Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis.
  • Unchained Memories - an HBO documentary with readings from slave narratives (2003).

Neo-slave narratives

A neo-slave narrative is a modern fictional work set in the slavery era by contemporary authors or substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effects of enslavement in the New World.[11] The authors use their imagination, and research in oral histories and existing slave narratives to create such stories. The works are largely classified as novels, but may pertain to poetical works as well.

Examples include:

See also

Biographies of individuals with slave narratives


External links

  • . Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Company, 1864.
  • "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938", American Memory, Library of Congress.
  • "North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920", Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina.
  • Robert E. Lee's Slave, Son of the South website
  • "Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology", WPA oral histories of former U.S. slaves collected in the 1930s, American Studies, University of Virginia.
  • Project Gutenberg.
  • "Brief Description of the American Slave Narrative", Literary Movements, Washington State University.
  • Audio presentation and podcast of slave narratives, Museum of the African Diaspora
  • Review Essay: "Francis Bok's Escape from Slavery and Contemporary Slave Narratives" by Joe Lockhard, June 2004.
  • MacKethan, Lucinda. "Plantation Romances and Slave Narratives: Symbiotic Genres", Southern Spaces, March 4, 2004.
  • , B. Eugene McCarthy & Thomas L. Doughton, editors.

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