Slave Narrative

“The slaves we saw on board the ship were chained together by the legs below deck, so close they could not move. They were flogged very cruelly. I saw one of them flogged till he died; we could not tell what for.”1 The account of Asa-Asa, an enslaved African taken to the West Indies, paints a grim picture of what it was like to travel the Middle Passage while held captive on a slave ship. Many slave narratives share similar characteristics, proving their importance as autobiographical accounts of a dark period of history.

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Table of contents

    Slave Narrative: A Definition

    Slave narratives are a literary genre that records the experience of slavery from the perspective of a person who survived slavery. As the abolitionist movement began to gain popularity in eighteenth-century England, supporters began to encourage enslaved people to share their experiences.

    In 1773, enslaved Boston resident Phillis Wheatley published her poems in London. It was followed by The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African in 1782, which recorded the insightful correspondence of a formerly enslaved shopkeeper whose intelligence made him many friends within London’s cultural upper class. Though not technically slave narratives, these publications’ eloquence helped convince people that Africans had the same moral and intellectual abilities as Europeans–a strong argument against slavery.

    Though Phillis Wheatley was a household name among the literary circles of colonial America, Boston publishers were unwilling to formally acknowledge her intellect and artistry by publishing an entire book of her works. Admirers brought Wheatley to London, and her subsequently published collection was a first for African Americans (and second by an American woman). Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) included an introduction signed by colonial leaders such as John Hancock and the governor of Massachusetts to authenticate her poems.

    Parallel to the European abolitionists, anti-slavery groups in the United States began to publish similar narratives to contradict pro-slavery voices that claimed enslaved people were satisfied with their lives. For example, in 1760, a pamphlet, “A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,” was published in Boston.

    The action and spirituality of the tales quickly became popular, and the format evolved into what is recognized as a slave narrative today. The first African American slave narrative is credited as being “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” (1798), a pamphlet about a formally enslaved man named Venture Smith.

    Most historical slave narratives were written between the mid-1700s and the late 1800s. Their timeline coincided with when the abolitionist movement gained a foothold in society, and then they lost popularity after the end of the United States Civil War. Later, a government program in the 1920s and 1930s created a program that employed people to collect slave narratives from a sociological perspective. As a result of modern-day forms of slavery worldwide, slave narratives are helping enslaved people find their voice yet again in the twenty-first century.

    Slave Narrative, Abolitionist groups used sympathetic images to sway their audience, StudySmarterAbolitionist groups used sympathetic images to sway their audience, Wikimedia

    Slave Narrative: Characteristics

    The purpose of slave narratives was to paint a picture of the brutality and degradation of slavery for white readers and to show them that enslaved people deserve human rights. Experts who study historical slave narratives found as they developed, they began to follow a specific format. Professor and author James Olney has broken the structure down into outline form:

    • An engraved portrait
    • A title page declares it as having been written by the enslaved person or a recording of the testimony of the enslaved person
    • Testimonials or an introduction written by white abolitionists
    • A short poem that illustrates its theme
    • The narrative
      • 1. Begins with “I was born,” naming a place but no date
      • 2. Vague details about the enslaved person’s parents
      • 3. Stories about a sadistic master and details of multiple instances of abuse, especially against women
      • 4. A story about a strong and rebellious enslaved person who refuses to be beaten for no reason
      • 5. Testimony about barriers to learning to read and write
      • 6. A Christian slaveholder is described as being more inhumane than slaveholders who are not religious
      • 7. Details about their daily routine, the amount of work they did, types of food and clothing they were given
      • 8. The distressing details of a slave auction
      • 9. Details about failed escape attempts
      • 10. Details about their successful escape
      • 11. The story of how they changed their last name as a symbol of their freedom
      • 12. Their observations about slavery
    • An appendix that includes slavery documents and requests for financial donations and moral support for the fight against slavery2

    Types of Slave Narratives

    Two important types of slave narratives are autobiographical slave narratives and slave narratives about the Middle Passage.

    Autobiographical Slave Narratives

    Whether the enslaved person physically wrote the account depended on if they could read and write, but slave narratives are autobiographical. However, as noted in the outline, before the record began, a white authority needed to assert that what the audience would read was factual and the thoughts of the enslaved person. Part of the justification for slavery hinged on the belief that enslaved societies were not civilized and didn’t have the capabilities to think or feel. Therefore, the abolitionist’s assertion lent the account credibility it would not have otherwise.

    Pro-slavery groups questioned whether the people who helped formerly enslaved people tell their stories influenced or exaggerated details to strengthen anti-slavery arguments. As a result, many people dismissed early slave narratives as propaganda. Later slave narratives that fondly reminisce about slavery could have resulted from interviewers, who were overwhelmingly white, not providing an accurate recording of answers, or interviewees not feeling comfortable answering truthfully.

    As African American scholars entered the discussion, historians began to recognize slave narratives as primary sources on the history of slavery. In addition, they acknowledged formerly enslaved people’s knowledge about how they experienced their reality.

    As a result of black leaders speaking out about their lack of representation in collecting their fellow citizens’ stories, the Office of Negro Affairs was created in the 1930s. African American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was integral to collecting the stories of formerly enslaved people in Florida while compiling their folklore. Though that particular project was not completed, and Hurston was lost to history for decades, she is finally getting the attention she deserves.

    Slave Narratives About the Middle Passage

    The routes of the transatlantic slave trade are known as the “triangle trade,” with Africa, Europe, and the Americas as the geographical points. The Middle Passage refers to the second segment of the triangle when those sold or captured into slavery journeyed to slaveholders’ destinations. Historians figure around twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic, but due to the horrific conditions onboard slave ships, it’s estimated that fifteen percent of the captives did not live through the approximately eighty-day trip.3

    Privacy did not exist aboard the slave ships. Captives shared all aspects of life and death between them. As a result, in the United States, the intimate bond of their similar experiences led to the creation of a new African American culture among the transnational people.

    The Middle Passage was a defining moment for the captive people. Along with trying to physically survive malnutrition and illness due to poor ventilation and lack of personal space, the newly enslaved people had to wrap their minds around their traumatic experiences.

    Some slave narratives included passages about the harrowing ordeals they endured while traveling from their homelands to slaveholders' lands. One of the most well-known accounts of the Middle Passage is included in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789).

    Slave Narrative, Overcrowded living space of a Transatlantic slave ship, StudySmarterGlimpse into the overcrowded living space of a Transatlantic slave ship, as painted by an anti-slavery patrol agent, Wikimedia.

    The Importance of Slave Narratives

    Slave narratives are important because they offer a glimpse into African American history and the foundation of African American literature. In addition, as mentioned above, one of the functions of slave narratives was to create a dialogue between African Americans and white Americans around the institution of slavery.

    By studying slave narratives, a clear record of the problematic requirements African Americans have tolerated on the road to becoming human in the eyes of white America emerges from between the lines. For example, although slave narratives are centered on the voice of the enslaved person who suffered the ordeal, they are neatly confined between the opening and closing authority of white representatives who have decided they are reliable.

    Slave Narrative - Key takeaways

    • Slave narratives are a literary genre that records the experience of slavery from the perspective of a person who survived slavery.
    • Most historical slave narratives were written between the mid-1700s and the late 1800s.
    • The purpose of slave narratives was to paint a picture of the brutality and degradation of slavery for white readers and to show them that enslaved people deserve human rights.
    • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) offers an account of the Middle Passage journey enslaved people endured.
    • Slave narratives are important because they offer a glimpse into African American history and the foundation of African American literature.

    References

    1. Multiple Authors. "Personal Stories of Captured Africans." Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. 2022
    2. Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. Winter, 1984
    3. Author Unknown. “The Middle Passage.” National Park Service Online. 2021
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Slave Narrative

    What was the first African American slave narrative?

    The first African American slave narrative is credited as being “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America” (1798), a pamphlet about a formally enslaved man named Venture Smith.  

    When were African American slave narratives written?

    Most historical slave narratives were written between the mid-1700s and the late 1800s. Their timeline coincided with when the abolitionist movement gained a foothold in society, and then they lost popularity after the end of the United States’ Civil War. Later, a government program in the 1920s and 1930s created a program that employed people to collect slave narratives from a sociological perspective. 

    Why are slave narratives important?

    Slave narratives are important because they offer a glimpse into African American history and the foundation of African American literature. In addition, they offer a record of the difficult dialogue between African Americans and white Americans surrounding slavery and racial issues.

    What purpose did slave narratives serve?

    The purpose of slave narratives was to paint a picture of the brutality and degradation of slavery for white readers and to show them that enslaved people deserve human rights. 

    Are slave narratives autobiographical?

    Whether the enslaved person physically wrote the account depends on whether they could read and write, but slave narratives are autobiographical.  

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