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Characteristics of the Slave Narrative

From James Olney's "'I was born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature" and other essays in The Slave's Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York, 1985).

Note: Olney's essay has a great deal more information than this and should be read in its entirety.

The following appears on pp. 152-153.

The conventions for slave narratives were so early and so firmly established that one can imagine a sort of master outline drawn from the great narratives and guiding the lesser ones. Such an outline would look something like this:

A. An engraved portrait, signed by the narrator.

B. A title page that includes the claim, as an integral part of the title, "Written by Himself" (or some close variant: "Written from a statement of Facts Made by Himself"; or "Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones"; etc.).

C. A handful of testimonials and/or one or more prefaces or introductions written either by a white abolitionist friend of the narrator (William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips) or by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text (John Greenleaf Whittier, David Wilson, Louis Alexis Chamerovzow), in the course of which preface the reader is told that the narrative is a "plain,unvarnished tale" and that naught "has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination"--indeed, the tale, it is claimed, understates the horrors of slavery.

D. A poetic epigraph, by preference from William Cowper.

E. The actual narrative:

  1. a first sentence beginning, "I was born . . . ," then specifying a place but not a date of birth;
  2. a sketchy account of parentage, often involving a white father;
  3. description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims;
  4. an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave--often "pure African"--who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped;
  5. record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
  6. description of a "Christian" slaveholder (often of one such dying in terror) and the accompanying claim that "Christian" slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion;
  7. description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year;
  8. account of a slave auction, of families being separated and destroyed, of distraught mothers clinging to thier children as they are torn from them, of slave coffles being driven South;
  9. descriptions of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs;
  10. description of successful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reception in a free state by Quakers who offer a lavish breakfast and much genial thee/thou conversation
  11. taking of a new last name (frequently one suggested by a white abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity;
  12. reflections on slavery.

F. An appendix or appendices composed of documentary material--bills of sale, details of purchase from slavery, newspaper items--,further reflections on slavery, sermons, anti-slavery speeches, poems, appeals to the reader of rfunds and moral support in the battle against slavery.