||Variously called the "slave narrative," the "freedom narrative," or the "liberation narrative," the stories of enslaved people recounted the personal
experiences of ante-bellum African Americans who had escaped from slavery
and found their way to safety in the North. An essential part of the anti-slavery
movement, these narratives drew on Biblical allusion and imagery, the rhetoric
of abolitionism, the traditions of the captivity
narrative, and the spiritual autobiography in appealing to their (often
white) audiences. Some of these narratives bore a "frame" or preface attesting
to their authenticity and to the sufferings described within.
From William Andrews's "The Representation of
Slavery and Afro-American Literary Realism" (African American Autobiography:
A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. William L. Andrews [Englewood
Cliffs, N. J: Prentice Hall, 1993]): "Throughout the nineteenth century
and well into the twentieth, autobiographies of former slaves dominated
the Afro-American narrative tradition. Approximately sixty-five American
slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form before 1865 .
. . " (78).
slave narrative took on its classic form and tone between 1840 and 1860,
when the romantic movement in American literature was in its most influential
phase. . . . Douglass's
of selfhood in his 1845 Narrative
might easily be read as a black contribution to the literature of romantic
individualism and anti-institutionalism. Ten years later Douglass's second
Bondage and My Freedom, deconstructs his 1845 self-portrait with
typical romantic irony" (78).
From 1760-1947, more than 200 book-length slave narratives
were published in the United States and England, and according to Marion
Starling (The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History, 1982)
more than 6,000 are known to exist. In Witnessing Slavery: The Development
of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives (2d ed., 1994), Frances Smith Foster
comments, "If we consider only those narratives which were written by persons
who had been legally enslaved in the United States, the number is considerably
"The ante-bellum slave narrative was the product of fugitive
bondmen who rejected the authority of their masters and their socialization
as slaves and broke away, often violently, from slavery. . . . Through
an emphasis on slavery as deprivation--buttressed by extensive evidence
of a lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter; the denial of basic
familial rights; the enforced ignorance of most religions or moral precepts;
and so on--the ante-bellum narrative pictures the South's "peculiar
institution" as a wholesale assault on everything precious to humankind.
Under slavery, civilization reverts to a Hobbesian state of nature;
if left to is own devices slavery will pervert master and mistress into
monsters of cupidity and power-madness and reduce their servant to a
nearly helpless object of exploitation and cruelty" (79).
| Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist, edited
a collection of narratives from former slaves who had escaped to Canada
Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves
Attempted to arouse the sympathy of readers in order
to promote humanitarianism.
Emphasized traditional Christian religious ideas.
Showed acceptance of the ideals of the dominant white
Emphasized the cruelty of individual slave owners.
Reasons for Popularity
King James Bible
New England sermonizing traditions
Rhetoric and aims of abolitionist orators
Devotional books like Pilgrim's Progress.
Parallels with captivity
narrative. Typically, the narrator of the slave narrative
Lurid scenes of horror and violence that served as
an acceptable gratification of the popular appetite for sensationalism.
Religious influence: didactic content
Interesting descriptions of life in the South
Propaganda weapons during abolition and Civil War
Is abruptly brought from state of protected innocence
to confrontation with the evil of slavery and captivity
Suffers from forced existence in an alien society
Is unable to submit or effectively to resist
Balances yearning for freedom against the perils
Sees his or her condition as a symbol of the suffering
condition of all the lowly and oppressed
Grows in moral and spiritual strength as a result
of suffering and torment.
From Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery:
The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives, [2d. ed., 1994]: "The plot of the nineteenth-century slave narrative is informed by the
mythological structure on both the material and the spiritual levels.
The action moves from the idyllic life of a garden of Eden into the wilderness,
the struggle for survival, the providential help, and the arrival into
the Promised Land. In addition, the plot of the slave narrative incorporates
the parallel structure of birth into death and death into birth which also
distinguishes the Judeo-Christian myth" (84).
"In the slave narrative the mythological pattern
is realized in four chronological phases. First comes the loss of
innocence, which is objectified through the development of an awareness
of what it means to be a slave. This can be compared to the descent
from perfection or mortification. The mortification process includes
purgation, for as the slave learns the meaning of slavery, he also tries
to purge himself of those elements that would facilitate enslavement.
Second is the realization of alternatives to bondage and the formulation
of a resolve to be free. This decision begins the ascent to the ideal,
or invigoration. The resolution to quit slavery is, in effect, a
climax to a conversion experience. The third phase is the escape.
Whether it occurs between two sentences or forms the largest portion of
the narrative, it is part of the struggle to overcome evil. The interest
at this point is in the details, the pitfalls and obstacles, the sufferings
and moments of bravery encountered in the process of achieving freedom.
Although the first attempt sometimes ends in capture, the outcome is never
in doubt. The narrative, after all, was written by a freeman.
The fourth phase is that of freedom obtained. It is the arrival at the
City of God or the New Jerusalem and it corresponds to the jubilation period
of ancient ritual" (85).
Frequently Repeated Motifs
Descent from state of innocence or peace into recognition
of status (slavery)
Progressive dehumanization at hands of masters and
concomitant growth of self-reliance and decision-making, sometimes involving
A spiritual "bottoming-out"
Resolve; for Douglass, the fight with Covey
Flight and redemption
- Exposes physical and emotional abuses of slavery:
scenes of whipping, sexual abuse, starvation, especially of women or
- Exposes (sometimes satirically) white owners'
hypocrisy and inconstancy
- Describes repeated raising of narrator's expectations
only to have them dashed by whites
- Describes quest for literacy
- Describes quest for freedom
- Includes vignettes of other character types
and the experience of slavery: those who succeed and those who fail
- Makes overt appeals to imagined audience
- Details loss of significant family member(s)
and the destruction of family ties
See also the list of characteristics in 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).
Slave narratives at the Samuel J. May Collection at Cornell
A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising
Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (first; 1760)
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah
Nat Turner, Confessions
of Nat Turner (1831)
of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)
of the Life of Frederick Douglass(1838)
Moses Roper, A
Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery.
Lunsford Lane. Narrative
of Lunsford Lane (1842)
of the Life of Moses Grandy (1843)
Life of George M. Horton. The Colored Bard of North Carolina, from
Poetical Works of George M. Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina,
to which is Prefixed the Life of the Author, written by himself" (1845)
William Wells Brown,
Narrative of William Wells Brown, an American Slave (1849)
Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave
Solomon Northup, Twelve
Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped
in Washington City in 1841... (1853) (Image from
this source, courtesy of the University of North Carolina's Documenting
the American South site.) (This link has information about Northup's later life.)
The Slave: or, Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836)
Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)
and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892)
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
John Andrew Jackson, The
Experience of a Slave in South Carolina (1862)
of Old Elizabeth, a coloured woman (1863)
Elizabeth Keckley, Behind
the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
(1874) (Below the author's name: "Formerly a slave, but more recently modiste,
and friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln." Although this is not a traditional
slave narrative, Keckley discusses slavery as part of her childhood memories.)
Narrative of Bethany Veney, Slave Woman (Boston:
George Ellis, 1889)
Henry Clay Bruce, The
New Man. Twenty-Nine Years a Slave. Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man (1895).
Louis Hughes, Thirty
Years a Slave. From Bondage to Freedom. (1897)
Annie L. Burton, Memories
of Childhood's Slavery Days (1909)
S. J. McCray, Life
of Mary F. McCray. Born and Raised a Slave in the State of Kentucky (1898)
Booker T. Washington, Up
from Slavery (1901)
Annie Burton, Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days (1909)
Martha Griffith Browne, Autobiography
of a Female Slave (1857). This is not a slave narrative but a
novel written by a
© 1997-2014. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
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Campbell, Donna M. "The Slave Narrative." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Date of publication or most recent update (listed above as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Web. Date you accessed the page.