Narratives of the Enslaved

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Narratives of the enslaved, which are also called slave narratives, are autobiographical stories about life in slavery, recounted orally or in writing. They range from the earliest recorded narratives of the 1600s to the thousands of oral histories collected from elderly Africans in the 1930s by the U.S. Works Progress Administration. These narratives are rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling, which has been an explicitly political tradition, combining both autobiography and social criticism. The narratives of the enslaved represent one of the few indigenous literary forms, if not the only one. Many themes commonly occur in the narratives: human suffering under the bondage of slavery; physical and spiritual abuse; the longing for freedom; the struggle to acquire literacy, which is associated with power and freedom; the importance of family and the difficulty of maintaining family bonds when enslaved; the growing determination to escape; escape from enslavement; and a new self-definition after freedom.
During the formative era of African-American autobiography, from 1760 to the end of the Civil War in the United States, approximately 70 narratives of fugitive or former slaves were published as discrete entities—some in broadside formats, others in bulky, sometimes multivolume texts. As the narratives of the enslaved evolved in the crisis years of the 1850s and early 1860s, they addressed the problem of enslavement with unprecedented candor, unmasking as never before the moral and social complexities of the American caste and class system in the North as well as the South.
With the rise of the antislavery movement in the early 19th century came a demand for stories that would emphasize the harsh realities of slavery. These began to appear in print in the late 1830s and early 1840s. White abolitionists believed that testimony of former enslaved Africans would touch the hearts of people in the North who were unaware of or apathetic about the situation of Africans in the South. These abolitionists would often add a preface or appendix to a narrative of the enslaved that introduced the writer as a person of good character and summarized what the narrative would reveal about the horrors of enslavement. The narratives of the enslaved of this period tell about passing from bondage in the South— a kind of hell on earth—to freedom in the North. Most of the narratives reveal a common experience: The enslaved person has a personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one by the slaveowner, that causes him or her to decide to escape.

A Model for Literature of the Oppressed

Narratives of the enslaved comprised most of the literature written by blacks from 1861 to 1865. After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery in the United States in 1865, Africans continued to write about their experiences. From 1865 to 1930 at least 50 Africans wrote, or told to another person who then wrote down, book-length accounts of their lives. Most of the authors of African American literature before 1900, including Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), William Wells Brown (1814–1884), Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897), and Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), launched their writing careers through their narratives of the enslaved. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Federal Writer's Project gathered spoken personal histories and testimony about slavery from 2,500 former slaves in 17 states, generating about 10,000 pages of interviews that were published in 18 volumes.
The narrative of the enslaved reached a milestone in 1845 with the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Selling more than 30,000 copies in its first 5 years of publication, Douglass's book became an international best seller. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) stressed that Douglass's narrative represented the usual experience of slavery, but he also noted that Douglass presented his story from the viewpoint of a former slave who seeks mental as well as physical freedom. That view made Douglass's narrative stand out from the rest.
Harriet Ann Jacobs, the first African American woman to write her own narrative of the enslaved, showed how sexual control by white masters made slavery especially oppressive for black women. Her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl(1861), shows how she fought back against this oppression and gained freedom for herself and her two children. The best-selling narrative of the enslaved of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901), a classic American success story. Because Washington's autobiography discussed black progress and interracial cooperation since the freeing of Southern slaves in 1863, it received more acceptance from whites than did the autobiographies of former slaves who told of injustices to blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Criticism and Refutation

Ulrich B. Phillips, a Georgia-born Yale professor, posed profound questions regarding the slave narratives' authenticity. Phillips, considered the “historian's historian,” dismissed the words of the formerly enslaved. Unfortunately, it took 40 years before scholarship began to refute the extremely biased, if not racist, research done by Phillips. However, some questions do linger about the legitimacy and reliability of the narratives of the enslaved. For instance, the majority of the interviewers were white, and this may have dampened the full force and truth of poor blacks' speech, as the narratives solicited by black interviewers clearly elicited a more straightforward response on the part of former slaves. That ex-slaves dared to risk selfexposure to share as much as they did with white interviewers about the horror of slavery and the blacks' thirst for freedom is a tribute to the interviewers and, in many cases, a demonstration of the blacks' courage and reluctance to conceal the most fiendish examples of the antebellum South.

A Literature of Testimonies

In most post-emancipation narratives, slavery is depicted as a kind of crucible in which the resilience, industry, and ingenuity of the enslaved person was tested and ultimately validated. Thus the narrative of the enslaved asserted the readiness of the freedman and freedwoman for full participation in the post–Civil War social and economic order. It has been estimated that a grand total of all contributions to this genre, including separately published texts, materials that appeared in periodicals, and oral histories and interviews, numbers approximately 6,000, a significant body of work for a people just out of enslavement.
In addition to autobiographies, slave testimonies appear in diaries; folklore; speeches; sermons; letters; pre–Civil War publications; church, legislative, and judicial records; petitions; abolitionist newspapers; major newspapers during that time, such as the New York Times; scholarly journals; private printings; and broadsides. These are the primary sources that were corroborating witnesses to the enslavement, resistance, and freedom of African people in the United States.

References

Keywords

  • narratives
  • slavery
  • autobiography
  • interviews
  • broadsides
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Booker T. Washington

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Federal Writers' Project. (1936–1938). Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves (Vol. II, Pt. 1). New York: Reprint Services Corporation. This is a first-person account of slave life told by former slaves in the form of interviews.
  • Hopkins, Dwight N., and Cummings, George C. L. (1991). Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. The authors offer a theological approach to slave narratives and interviews with former slaves.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. (Ed.). (2001). The African American Encyclopedia (2nd ed.). New York: Marshall Cavendish. This encyclopedia provides brief descriptions of African American history and culture.