The autobiographies of ex-slaves in America are the foundation of an African American literary tradition, as well as unique glimpses into the souls of slaves themselves. The roughly sixty-five to seventy slave narratives published in America or England between 1760 and 1860 were windows into the nature of slavery itself; they were first-person witnesses to the will to be known and the will to write among a people so often set apart and defined out of the human family of letters. American slaves wrote their personal stories first because they were under such pressure to demonstrate their own humanity in a sea of racial prejudice. They also wrote to prove that they could be reliable truth-tellers of their own experience. And they wrote I-narratives in order to declare their own literary, psychological, and spiritual independence. The stories that slaves wrote were not only about how they became free, but were also precious acts, as the critic William Andrews has put it, of “free-storytelling.” For former slaves, some of whom were still legally fugitives when they wrote, the pen became an instrument of liberation when neither law nor society offered the same.
“Why does the slave ever love?” wrote Harriet Jacobs unforgettably in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). “Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?” In language at once so honest and compelling, Jacobs named one of the deepest dilemmas American slaves faced, especially women: how indeed to trust, to love children or a partner with all one’s heart when the world of endearment and family might be torn apart at almost any time by sale, brutality, or flight. With the remarkable insight of an ex-slave woman who suffered sexual abuse, separation, and a long struggle to find safety, much less love, Jacobs declared that, “when separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation . . . But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow . . . it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate.”
Jacobs tried to free herself from her past in the act of writing her autobiography. So did Frederick Douglass in the most eloquent and widely read of all the slave narratives. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), the twenty-seven-year-old, who had escaped at age twenty, left many unforgettable expressions of the meaning of slavery and freedom. In a theme found in many slave narratives, Douglass described his achievement of literacy as life-giving, as “the light [that] broke in upon me by degrees,” and that with time, “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul.” At the same time, however, Douglass admitted with stunning honesty that “the more I read the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers,” considering them “a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.” Like Jacobs, Douglass did not sugar-coat his experience; his was not merely another success story for American readers eager for tales of triumph over adversity. He warned his reader that his literacy had liberated him to knowledge and a semblance of power, but it also worked to “torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.” The ability to grasp and use language, Douglass lamented, “had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder on which to get out.”
In their powerful metaphors of darkness and lightness and of a pit with no ladder, Jacobs and Douglass converted yearnings for love and literacy, the one a universal human craving and the other among the modern world’s most important sources of power and human self-worth, into ways of understanding slavery and freedom. Both wrote about anguish, but Jacobs, despite her pain, could no more stop loving than she could stop breathing, and no one in the nineteenth century wielded the music of words better than Douglass in describing America’s hypocrisy and its promise. To understand this paradox, to probe the slaves’ own experience in bondage and their quest for freedom, dignity, and human rights, there is no better place to begin than the slave narratives.
Jacobs’s and Douglass’s autobiographies have become merely the two most famous in a genre that has received tremendous scholarly and pedagogical attention in recent decades. Until the middle of the twentieth century, slave narratives were not considered proper sources for the study of slavery. Ulrich B. Phillips, the first major historian of slavery to make extensive use of plantation records, deemed them inauthentic and biased. Phillips did not acknowledge that ex-slaves left any genuine testimony on what their lives were really like. His American Negro Slavery (1918), the most authoritative work on the subject as late as the 1950s, pictured slavery as a benign institution in which masters and slaves acted out natural roles as parent-like caretakers and as chattel laborers who benefited from contact with a superior civilization. This white supremacist “Plantation Legend” died hard in American historiography and popular culture.
But the revolution in African American history, which coincided with the modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, brought a renewed attention to and use of the slave narratives. Historians began to make careful use of the narratives as sources of historical information, and most importantly, as guides to the slaves’ perspective on their own felt experience. With this rediscovered tool of research, historians and literary critics have been able to open the world the slaves themselves made and interpreted—their folk life, religious expression, modes of resistance, mores and values, and their ultimate psychological survival. What indeed was it like to be a slave? What were the slaves’ daily feelings, yearnings, crises, and hardships? Why did some special few escape bondage while most could not? Was slavery a closed world of total oppression, or a world of reciprocal give-and-take between slaves and their masters for control of production, time, and self-worth? The best of the slave narratives offer complex answers to these questions.
Autobiography is self-indulgent by definition; as the reconstruction of a personal story it often masks as much as it reveals. The best autobiographies are not merely factual summaries of a person’s life; they are artistic creations, plotted narratives that serve the ends of the author and impose a story on the reader. The slave narratives were no exception to this trend. But this makes these tales no less authentic as literary works, or as sources for understanding history. The slave narratives are both an original genre of American literature and a source for reconstructing historical experience.
Ex-slaves were constantly under suspicion about the veracity of their stories and the authenticity of their writing. Some of the more famous narratives, such as Sojourner Truth’s (1837), were narrated through an amanuensis, since the author was illiterate. Many slave narratives were published with letters serving as endorsements from important white abolitionists, attesting to the authenticity of the author’s work—Lydia Maria Child for Harriet Jacobs, and William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips for Frederick Douglass. And many narratives include the phrase in their titles, “Written by Himself” or “Herself.”
This necessity of endorsement and verification was more a measure of the prejudices of the white reading public than of the literary abilities of former slaves. Whatever those prejudices, however, slave narratives garnered huge audiences in antebellum America, and most slave narrators wrote their own books. Many became bestsellers, Douglass’s Narrative selling 30,000 copies within the first five years of its publication. The narratives by Charles Ball (1837); William Wells Brown (1847); Josiah Henson, Henry Bibb, and James Pennington (all in 1849); Solomon Northup (1853); and Ellen and William Craft (1860) also were widely read. Many northern whites were extremely eager to understand slavery from the slaves’ own viewpoints; they loved stories of escape, ascension tales of overcoming great obstacles to achieve hope and triumph. As America’s great political crisis over the expansion of slavery began to sever the political culture and eventually the Union itself in the 1850s, slave narratives only grew in popularity. Indeed, some scholars conclude that it was the slave narratives that forged the large reading audience that Harriet Beecher Stowe then captured in unprecedented numbers with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.
One of the best ways to teach about American slavery is first, to help students understand the overall history of the African slave trade (especially valuable is Olaudah Equiano’s narrative, 1789), the emergence of slavery in colonial America (African-born Venture Smith’s story from Connecticut, 1798), its growth as both a northern and especially a southern institution rooted in money-crop agriculture, and eventually as the dominant economic and political force in the “slave society” that the South became by the antebellum period. With that accomplished, teachers can then assign slave narratives that give students access to the slaves’ daily lives, their psychological worlds, their treatment and experiences in the master-slave relationship, and their quest for freedom. It is in the slaves’ own voices that we might come to understand that most ubiquitous of American concepts—“freedom,” a word and an idea we best comprehend by seeing and feeling its denials.
David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He is the author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation (2007); Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which received eight book awards, including the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize; and Frederick Douglass’s Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989).
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