Captivity narrative

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Narratives of slavery 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).

"The 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 celebration 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 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, deconstructs his 1845 self-portrait with typical romantic irony" (78). 

"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).

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 smaller"

People & Events

Slave narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin
1845 – 1862

Anti-slavery writings were significant in the abolitionists' fight against slavery. Using books, newspapers, pamphlets, poetry, published sermons, and other forms of literature, abolitionists spread their message. David Walker's Appeal, William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, and Frederick Douglass' The North Star were among the most important abolitionist writings. And then there were the slave narratives -- personal accounts of what it was like to live in bondage. These would give northerers their closest look at slavery and provide an undeniable counter to the pro-slavery arguments and idyllic pictures of slavery described by slaveholders.

The slave narratives were immensely popular with the public. Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860, William Wells Brown's Narrative went through four editions in its first year, and Solomon Northups' Twelve Years a Slave sold 27,000 copies during its first two years in print. Many narratives were translated into French, German, Dutch and Russian.

In addition to publishing their narratives, former slaves became anti-slavery lecturers and went on tour. They told their stories to audiences throughout the North and in Europe. Frederick Douglass was the most famous, but he was joined by others such as Sojourner Truth and William Wells Brown. Others, such as Ellen and William Craft -- a couple who had escaped together using ingenious disguises -- lectured but did not create a written narrative. For white audiences who had perhaps never seen an African American man or woman, the effects of these articulate people telling their stories was electrifying and won many to the abolitionist cause.

Some former slaves, such as Douglass and Brown, wrote their narratives themselves. But many were illiterate, and so dictated their stories to abolitionists.

The slave narratives provided the most powerful voices contradicting the slaveholders' favorable claims concerning slavery. By their very existence, the narratives demonstrated that African Americans were people with mastery of language and the ability to write their own history. The narratives told of the horrors of family separation, the sexual abuse of black women, and the inhuman workload. They told of free blacks being kidnapped and sold into slavery. They described the frequency and brutality of flogging and the severe living conditions of slave life. They also told exciting tales of escape, heroism, betrayal, and tragedy. The narratives captivated readers, portraying the fugitives as sympathetic, fascinating characters.

The narratives also gave Northerners a glimpse into the life of slave communities: the love between family members, the respect for elders, the bonds between friends. They described an enduring, truly African American culture, which was expressed through music, folktales, and religion. Then, as now, the narratives of ex-slaves provided the world with the closest look at the lives of enslaved African American men, women and children. They were the abolitionist movement's voice of reality.

Though the slave narratives were immensely popular, the anti-slavery document which would reach the broadest audience was written by a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was less threatening to white audiences than were black ex-slaves. Her anti-slavery message came in the form of a novel, which was even more accessible to a wide audience. It was called Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe, though not an active abolitionist herself, had strong anti-slavery feelings. She had grown up in an abolitionist household and had harbored fugitive slaves. She had also spent time observing slavery first-hand on visits to Kentucky, across the river from her Cincinnati home. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Stowe decided to make a strong statement against the institution of slavery. She had been working as a freelance journalist to supplement her husband's small income and help support their six children. In June 1851 Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in serialized form in the National Era.

The response was enthusiastic, and people clamored for Stowe to publish the work in book form. It was risky business to write or publish an anti-slavery novel in those days, but after a great deal of effort she found a reluctant publisher. Only 5,000 copies of the first edition were printed. They were sold in two days. By the end of the first year, 300,000 copies had been sold in America alone; in England 200,000 copies were sold. The book was translated into numerous languages and was adapted for the theater in many different versions, which played to enthusiastic audiences throughout the world.

Uncle Tom's Cabin had a tremendous impact. The character Uncle Tom is an African American who retains his integrity and refuses to betray his fellow slaves at the cost of his life. His firm Christian principles in the face of his brutal treatment made him a hero to whites. In contrast, his tormenter Simon Legree, the Northern slave-dealer turned plantation owner, enraged them with his cruelty. Stowe convinced readers that the institution of slavery itself was evil, because it supported people like Legree and enslaved people like Uncle Tom. Because of her work, thousands rallied to the anti-slavery cause.

Southerners were outraged, and declared the work to be criminal, slanderous, and utterly false. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, was forced out of town for selling copies. Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person. Southerners also reacted by writing their own novels. These depicted the happy lives of slaves, and often contrasted them with the miserable existences of Northern white workers.

Most black Americans responded enthusiastically to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Frederick Douglass was a friend of Stowe's; she had consulted him on some sections of the book, and he praised the book in his writings. Most black abolitionists saw it as a tremendous help to their cause. Some, however, opposed the book, seeing Uncle Tom's character as being too submissive and criticized Stowe for having her strongest black characters emigrate to Liberia.

It is ironic that the book which contributed most to the anti-slavery cause should have gained the reputation it has today as a racist work. Uncle Tom, though he defies white authority to save his fellow slaves, is the model of Christian humility. He is forgiving in the face of absolute brutality and suffers countless indignities with patience. Though this endeared him to whites and helped them see the evils of slavery, it also encouraged the image of the submissive, childlike black man -- an idea exaggerated in theatrical productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many of these showed Uncle Tom as a groveling, subservient character, and included blackface mistrel shows between scenes.

Like most white writers of her day, Harriet Beecher Stowe could not escape the racism of the time. Because of this, her work has some serious flaws, which in turn have helped perpetuate damaging images of African Americans. However, the book, within its genre of romance, was enormously complex in character and in its plots. The book outraged the South, and in the long run, that is its significance.

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