'I was born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature

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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).

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.

  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 their 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.

Some notes on the Slave Narrative

A discussion with Prof. Greg Hampton of Howard University


The Slave Narrative is one of American Literature’s most original genres and, perhaps, one that takes our literature farthest from the European influences and forms. Additionally, these narratives are important politically as they are forged in the crucible of slavery by slaves, courageous and fortunate enough to escape slavery and then used by the Abolitionist movement for evidence and motivation towards the destruction of institutional slavery. The following comments are based on a conversation with Prof. Greg Hampton of Howard University; here are some aspects of the Slave Narrative to consider.


Form and Function:

There is form and function to the Slave Narrative that is evident in the conventions of the Narrative form. The shared steps of the narrative are:


1. “I was born...” The slave literally writes his/herself into existence despite the deprivation of family, birthdays etc.

2. Description of the plantation as the microcosm for one’s experience.

3. Family/Master. This definition sometimes is blurred as in the case of Frederick Douglass as Master and Father are the same and issues arise about identity as property or heir. Also present are the possibilities of family deprivation by virtue of sale, death or other institutional forms of separation.

4. Suffering and mistreatment. The slave endures the harsh and arbitrary use of whip, bit, noose and gun. The slave is also witness to the punishment and murder of other slaves.

5. Learning to read and other forms of education. An essential step in the Slave Narrative and, while not the means whereby the slave realizes his/her condition, the power of knowledge and a glimpse of the outside (Free) world is revealed to the slave.

6. Enlightenment and examination of the slave’s condition as a slave and the foundations for a decision to be free.

7. The plot for Freedom is formed and followed. Acceptance of escape, usually to the North, as the means for attaining freedom.

8. The Escape. Sometimes the specifics of the escape are not told in order to protect those who might have assisted so to keep secret the paths and techniques of the escape. This is usually the final act of the slave narrative.

While the steps may not always occur in a set order, they are the principal events that are the basis of the Slave Narrative. Even in the Revisionist or Modern version of the Slave Narrative, the influence of these ingredients if not strict adherence exists.

The functions of the Slave Narrative are many. The Narrative strives to inform all of its readers that they are impacted by the national institution of slavery regardless of race, gender, religion, class or geography. Southern Whites are also victims of slavery’s corruption (Douglass’ account of the change in Sophia Auld) and Northern “Freed” Blacks are at risk because of the Fugitive Slave Act as are those who would enforce it and profit by it. Vulnerability to slavery’s impact comes in the form of physical harm, the whip, the noose and also in the form of moral and/or spiritual degradation as individuals compromise their decency, principles and humanity.

The Slave Narrative also serves as the keystone for the Abolitionist movement in several forms: Firstly, as evidence of the horrors of slavery. Secondly, as the testimony that was used at meetings to incite the passion and conviction of the Abolitionist crowd; readings from Slave Narratives and/or the presence of the slave would often serve as the climax of Abolitionist meetings. Thirdly, as text for Abolitionist pamphlets and papers. Often, the Narratives of slaves, both in print and as verbal testimony, would often have to be validated by a White Abolitionist who would vouch for the slave’s intellect and abilities being sufficient to write his/her own story. Such an arrangement served as the basis of the early relationship of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator. Garrison sees himself as Douglass’ mentor and writes the expected foreword/validation to Douglass’ Narrative that provides its credibility. Ironically, Garrison also represents the problem that White men faced in their relationships with their freed protégés: could they accept the Black man’s need for autonomous manhood as an integral part of his new found freedom. Garrison and Douglass part company when Garrison is no longer able to influence Douglass to his satisfaction. Douglass eventually begins his own paper, aptly named The Northstar.

Variations of the Slave Narratives’ functions include the Narrative of Olaudah. Equiano, which informs the reader of the significant differences between the Chattel slavery of the American South and the tribal slavery of the West Coast of Africa and the immediate interior. In Africa, slavery was often a compensation for tribal conflict and while not without its violence and cruel control, it was not a system dependent on race for its defining hierarchy. In America, when the enslaved are all one race and the enslavers are all another race, a new system of slavery with new social ramifications is created that is not related to the African practice of claiming and keeping others outside of the tribe. One only need to look at America’s continuing racial issues, whether they be related to Racial Profiling or educational equity to realize the powerful legacy of slavery. Also important is Our Nig, which was written for American Blacks and not the primarily White Abolitionist movement; its message is not one of peaceful and grateful acceptance and assimilation into freedom but rather a declaration that, for freed Blacks, there was racism in the North as well as the South and that there was no regional difference in the Black identity created by Whites. Moreover, Our Nig treats slavery and racism as a collection of identifiable acts by specific White men and women and not as an amorphous institutional system for which there is no individual blame or responsibility.


Male Narratives:

There are crucial differences in the Slave Narratives of men and women. These differences according to male and female tales occur in great part due to Victorian sensibilities as to what roles men and women play, even though these Victorian notions have been created for European and American “White” societies.



The Slave Narrative for men is based in the American presumptions of what Manhood is and what a hero should accomplish by his use of force, wits and his inherent courage. He must overcome the individuals as well as the institution of slavery in his Narrative and the escape is often defined by danger, violence and the slave’s physical strength and internal resolve. Chapter X in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass is a quintessential example of the slave’s establishment and/or protection of his manhood. In standing up to Covey, Douglass raises himself to “heroic” stature. The struggle to preserve manhood is an essential piece of Douglass’ journey to freedom; the physical fight with Edward Covey creates the moment of masculine power that returns Douglass to “man” from “brute.” Not surprisingly, immediately after this, Douglass is capable of both the escape to the North and his subsequent incarnation as a “Freed Slave.” He becomes, perhaps, the best known of all African-American men who made such a journey.



The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

An interesting and enlightening difference occurs when we turn our attention to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and his use of the male slave’s story. Twain’s use of slave culture and language is well documented by Fishkin and others who see in the text the presence of “The Sociable Jimmy” and other influences that reveal Twain’s knowledge of the slave experience and the Narrative form. And Twain, in using the Slave Narrative in conjunction with his boy’s adventure tale, provides Jim with a sense of humanity that no other White author had bestowed before. In fact, this is the difference that transcends Huck Finn from the level of Tom Sawyer. But Twain does not follow the form or the function of the Slave Narrative when he constructs Jim, perhaps the most recognizable slave in American Literature. Instead of wit and force and courage, the chief attributes of the male slave in a Slave Narrative, Jim’s positive qualities for Huck and, most importantly, the American reader of the late Nineteenth century, are obedience, loyalty and passivity. For much of the “Adventures,” Jim appears dependent upon if not controlled by Huck, a fourteen year old illiterate White boy, who is taking Jim as well as himself the wrong direction down the Mississippi River. Yet. Jim’s loyalty never wavers and he stays with Huck even when he realizes that they have floated below Cairo, Illinois, an essential step towards Freedom Jim stays with Huck despite subsequent ordeals of the raft’s destruction, the feud and other “shore-society” complications. At the novels’ curious conclusion, Jim is even willing to stay with Tom Sawyer, despite his romanticized and dangerous meddling in Jim’s Freedom. Moreover, when confronted with the King and the Duke, Twain’s slave is not only willing to suffer the indignities of their schemes and company, he seems unable to surmise in time that they could sell him, as they eventually do. After missing the chance for freedom at Cairo, instead of the conventional Slave Narrative confrontation of the immoral White men, Jim is subservient, passive and dangerously ignorant. Ironically, the positive qualities of unquestioning loyalty, accommodating compromise and effective labor that Twain gives to Jim are the passive qualities of a slave desired by Southern Slavery society and not the bold qualities of a man desperate for his own freedom. This diminishes the Slave Narrative and makes it subservient to the boy’s adventure story that Tom Sawyer’s reappearance in Chapter XXXIII returns to the text.


What can we take from a close examination not only of the form and function of the original Slave Narratives but their legacy on the modern novels that seek to revive and to restore prominence to these testimonies? Perhaps the most important revelation ought to be that the original Narratives as well as their fictional ancestors are grounded in conventions and formulas that are as deliberate as they are effective. The power of the Slave Narrative lies in a carefully constructed text that focuses upon the individual’s struggle to find identity as well as individuality (freedom) against the society’s attempts to deny that individual’s identity and instead to impose an order and conformity of the severest kind (slavery). Therefore the Slave Narrative is not only a truth-telling exploration and condemnation of the American institution of slavery, it is also representational of and seminal to one of American Literature’s most important and lasting points of focus and discovery: the individual’s isolation in the midst of a threatening American society.


Alden Mauck – 1999


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