Nineteenth century American fiction influenced the form and content of many of the slave narratives of the time, while nineteenth and twentieth century African American fiction owes a great debt, in form and content, to the slave narrative. Thus, the development of African American fiction can be traced to nineteenth century American fiction only by way of the slave narrative.
Just as Africans arriving in the Americas staked their claims to humanity on the basis of the cultural models available to them—European Enlightenment and Christian values—so too did the first “authors” of the slave narrative model their testimonies on the Christian confessionals of Jonathan Edwards and the sentimental fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Despite these debts to Puritanism and sentimentality, the best and most influential narratives transcended their origins to create an entirely new prose genre. Thus, an achievement such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is instructive, if rare.
Because the slave narrative was, by definition, a collaborative effort between white and free black abolitionists, political or social supporters, and the slave, a great number of reputed slave narratives were outright frauds concocted by abolitionists to fan the flames of the antislavery movement or, occasionally, by proslavery forces determined to demonstrate the slaves’ satisfaction with their lives. Yet even in those slave narratives that have been generally authenticated by meticulous historical research, the voice of the slave is often muffled under letters of support, prefaces, introductions, reproductions of bills of sale, and appendixes, all deployed to assure the reader of the truthfulness of the tale. Indeed, insofar as many of the slave narratives are careful to depict the slave’s freedom as having been the result of the aid of sympathetic white people, the narrative moral reinforces its collage format: The story of a slave’s flight to freedom is inconceivable without the support and aid of northern and, occasionally, southern whites.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself is distinguished, however, by both its literary élan and political independence. This well-known narrative boldly rises above its encumbering supplementary materials to depict one man, one slave, fighting his way to freedom. Of course, both luck and friendly white hands play a role in Douglass’s flight to freedom, just as they do in every other slave narrative. However, the thrust of Douglass’s narrative is that he, and he alone, took his life into his hands and forged for himself a new destiny. This theme also was evident in Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789).
Such independence and bravado were not always...
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