Structure and Themes
The typical slave narrative begins with the words “I was born,” recording from the start the sketchy details of the slave’s parentage and early childhood years. Most slave narratives include realistic descriptions of plantation life, with vivid depictions of the hardships of bondage, such as whippings, the separation of families, and the sexual exploitation of female slaves. Also included is a rendering of the slave’s gradual intellectual awakening and a subsequent quest for freedom. The slave’s quest for freedom is often triggered by the achievement of literacy, which was generally denied to slaves by law. Frederick Douglass and others assert that gaining literacy awakened them to their dismal plights as slaves and made them aware of the possibility of gaining freedom by escaping to the North.
Slave narratives often conclude with the slave’s escape from bondage, which usually involved a dangerous trip under the cloak of secrecy to a northern state. Once in the North, the former slave often describes the attempt to cast off his or her old identity as a servant and to assume a new identity as a free man or woman. Douglass articulates this quest for a new identity when he explains to his readers, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Frequently, this change of identity is accompanied by a name change, and sometimes this assumption of a new identity parallels a conversion to Christianity. Often slave narratives were published with accompanying documents, including testimonials or prefaces by noteworthy white abolitionists, who authenticate the slave’s experience, and appendices displaying documents such as bills of sale, newspaper articles, and antislavery speeches.