The audience for slave narratives was whites. The former slaves who wrote the narratives wanted to dispel false ideas, such as the idea that blacks were well treated, well fed, and content to be slaves on what were often called happy plantations. Slave narratives were intended to persuade people with...
The audience for slave narratives was whites. The former slaves who wrote the narratives wanted to dispel false ideas, such as the idea that blacks were well treated, well fed, and content to be slaves on what were often called happy plantations. Slave narratives were intended to persuade people with power that slavery was an evil institution that needed to be abolished as quickly as possible. The narratives were a recruitment tool for abolition. Most importantly, they were not aimed at an audience of slaves: most slaves were kept illiterate. The very few who could read were not likely to get their hands on a slave narrative, and if they did, they would not be in a position to do much to end slavery.
Because of the need to be so sensitive to the audience, slave narratives tended to downplay certain aspects of the slave experience, such as the slaves' deep anger and resentment toward Christian preachers for backing up the brutality of the slave owners. Given that the audience they were trying to convince to support their bid for freedom tended to be deeply Christian, the writers kept their critique of Christianity out of their texts.
Slave narratives generally refer to any memoir or first-person account of slavery. The more famous slave narratives are those of African slaves in North America and the Caribbean. Most of the early slave narratives were published by abolitionists in England. By the end of the eighteenth century, English abolitionists were some of the most active in the world. Publishing slave narratives was their way of getting the word out about the true conditions of slavery. Their audience was people that the abolitionists hoped to persuade to join in the cause to end the institution of slavery.
In the decades before the Civil War, many slave narratives were published in the United States as well. These were published for the same reasons as the ones in England. They also were written to provide evidence against the claims of some southern slaveholders that slaves were treated well. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Grimes, and Lucy Delaney are several examples of famous slave narratives from this period. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, slave narratives continued to be published. However, now there was no longer the need for an abolitionist motive. Instead, these later slave narratives were written as a historical record to preserve the memory of slavery and therefore tell of the progress made since its abolishment.
Slave narratives were largely written to convince white northerners (as well as some Europeans) that slavery was an abomination and should be abolished. For example, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, has a preface written by William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist editor of The Liberator, and a letter written by Wendell Phillips. The purpose of these introductions is to let the white northern audiences know that Frederick Douglass is really a slave and that he really wrote the narrative (as many critics contended a slave couldn't have had the literacy skills to write such an eloquent book). Garrison recounts having heard Douglass speak at an abolitionist convention. Garrison writes, "I rose, and declared that Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive" (page viii). In many ways, Garrison, as a white man, had to tell the white audience that they should listen to Douglass, and he had to justify the idea that a freed slave could be just as well spoken as a white man, even the famous Patrick Henry. Other slave narratives, including Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853), were also intended for white audiences, and they were intended to convince northern whites that the justifications that southerns made for slavery were wrong. Many slave narratives sold a great number of copies in the north.