African American Identity in Literature Biographical Accounts

Biographical Accounts

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Personal accounts of slaves’ journeys to and bondage in America produced a new genre, the slave narrative. The genre borrows from the autobiography, travelogue, and captivity narratives that were already common forms of writing among the early settlers. Slave narratives include complaints about a forced journey to America. While most Puritans and Pilgrims expressed faith in their God and hope in their journey to a new land, the African American narratives convey extremes of alienation and suffering.

Among the pioneer African American writers of slave narratives is Gustavas Vassa, who narrates his experiences in America. His account contains a description of the terrible journey by sea. He attributes magical powers to slaveholders, illustrating how human imagination can be limited by the boundaries of one’s cultural heritage and background. In his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), Vassa mentions how his first exposure to horses made him think that they, too, were magical creatures. Gradually, the opportunity to communicate with other slaves and his experiences enabled him to realize that horses were a species of animals that were common in Africa and North America. Vassa’s realization not only confirms that there has long been great diversity in America but also indicates the fact that African Americans came from diverse regions of Africa. Slaves were perceived in America as members of a single race, so their diversity of heritage was overlooked and their regional differences were ignored by slave owners, who defined them in terms of their functions.

For African Americans, the slave narrative became a means of protest against mistaken perceptions. From 1830 to 1865, with the exception of one poet, James H. Whitfield, all black authors wrote autobiographies or were subjects of biographical works. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869, revised as Harriet the Moses of Her People, 1886) is the biography of a runaway slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad; at great risk to her life, she assisted slaves in fleeing to the northern states and freedom.