Slave Narratives

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Late in the eighteenth century, freed African American slaves began publishing the accounts of their time in bondage, either by penning their own stories (if the author had gained literacy) or narrating their stories to literate recorders. The earliest slave narratives were printed as pamphlets of less than two dozen pages. The first slave narrative published in book-length form to receive wide distribution was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, which was published in London in 1789. Equiano’s narrative, which depicts his capture in Africa, his sale to American slave traders, his passage aboard a slave ship to America, his life as a slave, and his eventual freedom, set the pattern for more than one hundred subsequent book-length narratives published before the end of the Civil War.

As the abolitionist movement gained strength during the first half of the nineteenth century, more former slaves began publishing their stories. One of the most popular and influential slave narratives published during this time period was Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which appeared in 1845. Douglass’ narrative sold more than five thousand copies during its first four months of publication to a readership hungry to learn of the lives of African American slaves. Douglass, who, after gaining his freedom, became an important abolitionist speaker, writer, and publisher, wrote two subsequent autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). William Wells Brown’s Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1848) also enjoyed solid sales and propelled its author to a leadership position in the abolitionist movement.

The first slave narrative published with a woman’s name was The History of Mary Prince (1831), which was recorded by a literate friend of Prince and edited for publication by a third party. The only slave narrative known to have actually been written by a woman is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), which was authored by Harriet Jacobs under the pen name Linda Brent. Jacobs’ narrative provides insights into the lives of female slaves, a perspective often lacking in slave narratives composed by men.

Slave narratives continued to be published after the Civil War, though American slavery had been abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Among the most noteworthy of the post-Civil War slave autobiographies was Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), which chronicled its narrator’s rise from slavery to a position of national prominence. During the 1930’s, an ambitious project sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project collected the oral narratives of hundreds of surviving former slaves. The results of this effort were thousands of pages of testimony collected in forty-one volumes. From the beginning of the eighteenth century through the end of World War II, more than six thousand former slaves told their tales of bondage through books, pamphlets, essays, and interviews.

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