Slave Narratives

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What is the difference between the slave narrative and the neo-slave narrative?

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A slave narrative is an actual first-person account of what it is like to be a slave told from the perspective of a former slave. A fictionalized neo-slave narrative is often based on first-person accounts of slavery, but it is an imagined story written by a person who has not...

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directly experienced slavery in the American South.

Slave narratives were largely written to appeal to white audiences and make a strong case for the abolition of slavery. They have authenticity because they record the eyewitness experiences of a person who actually suffered as slave. However, because they are written to appeal to white audiences, they may tone down their narratives in certain ways, such as holding back on attacking whites as a group or attacking Christianity, in order to make the most appealing possible case to powerful whites. Frederick Douglass, for example, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass adds an appendix to the end of this book explaining that his attack on Christianity is only aimed at slaveowners who misuse the Biblical message to justify owning and abusing slaves.

Fictionalized accounts are more likely to be focused on developing coherent story arcs and complicated characters. Further, black writers such as Toni Morrison or Colson Whitehead (in the more recent The Underground Railroad) are not necessarily concerned about alienating white audiences.

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A slave narrative is a true, firsthand account of a slave's life. Examples of slave narratives include the stories of Frederick Douglass, Thomas B. Jones, and Mary Prince. These were written either as autobiographies or firsthand accounts of their life in slavery, and they depicted true stories of cruelty and often of escape or redemption of some form.

A neo-slave narrative, however, is a more modern author, typically after World War II, creating a fictional tale to explore the essence of enslaved life in the pre-abolition era. The purpose behind a slave narrative was argumentative in nature, attempting to convince people to favor abolition and to encourage helping slaves out of their plight. The neo-slave narrative, however, is an act of moral conscience, trying to elucidate the horrors of slavery and either pay penance for the nation's crimes or to simply help others understand and sympathize with the plight of the enslaved.

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Slave narratives, first written in the 18th century, detailed the accounts of actual slaves held captive in British colonies or in the United States. Slave narratives were often autobiographical, and many followed a traditional narrative of religious redemption; an example is The Interesting Narrative and the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, by Olaudah Equiano, published in London in 1789. The aim of slave narratives was to expose the horrors of slavery and argue for abolitionism, often using the argument that slavery was unchristian. An example is A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, published in 1845.

Neo-slave narratives, on the other hand, were written starting in the 1960s and 1970s and include books such as Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls' Rising (1995), an account of the Haitian Revolution, Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). These narratives, unlike the earlier narratives, are novels rather than autobiographies, and their aim is not to argue for abolitionism but to provide novelistic insight and depth to the experience of slavery in the Americas. These novelistic accounts, written after the end of slavery in the Americas, are an attempt to grapple with the psychological realities and historical effects of the institution of slavery.

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The difference between a slave narrative and a neo-slave narrative could be compared to the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Based on personal experience, a slave narrative is a first hand testimony of slavery.  As a primary source, slave narratives are not accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.  A well-known example of a slave narrative.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a slave narrative, because it was written during his lifetime, from Douglass' own personal experience.

Neo-slave narratives are fictional.  Instead of being written from personal experience, these stories are created by contemporary authors who use historical information, research, and a healthy dose of imagination.  Shirley Anne Williams' novel Dessa Roseor Middle Passageby Charles Johnson are both great examples of a neo-slave narrative. 

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