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Slave narratives from the past

The existence of more than 200 autobiographical writings by former slaves gives us a crucial window in the world of legal slavery, however reading them is tricky.

Slavery memorial on Ile de Gorée, Senegal. John and Melanie/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Newspaper ads, plantation records, travellers’ accounts, government documents, interviews and speeches from the era when slavery was legal can tell us a great deal about the history of human bondage. All have been used to document, analyse, and understand an institution that operated in all parts of the world for many millennia. It is these kinds of sources that have been used to study slavery in ancient Greece, Rome and China, in medieval Europe and south Asia, in Africa, and in North and South America.

But only slave narratives – those autobiographical accounts written by the formerly enslaved or dictated to an amanuensis – allow us to hear and understand what the enslaved themselves experienced and how they remembered their time in bondage. Only slave narratives reveal the anguish and the pain felt by husbands when separated from wives, parents when separated from their children. It is these accounts that recall the fears and the hopes, the perseverance and the triumphs when the enslaved sought and sometimes were successful in their efforts to exercise some degree of control over their own lives. As sources on the past, these historic narratives have become essential as historians and literary scholars study an institution that affected the lives of millions.

The most numerous slave narratives come from North America (the United States and the Caribbean). To date, scholars have unearthed 204 of these autobiographical texts. Some are book-length narratives; others are abbreviated sketches of lives in bondage. Narratives by the enslaved also exist in Africa and South America though these texts are far fewer in number. Whatever their provenance, scholars who study these narratives agree that they are essential for understanding the history of human bondage. At the same time they also agree that they can be “bewilderingly deceptive”, as David Blight writes in the introduction to the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass.


Frederick Douglass c. 1879. Wikimedia Commons.

During the era of legalised slavery and the period thereafter, narratives by the formerly enslaved were regularly attacked as fictions by those who were supportive of the institution and the social hierarchies that remained once slavery was abolished. And it is true that some narratives were indeed fictions, penned most often by supporters of abolition to give weight to their political efforts. Yet so many more narratives did recount actual experiences of enslavement. To sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’, scholars have consulted innumerable documentary sources to verify the historicity of a particular narrative and the events described.

Once the veracity of the account was established, scholars found that it was necessary to be particularly attentive as well to the political and discursive contexts of the times in which slave testimonies were recorded. In her book, The African American Slave Narrative, for example, Audrey Fisch notes that North American slave narratives published between the 1770s and 1830s were often modelled on popular spiritual autobiographies and conversion narratives. With the rise, during this same period, of an organised antislavery movement, however, the authors of slave narratives began to be more open in their demands that readers treat Africans as fellow human beings as emphasised in the more secular writings of Enlightenment thinkers.

The 1830s and 1840s saw yet another shift. The writers of slave narratives themselves found it increasingly necessary to provide proof, in the form of prefaces written by white friends who could verify their identities as genuine former slaves. They had to do so, Fisch writes, because of the attacks launched by southern slave holders who argued that the narratives were fictional. After the abolition of slavery and the end of the American civil war, slave narratives continued to reflect the changing political and economic landscape of North America. “Since ex-slaves no longer needed to denounce slavery to white America”, noted William L. Andrews, “the stories of their past no longer carried the same social and moral import”. Instead new times demanded a different focus. As Andrews writes:

The turn-of-the-century American ‘scientific’ racism, which stereotyped ‘the Negro’ as degraded, ignorant, incompetent, and servile, demanded that slavery be represented anew, not as a condition of deprivation and degradation, but as a period of training and testing, from which the slave graduated with high honors and even higher ambitions... [For] the slave past, if effectively represented, could provide the freedman and freedwoman with credentials that the new industrial-capitalist order might respect. … The agenda of the postbellum slave narrative thus emphasise[d] unabashedly the tangible contribution that blacks made to the South, in and after slavery, in order to rehabilitate the image of the freedman… in the eyes of business America.

These observations about the impact of the prevailing discourses of the time on slave narratives do more than simply situate the narrative in its literary context. They also highlight the extent to which the larger cultural and historical landscape shaped the very terms by which the formerly enslaved and their descendants as well as their amanuenses made sense of the enslavement experiences. Equally emphasised in the analysis of slave narratives, whether from North America or South America or Africa, are an additional set of circumstances surrounding the production of the texts. How much time did a person live in enslavement and when: as a child, into adulthood? In what ways might this have affected what was remembered and what was forgotten? Was the interview recorded verbatim or edited and summarised by the interviewer? Who was the interviewer and how did his or her identity, interests, and biases affect what the former slave said and did not say?

Knowing these details places one in a better position to understand not only what someone experienced in slavery but also why certain experiences were discussed and others were not; what local discursive norms influenced how they were prepared to describe their experiences; and the extent to which their voices were muffled, intertwined with, or unaffected by the editorial hand of their amanuensis. By keeping these methodological issues in mind, readers will be able to engage in an informed reading of slave narratives. Such a reading can provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand how the formerly enslaved themselves remembered, thought about, talked about, and remained silent about their experiences in bondage.


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