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What is a Slave Narrative?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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A slave narrative is a type of autobiography that was most popular during the last half of the 19th century, especially in the days before the Civil War (1861-1865). Slave narratives usually followed similar, prescribed formats. They usually began with a description of the slave’s early history, the abuses and deplorable conditions associated with slavery, and the main character’s escape to freedom. A traditional slave narrative often utilized themes such as a testament to authenticity, religious and Biblical symbolism, the effect of slavery on the family unit, and educational opportunities during slavery and after attaining freedom.

The main goal of a slave narrative was to produce a story-like piece of writing that attracted a white audience and furthered the abolition movement to end slavery in America. The violent depiction of slaveowners and the torments associated with the lives of slaves especially appealed to the white, Northern woman’s appetite for sensational fiction. Although the slave narrative genre was represented as autobiographical, many utilized symbolism and imagery in order to most successfully capture their audience’s attention.

A slave narrative would commonly describe, in vivid detail, scenes of rape, murder, family separation, beating, and starvation, especially of women and children. In such a narrative, there is usually a turning point at which the slave becomes convinced that seeking freedom in the North is the only course of action to avoid a complete and total loss of spiritual well-being or an inevitable death at the hands of evil slave masters. Another important theme that runs through a slave narrative is the belief in a Higher Power and an adherence to the Bible, which helped to establish common ground between African-American slaves and their white audience.

Another goal of slave narratives was to plant the African experience firmly in the cultural, economic, historical, and social context of America. The experiences described in slave narratives carry with them changes in the political and socioeconomic history of the Southern United States, as well as those states in the North to which slaves looked for their freedom. The slave narratives portrayed African-Americans as important parts of the political landscape as the country became involved in a civil war. Additionally, the slave narrative, as a cultural history tool, attributes to African-Americans the same desires as other Americans in their quest for independence, literacy, and the pursuit of happiness.

The first of the American slave narratives, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, was published in 1760. The most popular and well-known slave narratives are: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).

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Discussion Comments
By ginsberg05 — On Jul 12, 2010

Many scholars believe that the presence of benchmarks or determining factors used to classify a piece of literature as a "slave narrative" serve to constrain the work. The conventions dictated for "slave narratives" are often a source of controversy for African Studies and Literature scholars.

By showered72 — On Jul 12, 2010

Olaudah Equiano has been criticized for his account of converting to Christianity in his slave narrative. The degree and nature of his conversion is often a hot-button issue among scholars. Some critics read his conversion as a symbol of assimilation into white society, thus causing him to be less ground-breaking and rebellious than other slave authors who were resistant to the influence of white culture and society.

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