The slave narrative is a type of literary genre involving the (written) autobiographical accounts of enslaved Africans, particularly in the Americas. Over six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist; about 150 narratives were published as separate books or pamphlets. In the United States during the Great Depression (1930s), more than 2,300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.
Some of the earliest memoirs of captivity known in England and the British Isles were written by white Europeans and later Americans captured and sometimes enslaved in North Africa, usually by Barbary pirates. These were part of a broad category of "captivity narratives" by English-speaking Europeans. Beginning in the 18th century, these included accounts by colonists and American settlers in North America and the United States who were captured and held by Native Americans. Several well-known captivity narratives were published before the American Revolution, and they often followed forms established with the narratives of captivity in North Africa. Later North American accounts were by Americans captured by western tribes during 19th-century migrations.
For the Europeans and Americans, the division between captivity as slaves and as prisoners of war was not always clear. Given the problem of international contemporary slavery in the 20th and 21st centuries, additional slave narratives are being written and published. It is an ubiquitous issue that still persists and remains largely undocumented.
The development of slave narratives from autobiographical accounts to modern fictional works led to the establishment of slave narratives as a literary genre. This large rubric of this so-called "captivity literature" includes more generally "any account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave himself or herself". Whereas the first narratives told the stories of fugitive or freed slaves in a time of racial prejudice, they further developed into retrospective fictional novels and extended their influence until common days. Not only maintaining the memory and capturing the historical truth transmitted in these accounts, but slave narratives were primarily the tool for fugitive or former slaves to state their independence in the 19th century, and carry on and conserve authentic and true historical facts from a first-person perspective. They go further than just autobiographies, and are moreover "a source for reconstructing historical experience". The freed slaves that wrote the narratives are considered as historians, since "memory and history come together". These accounts link elements of the slave's personal life and destiny with key historical phenomena, such as the American Civil War and the Underground Railroad.
In simple, yet powerful storylines, slave narratives follow in general a plot common to all of them: starting from the initial situation, the slave in his master's home, the protagonist escapes in the wilderness and narrates the struggle for survival and recognition throughout his uncertain journey to freedom. After all, these narratives were written retrospectively by freed slaves and/or their abolitionist advocate, hence the focus on the transformation from the dehumanized slave to the self-emancipated free man. This change often entailed literacy as a means to overcome captivity, as the case of Frederick Douglass highlights. The narratives are very graphic to the extent as extensive accounts of e.g. whipping, abuse and rape of enslaved women are exposed in detail (see Treatment of slaves in the United States). The denunciation of the slave owners, in particular their cruelty and hypocrisy, is a recurring theme in slave narratives, and in some examples took a comic stance denouncing the double standards (e.g. in Douglass' narrative, his slave owner Hopkins is a very religious, but also brutal man).
According to James Olney, a typical outline looks the following way:
A. An engraved portrait, signed by the narrator.
B. A title page that includes the claim, as an integral part of the title, "Written by Himself" (or some close variant: "Written from a statement of Facts Made by Himself"; or "Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones"; etc.)
C. A handful of testimonials and/or one or more prefaces or introductions written either by a white abolitionist friend of the narrator (William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips) or by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text (John Greenleaf Whittier, David Wilson, Louis Alexis Chamerovzow), in the course of which preface the reader is told that the narrative is a "plain, unvarnished tale" and that naught "has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination"-indeed, the tale, it is claimed, understates the horrors of slavery.
D. A poetic epigraph, by preference from William Cowper.
E. The actual narrative:
- a first sentence beginning, "I was born ... ," then specifying a place but not a date of birth;
- a sketchy account of parentage, often involving a white father;
- description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims;
- an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave often "pure African"-who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped;
- record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
- description of a "Christian" slaveholder (often of one such dying in terror) and the accompanying claim that "Christian" slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion;
- description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year;
- account of a slave auction, of families being separated and destroyed, of distraught mothers clinging to their children as they are torn from them, of slave coffles being driven South;
- description of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs;
- description of successful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reception in a free state by Quakers who offer a lavish breakfast and much genial thee/thou conversation;
- taking of a new last name (frequently one suggested by a white abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity;
- reflections on slavery.
F. An appendix or appendices composed of documentary material bills of sale, details of purchase from slavery, newspaper items-, further reflections on slavery, sermons, anti-slavery speeches, poems, appeals to the reader for funds and moral support in the battle against slavery.
There is no consensus about what exact type of literature slave narratives are, whether they can be considered as a proper genre, comprised in the large category captivity narrative, or are autobiographies, memoirs, testimonials, or novels; nonetheless, they play a big part in keeping up the memory of slavery and in approaching a topic that was considered as a taboo for a long time - especially since many denied and still deny the existence of slavery. Given the participation in the 19th century of abolitionist editors (at least in the United States), influential early 20th-century historians, such as Ulrich B. Phillips in 1929, suggested that, as a class, "their authenticity was doubtful". These doubts have been criticized following better academic research of these narratives, since the late 20th century historians have more often validated the accounts of slaves about their own experiences.
Slave narratives by African slaves from North America were first published in England in the 18th century. They soon became the main form of African-American literature in the 19th century. Slave narratives were publicized by abolitionists, who sometimes participated as editors, or writers if slaves were not literate. During the first half of the 19th century, the controversy over slavery in the United States led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue.
To present the reality of slavery, a number of former slaves, such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, published accounts of their enslavement and their escapes to freedom. Lucy Delaney wrote an account that included the freedom suit waged by her mother in Missouri for their freedom. Eventually some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, and over 100 book-length accounts were published from formerly enslaved people worldwide.
Before the American Civil War, some authors wrote fictional accounts of slavery to create support for abolitionism. The prime example is Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The success of her novel and the social tensions of the time brought a response by white Southern writers, such as William Gilmore Simms and Mary Eastman, who published what were called anti-Tom novels. Both kinds of novels were bestsellers in the 1850s.
The North American slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif, such as in Frederick Douglass's autobiographies and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).
From the 1770s to the 1820s, slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves, as most were born in Africa.
Some more recent narratives, such as Petro Kilekwa's Slave Boy to Priest: The Autobiography of Padre Petro Kilekwa (1937), followed a similar theme
From the mid-1820s, writers consciously chose the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasms for the abolitionist movement. Some writers adopted literary techniques, including the use of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families, and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful. As this was the period of the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South through the internal slave trade, the experiences of auctions and separation of families were common to many.
Following the defeat of the slave states of the Confederate South, the authors had less need to convey the evils of slavery. Some gave a sentimental account of plantation life and ended with the narrator adjusting to the new life of freedom. The emphasis of writers shifted conceptually toward a recounting of individual and racial progress rather than securing freedom.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal Works Projects Administration (WPA) employed writers and researchers from the Federal Writers' Project to interview and document the stories of African Americans who were former slaves. Most had been children when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. Produced between 1936 and 1938, the narratives recount the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves. Some interviews were recorded; 23 of 26 known audio recordings are held by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The last interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1949. He was a grandson of a slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Slave narratives inherently involved travel and form a significant type of travel writing. As John Cox says in Traveling South, "travel was a necessary prelude to the publication of a narrative by a slave, for slavery could not be simultaneously experienced and written." Where many travel narratives are written by privileged travelers, slave narratives show people traveling despite significant legal barriers to their actions, and in this way are a distinct and essential element in how travel narratives formed the American character.
In comparison to North American and Caribbean slave narratives, the North African slave narratives in English were written by British and American white slaves captured (often at sea or through the Turkish Abductions) and enslaved in North Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These narratives have a distinct form in that they highlight the "otherness" of the Muslim slave traders, whereas the African-American slave narratives often call slave traders to account as fellow Christians.
Narratives focused on the central themes of freedom and liberty which drew inspiration from the American Revolution. Since the narratives include the recurrence of themes and events, quoting, and relying heavily upon each other it is believed by scholars that the main source of information was other narratives more so than real captivities. Female captives were depicted as Gothic fiction characters clinging to the hope of freedom thus more relatable to the audience.
Some well-known narratives by enslaved women include the memoirs of Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince, Mattie J. Jackson, and "old Elizabeth," among others. Some of these accounts were edited and published in the late 1800s by white authors seeking to raise white opposition to slavery.
In her narrative, Mary Prince, a Bermuda-born woman and slave discusses her deep connection with her master's wife and the pity she felt for the wife as she witnessed the "ill-treatment" the wife suffered at the hands of her husband. Prince was taught to read by Moravian missionaries. Literacy, however, was not a common theme for all enslaved women. The life story of "old Elizabeth" was transcribed from her oral account at the age of 97.
Many women's slave narratives, such as those of "old Elizabeth" and Mattie J. Jackson, reveal the importance of spirituality and relationships in the lives of women slaves. These narratives, many published and edited by white women, may represent early efforts of racial and feminist solidarity in the United States.
As slavery has been practised all over the world for millennia, some narratives cover places and times other than these main two. One example is the account given by John R. Jewitt, an English armourer enslaved for years by Maquinna of the Nootka people in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls his memoir a "classic of captivity literature" and it is a rich source of information about the indigenous people of Vancouver Island.
Maria ter Meetelen (1704 in Amsterdam – fl. 1751), was a Dutch writer of an autobiography. Her biography is considered to be a valuable witness statement of the life of a former slave (1748).
A contemporary slave narrative is a recent memoir written by a former slave, or ghost-written on their behalf. Modern areas of the world in which slavery occurs include the Sudan, and two narratives, Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity – and My Journey to Freedom in America (2003) by Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan, and Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis, derive from slavery experiences in the Sudan.
In his fictional The Underground Railroad, National Book Award-winner Colson Whitehead traces the escape of Cora, female slave on a cotton farm in Georgia through the Underground Railroad. It was well-received and said to possess "the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison's Beloved" and can hence be considered as a modern-tale fictional slave narrative.
On December 18, 2016, filmmaker Michelle Jackson launched a film series called "Another Slave Narrative". Inspired by an interview with a former slave, she decided to tell the stories of previously enslaved people in a series of short movies. A cast of 22 actors of mixed gender, race, and age, reads out individual slaves' interviews from the Slave Narrative Collection that includes more than 2,300 interviews conducted from 1936–38. Jackson's aim is to document every single fate and hence approach the taboo of slavery, as well as to keep the memory of the slaves alive through these videos.
A neo-slave narrative — a term coined by Ishmael Reed while working on his 1976 novel Flight to Canada and used by him in a 1984 interview — is a modern fictional work set in the slavery era by contemporary authors or substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effects of enslavement in the New World. The works are largely classified as novels, but may pertain to poetical works as well. The renaissance of the postmodern slave narratives in the 20th century was a means to deal retrospectively with slavery, and to give a fictional account of historical facts from the first-person perspective.