The Slave Narratives: A Genre and a Source

August 30, 2022 – 07:18 am

The autobiographies of ex-slaves in America are the foundation of an African American literary tradition, as well as unique glimpses into the souls of slaves themselves. The roughly sixty-five to seventy slave narratives published in America or England between 1760 and 1860 were windows into the nature of slavery itself; they were first-person witnesses to the will to be known and the will to write among a people so often set apart and defined out of the human family of letters. American slaves wrote their personal stories first because they were under such pressure to demonstrate their own humanity in a sea of racial prejudice. They also wrote to prove that they could be reliable truth-tellers of their own experience. And they wrote I-narratives in order to declare their own literary, psychological, and spiritual independence. The stories that slaves wrote were not only about how they became free, but were also precious acts, as the critic William Andrews has put it, of “free-storytelling.” For former slaves, some of whom were still legally fugitives when they wrote, the pen became an instrument of liberation when neither law nor society offered the same.

“Why does the slave ever love?” wrote Harriet Jacobs unforgettably in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). “Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?” In language at once so honest and compelling, Jacobs named one of the deepest dilemmas American slaves faced, especially women: how indeed to trust, to love children or a partner with all one’s heart when the world of endearment and family might be torn apart at almost any time by sale, brutality, or flight. With the remarkable insight of an ex-slave woman who suffered sexual abuse, separation, and a long struggle to find safety, much less love, Jacobs declared that, “when separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation . . . But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow . . . it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate.”

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