Slave Narratives

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life is one of the most well-known slave narratives of them all.  After its publication, Douglass went on to become a powerful speaker and prolific writer for abolitionist causes.  Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl did not achieve the same level of prominence when it was written, but one reason for this may simply be due to timing: her narrative was published just as the Civil War was beginning.

Former slaves had to overcome several challenges in order to get their narratives published. They wrote and lived in a time where they were treated with suspicion, where they faced violence, open racism, and when people wondered whether they were even capable of reading or writing. People also wondered if the narratives were being embellished to make things appear worse than they really were. Audiences of the time may have wondered if people could actually treat one another in such horrific ways.

Slave narratives are incredibly graphic, violent, and heart-wrenching, so modern readers may sometimes wonder, too, how people could treat one another in this way—and we have the distance of more than 150 years.  The immediate readership of Douglass and Jacobs did not have that distance. Their readers, primarily white since most slaves could not and were not legally allowed to read, were confronted with very real, pressing, and violent questions about democracy, freedom, and justice. They were also being urged to examine themselves, and how they might be contributing to what was often called the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Because some readers might feel attacked, and others suspicious, authors of slave narratives had to be incredibly strategic about how to present their stories in ways that would be heard.

Some of these strategies are discussed in the “Slavery and Freedom” video, which includes additional contextual information on both Jacobs and Douglass. Another key strategy, or narrative convention, involved the endorsement of prominent white celebrities. Typically, these sponsors would write an introduction to the narrative, testifying to the credibility of the work and the author. William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, both well respected during the time period, served in these roles for Douglass and Jacobs.

Jacobs initially asked Harriet Beecher Stowe for support; Stowe contacted Jacobs’s employers for corroboration (after Jacobs asked her to be discreet), and eventually offered Jacobs another alternative:  Stowe would be willing to include Jacobs’s story in her forthcoming A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Jacobs declined and secured Child’s support instead. Such context should remind us of a few key points:

  • Slave narratives and their authors were always suspect, whether because of subject matter or questions about the author’s literacy;
  • Their authors were keenly aware of how necessary it was to have credibility; and
  • Jacobs’s narrative was especially problematic: this was the era of the Cult of True Womanhood, when women were supposed to be pious and sexually pure. Jacobs was talking about things that women were not supposed to talk or read or know anything about.

As you read, pay attention to how Douglass and Jacobs position themselves with respect to their audience, and think about what strategies they use to present their stories in ways that their readers will understand.  For Douglass’s narrative, consider how he narrates and emphasizes the circumstances particular to an enslaved man; these strategies differ markedly from those employed by Harriet Jacobs.  Attending to the rhetorical strategies of formerly enslaved men and women will provide another layer through which we might understand what it meant for an ex-slave to answer that question “What is an American?”

Discussion Questions:

  • How do Douglass and Jacobs position themselves with respect to their audiences? What qualities do they emphasize? What do you think they want us to understand about them?
  • Examine the introductory pieces written by Garrison and Child. How do they (re)present Douglass and Jacobs?
  • Examine the rhetorical strategies that Jacobs and Douglass employ in their narratives. How do these strategies help each author to convey their larger message?
  • What do these narratives teach us about the different experiences of slavery for men and for women?  What arguments about sex or gender do Jacobs and Douglass appear to be making? How or why might these strategies be important in the context of the narrative and a largely white audience?
  • Consider the narratives of Jacobs and Douglass alongside at least one other autobiographical narrative that we have encountered.  How might these three authors be extending the conversation about what counts as American?


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Open Anthology of American Literature Copyright © 2021 by Farrah Cato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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