Discussing the Importance of the American Slave Narrative
With the critical buzz surrounding 12 Years a Slave, the topic of American slavery in the 19th century is again brought to the forefront of the public consciousness. The film is based on the narrative written by Solomon Northup, which was published in 1853 and became a bestseller. Northup’s tale is unusual in that he was born a free man and was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The narrative impulse of individual survival in the face of institutional cruelty, however, marks 12 Years a Slave out as a classic slave narrative. Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained may have presented a satisfying revenge fantasy for modern audiences, but the ultimate aspiration of the American slave, as related by those who wrote down and published their experiences, was to ensure their own and their family’s survival. Of course, 12 Years a Slave is, like Tarantino’s film, a director’s interpretation of the topic of slavery, but its director Steve McQueen related in an interview that his “passion” to make the film was precisely because it is a “firsthand account of slavery”, a vital piece of history akin to Anne Frank’s diary.
I was unaware of the slave narrative as a literary genre until very recently, as I have just read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl for a module on 19th century U.S. writing and culture on my degree course. Both of these narratives are powerful and impassioned depictions of the authors’ experiences in chattel slavery, and both were also influential in the Northern Abolitionist movement of the pre-Civil War years. Douglass especially was a prominent anti-slavery lecturer and later an active supporter of women’s suffrage.
Of course, slave narratives were not the only form of anti-slavery literature which found success before the Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, was hugely popular, and its influence is supported by Lincoln supposedly addressing Stowe as “the little lady who started this great war” when the two met. The novel is unquestionably powerful, if not overly sentimental, but it is ultimately the work of a white middle class woman, an individual who was wholly against slavery but had never experienced its horrors first-hand. The slave narrative, however, is an authentic portrayal of slavery, written by the former slave and faithfully relating the author’s experiences. This fact alone was inconceivable for many white readers, who would question how an African-American former slave could write at all, let alone so fluently and persuasively.
Narrative and Incidents have prefaces by well-known white abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, respectively, which attest the authenticity of the narratives and the authors’ sole production of them. Jacobs’ narrative even has the subtitle “Written by Herself”, which reemphasises its authorship. In fact, many historians believed that the narrative was written by Child until it was proved in the 1980s that the events related were real and Jacobs was the true author. Jacobs had the rare fortune to be taught how to read and write by her first mistress. Douglass, on the other hand, relates in his narrative how he taught himself these skills after coming to the realisation that literacy could amount to freedom for a slave, as lack of education only perpetuated the slave’s ignorance of his own self-worth.
The slave experience was of course unique to each individual, and although Douglass and Jacobs touch on similar cruelties and injustices in their narratives, they ultimately suffered separate trials specific to their circumstances. Douglass tells how his treatment depended on the characters of the various Maryland slaveholders he was under the control of. Although some are depicted as relatively kind and fair, Douglass argues that his most religious masters were by far the cruelest. For example Edward Covey, a supposed pious Christian with a reputation as a “slave-breaker”, constantly deceives his slaves and whips Douglass excessively for his physical awkwardness. Douglass must eventually assert himself by standing up to Covey and successfully fights him back in order to end his persecution, a necessary recourse to violence to counteract a violent institution. In her narrative, Jacobs reveals the particular plight of the female slave, an uncomfortable truth not before fully detailed. She faces constant sexual pressure from her master, named Dr. Flint in the narrative, who relentlessly pursues her even after her escape. As a mother, too, Jacobs underwent the stress of ensuring her children’s survival as well as her own.
Despite differences in their individual experiences, neither Douglass nor Jacobs would have been able to tell their stories if they had not managed to escape from slavery, feats of courage and determination which marks them out as remarkable individuals. Douglass does not relate the details of his escape in his narrative, fearing that the knowledge would prevent his fellow slaves from succeeding in this endeavor. Jacobs, however, describes the extraordinary circumstances of her escape, primarily that she concealed herself in her grandmother’s attic for seven years before the opportunity to flee presented itself, in a boat from North Carolina to Pennsylvania.
These slave narratives do not simply function as tales of endurance and survival, but utilise a distinctive authorial voice which contributes to their persuasive power. As African-American abolitionists, Douglass and Jacobs would have felt the dual pressures of remaining true to their slave backgrounds whilst presenting a voice which could gain the attention of and persuade white audiences. This mediative voice was vital to the success of the slave narrative, as ultimately the narrative’s ability to tell a remarkable story of survival and escape was secondary to its intended function as an anti-slavery document which would compel white Northerners to subscribe to the abolitionist cause. Both Douglass and Jacobs address the reader directly at certain points in their narratives, forcing them to imagine the suffering they could endure if they found themselves in the author’s position. Even as a 21st century reader I found these narratives difficult, emotive but compelling reads, as they provide an unfiltered insight into perhaps the darkest chapter of American history.
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