Discussing the Importance of the American Slave Narrative

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Hello. Challenging myself here to engage my critical and wandering mind and put it to good use. Consumer of film, television, literature and any other random curiosities.
Edited by Jon Lisi, Misagh, Jordan.

Want to write about Literature or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. Taylor Ramsey

    Not a topic that would automatically come to mind, but in the wake of the success oh 12 years, one that really needed to be broached.
    Nicely done.

  2. Jan Collins

    I saw 12 years a slave at the London Film Festival. I’d seen the reviews and was wary that it might be just all hype.

    Steve McQueen has made one of the best films I have ever seen. At last, someone has shown the madness, cruelty and truth of white enslavement of blacks. It wasn’t just a dramatic representation of one race brutalising another. It forces the audience to look at what white supremacy looks like. Not just in the form of the violent men, but the behaviour of the white women in the film was just as bad.

    Look, 12 Years A Slave will not heal the world, but it is a great film. Chiwetel Ejiofor – well, if you’ve seen him before, he’s just as good in this. Lupita N’yongo is excellent and has to win awards for Supporting Actress. Fassbender and Cumberbatch do their jobs without being pantomime (Fassbender) or appearing benevolent (Cumberbatch – in fact I thought his character, Mr Ford, was a weak man). Strange there are very few mentions for Paul Dano, who I thought played his role – a very nasty foreman – excellently without being a caricature.

    Everyone should watch this film.

  3. And sadly slavery has sprung up again in modern day Britain, hidden behind the bricks of suburbia and a liberals self loathing that the crime is committed not by some English bogeyman, but by some Eastern European, or Chinese gang master.
    Let’s make a film about that ! But I guess too many liberals in Hollywood and the UK would find that just a bit too uncomfortable. Let’s keep the Brit as the villain ! Sells so much more!

  4. Read the book on holiday this year after reading publicity about the film. I enjoyed it, despite the matter of fact narrator it is a real page turner and hard to put down. Solomon Northup does not come out of it as a hero either. His situation was incredibly unfortunate and you sympathise with him but his superior attitude to his fellow slaves and his eventual liberation occurring in the way it does leaves him with little credit in the eyes of the reader.

  5. Colin Stevenson

    Intriguing article. Colonialism and slavery is so important for us all to learn about. I’m doing an OU literature degree and we have read a few books on that theme. It’s very interesting.

  6. Jon Lisi

    A very interesting article and given the release of 12 Years a Slave, it’s a subject worth revisiting. It’s an interesting debate because I’m still not sure whether or not it matters if one has to experience the event in order to narrate it.

    • Brendan Johnson

      Thanks for the comment. Of course I wasn’t trying to invalidate or dismiss works by authors who had not experienced slavery. My intention was more to emphasise the power and immediacy of the slave narrative.

  7. Slavery cannot simply be dealt with. Black Africans suffered it at a time when history was being ‘properly’ recorded. Many suffered it and the hands of the Romans or the Arabs but without it being written down en masse it would be forgotten which is why those subjects are never talked about. The Europeans and Americans didn’t start slavery. It’s being going since the dawn of history and right now there circa 30 million. It will never stop.

    • I don’t understand. The author didn’t imply that slavery could be ‘dealt with’. Is this a critique of the article or an opinion that was spurred from the article? Might be better to make that clear.

    • Brendan Johnson

      Thanks for the comment. Obviously slavery as an institution can not be dealt with by individuals alone. What I was trying to convey was how the authors of these slave narratives dealt with their experiences in a personal way.

  8. Henrietta Day

    I have not read the book, but I feel like what McQueen’s movie is trying to say was conveyed perfectly by the scene where he is hanging and just barely able to breath by standing on the tips of his toes and constantly adjusting his stands ever so slightly in hopes that he doesn’t choke to death. When he is first taken in as a slave, we the audience feel his outrage and are shocked and horrified by what we see. As the film progresses, we lose that outrage. We just hope that he can endure and survive as others casually stand around and accept everything as a common occurrence. As he stands there hanging, you see everyone else going about their day, none interfering to help him. We ourselves feel powerless to help him and as it goes on we in turn feel complicit in the action, we just watch this man suffer. Our inaction is why something like this could happen. He moves ever so slightly to do what little he can to ensure he can take another breath, which is a perfect visual metaphor for what happens to him over the course of the film.

    • This was the first film based on true events that left me pondering the events more than the film. It wasn’t heavy handed in any way. It merely showed you these injustices and atrocities, and had you come to your own conclusions.

      Growing up in the midwest, students were repeatedly schooled in the horrors of the holocaust, political assassinations, and other vulgarities of the outside world. Walking out of this film was the first time I personally ever took a step back and looked at what we had done as a nation, the blood we shed, and the tensions that are still felt today.

  9. Although many consider slavery to be an issue of the past in the country, the effectives of this history are still very prevalent and the reemergence of the slave narrative is an opportunity for us to more critically examine the importance of authentic authorial voice in the more general context of oppressed groups. This article does a wonderful job of highlighting how important it was for people like Douglass and Jacobs, among others, to retell the stories of their enslavement and escape–powerful pieces that challenge the dominant ideology and even evoke change. Reading this article brought to mind for me how difficult it still is for oppressed groups to have their voices heard today; how instead of turning to people of color to tell their own stories, we still rely on white men, such as Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps in our “post-racial” culture we haven’t come that far, as the slave narrative aptly reminds us.

    • Brendan Johnson

      Thanks for the comment. Indeed, I did not even know the slave narrative as a genre existed until very recently. I think it is vital as a first hand account of that period of history.

  10. Brianna Deveraux

    Film is incredibly powerful but I love how you entwined the genre of the slave narrative into you article. Interestingly enough, I was in London visiting friends last week. A friend went to see the film when I was there. I asked him if he enjoyed it and he just had question after question for me. It dawned on me that the slave narrative is not simply an American story but a human one. One that any person who takes a moment to learn will be touched and impacted by. I informed him if he found the topic interesting that he should read Douglas. He had never heard of it and said he would look it up. I told him one of the most powerful moments I have ever read as a English Lit major is in that novel. It is the moment when Douglas learns the value of reading and writing. The is so much power in it.

    The slave narrative not only cements the brutality of American slavery it also makes black slave human. Equally so. Unquestionably human. That is the power in it. In a day and age when they were less than… suddenly they were not. The voice found in Douglas’ work is not only black but reliable. While we may never understand the true nature of being a slave in the south, these writing provide such powerful insight that they keep alive the history and reminds us why we fight to see past race and culture. When as a species should all be reminded of the true power of hate.

  11. Alea Freeman

    I appreciate your article. I think it was thoughtful and incisive. I read Douglass’s slave narrative last semester in my American Literature class and I feel you’ve given an apt interpretation of it. I look forward to reading more of your works.

  12. rubengc

    I studied douglass two years ago for university and it’s without doubt the most inspiring work ive studied to date. I’m looking forward to seeing if this story is as well made.

    great article.

  13. Viewers will feel many waves of emotions during 12 years a slave. From anger to sadness to helplessness. It reminds us of the inhumanity that slavery was and is. I’ve never read Douglass’s book but will make it a point to do so as the reviews are great. It’s important to never forget our history and see how far we come, though while we do it, it may at times, take us a few steps back.

  14. Stephanie M.

    Thanks for this insightful article, particularly the comparisons and contrasts between the lives of male and female slaves. We know more about the slave narrative now than we ever did, but that doesn’t mean it’s “old news” or that we can’t continue to learn from it. The fact that slave narratives are highly personal makes them, in my opinion, some of the best “texts” we can possibly use to learn about our history.

Leave a Reply