How Many Slave Narratives Were There?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Sizing up the genre from which an Oscar favorite originated.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Bondswoman Narrative (written ca. 1858-1859, published in 2002), for those of you who haven’t read it, is a fictionalized biography following the narrator from her birth as a mulatto slave on a haunted Virginia plantation to her harrowing escape from bondage in North Carolina and the penning of her tale in New Jersey sometime before the Civil War. Journalist Paul Berman wrote an elegant account of my research and Greg’s brilliant decade-long investigation in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue of the New Republic. While Hannah Crafts would have faced doubters in her day (so steep was the ideology of the inferiority of black people, slave and free), today, Berman writes, “various scholarly authorities” have reached the consensus that she is the novel’s one and true author, that “the matter is settled” and our “discoveries and surmises have been confirmed.” Nothing could give me greater joy than to see this fugitive slave author, whose handwriting I have pored over more assiduously than my own, finally receive the acclaim she so richly deserves.

What Exactly Is a Slave Narrative?

Now, whenever you pin an exact number on the titles in a literary genre, it begs the question: What’s in and what’s out? Professor Andrews gives us his answer in his introduction to the “North American Slave Narratives” section of the Doc South website. A slave narrative, according to Andrews, is more than an oral history or an unpublished interview, diary or set of letters, and more substantial than a short essay or interview printed in a newspaper, magazine or other periodical. With few exceptions, it has to be (1) a “separately published autobiographical text,” (2) “in English” and (3) “produced by slaves or former slaves.” This could include “short autobiographies that were published as introductions to books.” Also, to be clear, when Andrews says “produced by slaves or former slaves,” he means every autobiography on his list involved its slave author’s direct participation, either as the man or woman holding the pen or the one dictating to an editor or amanuensis, usually a sympathetic white abolitionist with access to a printing press.

As critical as these guidelines are, though, slave narratives are more than a bibliographical formula. They comprise a genre of literature with common voices, elements, experiences and themes, which, brick by brick, helped remove the impenetrable wall blocking outsiders’ view of the harsh reality of American-style slavery. “The unity of black autobiography in the antebellum era is most apparent in the pervasive use of journey or quest motifs that symbolize multiple layers of spiritual evolution,” Andrews writes in his indispensable study, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. With the exception of Northup, the movement of antebellum slave narratives was almost always from birth in slavery (often beginning with the line “I was born … ”) to rebirth as a free man or woman.

The first titles in the Doc South collection are the elusive “Declaration and Confession of Jeffrey, a Negro, Who Was Executed at Worcester, Oct. 17, 1745 … ” and the 1760 Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon (1760). The last on the list surfaced 16 years ago, Slavery in the Clover Bottoms: John McCline’s Narrative of His Life During Slavery and the Civil War. The one credited with launching the book-length genre was A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince (1770), and the genre’s high point was the 20-year span between 1840 and 1859, when 55 different slave narratives were published, representing more than half of all those published before the end of the Civil War. It is not a coincidence that this period was also the highpoint of the abolitionist movement.

Freedom Through Literacy

Like hip-hop artists today, the authors of slave narratives sampled one another. They self-consciously and intentionally signified upon each other, repeating and revising images, events and tropes that their slave-narrator predecessors used in their texts before they sat down to write accounts of their own lives. The most dramatic example I call “the trope of the ‘talking book,’ ” first appearing in Gronniosaw’s Narrative in 1770 (to describe how “greatly disappointed” he felt when his master’s Bible seemed willing to “speak” to his white master but not to his unlettered slave, however eager the slave was to hear the text “speak” to him). This image was repeated and riffed upon in the slave narratives of John Marrant in 1785, Ottobah Cugoano in 1787, Equiano in 1789 and John Jea in 1811. The trope of the talking book eventually was transformed into the trope of “freedom and literacy,” the process through which a “slave” achieved genuine metaphysical freedom through the mastery of reading and writing, a process so brilliantly rendered in Frederick Douglass’ famous 1845 Narrative.

If slavery were around today, abolitionists would be tweeting and Facebooking about it in real time. Back then, however, it was something of a miracle for any slave to learn to read, and think about this: What was a slave even going to write with? As the film 12 Years a Slave illustrates, even a free man trapped in slavery like Northup had to resort to crushed berries and dried leaves for his writing tools, and even then, there was the omnipresent risk of being caught, sold and even killed for his efforts. 

Never can we forget, at the height of slavery, it was against the law for a slave to be taught to read. “[I]f you teach that nigger … to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave,” Douglass recalled his master warning. Of course, this only produced the opposite effect within Douglass and so many other slaves. “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” 

Contrary to what masters would have had their slaves believe, there was nothing inherent in any book, and especially not the Bible, that would prevent it from “speaking” to the willing reader; the culprit, Douglass realized, was the slave system, and by stealing time away to learn to read and write, he was preparing himself to undo it as an abolitionist orator, author and newspaper editor.