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

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 69: How often were enslaved Americans able to tell their stories?

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A Best-Seller Once More

I have to pinch myself every time I’m told that the book 12 Years a Slave is holding steady on the New York Sunday Best Sellers List (incredibly, it was No. 3 last Sunday on the combined e-book/print non-fiction list). After all, Solomon Northup published his memoir 161 years ago, and it and the genre to which it belongs, the African-American slave narrative, were largely forgotten, devalued as literature or dismissed as valid historical evidence, until the first generation of black studies professors insisted on teaching them in the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, there were skeptics who felt that the slave narratives had little to no literary value, that if they were useful at all, it was for historical research, no different than sifting through a box of old newspapers and correspondence. Now, Northup’s autobiography is making the papers, and I say, if it took Steve McQueen’s brilliantly conceived film adaption to get people reading, amen.

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At the same time, it’s important for modern audiences to know Solomon Northup’s memoir was a best-seller in his day, too. In fact, the publishers of 12 Years a Slave sold 10,000 copies within a month of its release in July 1853, and 30,000 copies in the first two years. While these weren’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin numbers (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel sold 300,000 copies in America in its first year alone), it dwarfed the sales of Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855: 795. And, historian David Fiske et al. tell us in their current biography of Northup, monies from the project helped Northup purchase real estate in upstate New York, where he had been born a free man and returned one after his nightmarish ordeal as a kidnapping victim sold into slavery in Louisiana. The fact that the edition of 12 Years a Slave published in my Black Classics series for Penguin Classics in 2012 has already sold 150,000 print and digital copies (with another edition on the way) is a testament to the power of Northup’s first-person account, then and now.   

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So, How Many Others Told Their Stories?

It’s also important to remember Northup was far from the only memoirist in his genre. Perhaps you’ve read, or at least heard of, accounts by others: Olaudah Equiano (1789), Mary Prince (1831), Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861), to name a few. While researcher Marion Wilson Starling put the total number of slave narratives at 6,000-plus in her 1946 dissertation, “The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History,” Starling’s number included everything from broadsides to court records and some 2,500 oral histories recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. For years, scholars in the field estimated a smaller but still impressive number of published slave narratives at around 100.

Now, thanks to my friend William L. Andrews and his colleagues at Doc South, an online archive hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we can put an exact number out there: 204. That’s right! From the height of the slave trade to the end of the Civil War in 1865, 102 known book-length slave narratives were written, with another 102 written by former slaves after the war. I encourage you to check out professor Andrews’ bibliography here, but keep in mind, it’s a provisional list, because you never know what might turn up in an attic, at auction, in a misplaced folder in a university library or at an out-of-the-way indie bookstore.

In my own travels, I’ve had the thrill of writing about the first African-American poet to publish a book of poems, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) and rediscovering the first novel published by an African-American woman writer, Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859; reissued with my introduction, notes and commentary in 1983, and then again in 2002 and 2011 with R.J. Ellis as my co-editor). And in 1998, professor Andrews and I published Pioneers of the Black Atlantic, the first anthology composed of the complete texts of five of the most influential narratives of the 18th and early 19th century, including the authors James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Ottobah, Olaudah Equiano and John Jea.

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More recently, I purchased, authenticated and published in book form the manuscript of our earliest known African-American female novelist, the ex-slave Hannah Crafts. And recently, literary scholar Greg Hecimovich has found the true story and identity of the author of this novel, a runaway slave named Hannah Bond who took the name “Crafts” from the family who harbored her when she escaped from North Carolina to the North.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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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.

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In this way, literacy, for the American slave, was actually the first metaphorical Underground Railroad, built by the slaves themselves within the shadows of slavery; physical flight was the second. As Paul Berman writes in the New Republic, slave narrators “made a double escape—from bondage and from enforced illiteracy.” This was an especially traumatic act, as Andrews perceptively observes in To Tell a Free Story. “Reconstructing their past lives required many ex-slaves to undergo a disquieting psychic immersion into their former selves as slaves.” Often that reconstruction began on the lecture circuit or in a church, where runaway slaves like Douglass related their harrowing tales, sometimes accompanied by demonstrations of visual proof of the torment they’d suffered on their own backs.

As propaganda in the fight against slavery, these first-person narratives were priceless; as literature, they serve as the foundation of the African-American literary canon. “Without the black spiritual autobiography’s reclamation of the Afro-American’s spiritual birthright,” Andrews argues, “the fugitive slave narrative could not have made such a cogent case for black civil rights in the crisis years between 1830 and 1865.” And, as I wrote in the The Classic Slave Narratives, “In the long history of human bondage, it was only black slaves in the United States who—once secure and free in the North, and with the generous encouragement and assistance of northern abolitionists—created a genre of literature that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate.”

If you only have time to read or teach a few in addition to Solomon Northup’s and Hannah Crafts’ unique novel, let it be those of Frederick Douglass (he published one in 1845 and another 10 years later; a third appeared after the Civil War, in 1881) and Harriet Jacobs, whose stunning Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) reveals, in astonishingly frank detail, the sexual choices a black woman had to make, and the perils of a slave woman in North Carolina forced into hiding for seven years in a cramped, lightless attic—beyond the reach of her own children—to avoid her predatory owner’s vengeance. “[T]o the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrows,” Jacobs wrote after her escape north. “She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns.”

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Authors and Authentication

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Not every former slave wrote his or her story down before it went to press. There were, of course, a number of black authors who did work alone, including Douglass, Lynn Orilla Scott writes in her entry on “Slave Narratives” for The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. But a great many others collaborated with white editors. Among the most famous examples were the ex-slaves William and Ellen Craft, Henry “Box” Brown and Solomon Northup, who, in the months following his rescue, worked closely with David Wilson, an attorney from Whitehall, N.Y. 

While some tried to discredit Northup’s memoir for this reason, his emphasis on a mountain of precise details, including the violent tactics owners and overseers used to force slaves to work, and the sexual advances and jealous cruelties slave women faced from their masters and masters’ wives, left little doubt about who had recounted the tale and its authenticity. Since then, 12 Years a Slave has been “authentic[ated]” by “[a] number of scholars [who] have investigated judicial proceedings, manuscript census returns, diaries and letters of whites, local records, newspapers and city directories,” wrote the ultimate authority on the authenticity of the slave narratives, the late Yale historian John W. Blassingame, in his pioneering 1975 essay, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems,” in the Journal of Southern History.

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As important as it was to verify slave authors as the true source of their tales (and, when necessary, to distinguish their voices from the interjections and embellishments of their editors), Blassingame also was careful to point out that, as a group, the writers of antebellum slave narratives were not exactly representative of the slave population as a whole. Instead, they were disproportionately:

1. from the Upper as opposed to the Lower South;
2. male (black women, according to Andrews’s website, wrote just five of the 102 narratives published before 1865);
3. weighted toward fugitives slaves (“While less than 5 percent of the bondsmen successfully followed the North Star to freedom, fugitives wrote about 35 percent of all narratives”);
4. and literate (“an overwhelming majority of the narrators were among the most perceptive and gifted of the former slaves”).

In the immediate environment of transmission, genius orators like Frederick Douglass had a built-in audience of abolitionists anxious for a front-row seat on slavery, but authoring a memoir had the potential to reach many more people than the lecture circuit could, including those more cautious on the issue, but persuadable. By expanding the market with their vivid first-person accounts, the slave narrators helped to galvanize the antislavery movement with stories that spoke to the heart and heartache of the American project. However polished or rough the books and pamphlets they produced might be, the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker argued that “ ‘all the original romance of Americans is in them, not in the white man’s novel,’ ” as Lynn Orilla Scott notes.

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Because such a high premium was placed on verisimilitude and authenticity, there was an implicit checklist the narratives had to cross off to prove their author had passed through the fire. “The result,” Scott writes, “is a highly formulaic body of literature with a number of features in common, beginning with the title page, which asserts that the narrative was written by the slave himself or dictated to a friend. Before the narrative proper, and sometimes after it as well, are authenticating documents written by prominent white citizens and editors who describe their relationship to the fugitive slave and testify to his good character and to the veracity of the story. In addition, the introduction often claims that the narrative understates rather than overstates the brutality of slavery.” In other words, they needed someone (white) to attest to their legitimacy and to send cues to readers that, for the price of sale, they could enter the pages of lived experience.

The best among them did remarkably well, Scott reports. “Among the best-selling were A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper From American Slavery (1837); Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself (1845); Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847); Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853); and Josiah Henson’s second autobiography, Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life (1858). Frederick Douglass’s narrative sold more than 30,000 copies in the first five years and became an international bestseller. Douglass would go on to write two later versions of his autobiography: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881; expanded edition, 1892). Josiah Henson, who became identified with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Uncle Tom, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), also published multiple versions of his autobiography.”

The Canon Starts With Them

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Douglass and Jacobs, especially, stand at the summit of early 19th-century African-American literature, and the genre to which they belong comprises the foundation of the modern African-American literary canon. Try to imagine Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man or Malcolm X’s Autobiography without Douglass’ Narrative. Ask how Alice Walker’s Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would read if we were not able to hear the echoes of Jacobs. Our writers are ever in conversation with them, riffing and revising their predecessors’ works, because they are the black tradition’s initial first-person accounts of the first leg to identity and freedom in our ancestors’ journey from slavery to freedom in America. The big difference is that, unlike African-American writers today, slave narrators had to walk a fine line between self-expression and the expectations of readers less interested in exploring their inner lives than in devouring the gruesome details about life on a Southern plantation.

Now, thanks to the work of people like John W. Blassingame, who in 1972 broke ground by writing a history of slavery from the slave’s point of view (The Slave Community) and William L. Andrews, among many others, both historians and literary scholars take the genre seriously. Students read the narratives in high school and college. And, while you can click through any of the out-of-copyright narratives on Doc South, you can also purchase beautiful editions (often with scholarly background materials) to be placed on bookshelves next to the all-time greats of world literature, because they deserve to be there. I especially applaud the Library of America for promoting the finest of our slave narratives alongside the finest of American writing as a whole, including the narratives of Gronniosaw, Equiano, Douglass, Jacobs, Nat Turner, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, Sojourner Truth, William and Ellen Craft, and Jacob D. Green.

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A few additional facts: Slave autobiographies are not the only form of written expression tracked on the Doc South website. There are also the biographies of slaves (92 between the years 1734 and 1940) and the fictionalized biographies of slaves (16 in all, including one found after the year 1900, my own 2002 edition of Hannah Crafts’s The Bondswoman’s Narrative). As far as we know, the first novel written by an African American was William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, in 1853, the same year Northup’s 12 Years a Slave hit the market.

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These are our heritage, and just as going to a lecture (then) or a movie (today) has an important role to play in stirring the imagination, there is no substitute for sitting alone with a slave narrative and reading the words its author put down. Because of their contributions to literature and to the story of American freedom, we each enjoy the right today to “listen” to “the talking books” these people wrote across the pages of American history. 

So, by all means, go out and see Steve McQueen’s astonishing film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave before it vies for best picture at the Oscars Sunday night. But also spend a lifetime reading what Solomon Northup and his contemporaries bequeathed to us in words. In doing so, you will reenact the journey they took to literacy and freedom.    

Few understood this power of communing with those who had lived slavery from the inside out better than Northup himself, who, as Blassingame reminds us, said this in the first edition of 12 Years a Slave in 1853:

“Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.”

No wonder Northup’s on the best-seller list again!

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As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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