In 1856 the fugitive slave John Thompson (b. 1812) published an autobiographical account of his life in slavery and his escape to freedom titled The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of Twenty-five Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself. The title and contents of Thompson's narrative establishes it as a representative text of the antebellum slave narrative genre. In its broadest sense the slave narrative genre includes any narrated, nonfictional account of an individual's life in slavery. Thompson's work is similar in its scope to the thousands of other autobiographical accounts published by, and on behalf of, enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans.
A careful reading of one specific narrative allows one to see how, as a literary genre, slave narratives are in fact pieces of history and community memory. Slave narratives represent a space in which a collective African American identity is able to emerge, despite the devastating and dehumanizing effects of chattel bondage. However, along with acknowledging this shared identity, the reader must also recognize the individual slave narrator's quest for personal agency in the telling of his or her story. Slave narrators cherish their identities as individuals and human beings apart from the "peculiar institution" of slavery, an institution that specifically sought to deny them both humanity and individuality. Slave narratives fill in the gaps and silences about African American history and identity. And these narratives also chronicle the quest for black personhood: the struggle to be recognized as a human being within a system that renders slaves as property and as "three-fifths" of a whole person.
PRODUCTION, RECEPTION, AND PUBLICATION
In the title to his narrative, John Thompson firmly declares his name and status as a fugitive slave and juxtaposes those labels with the phrase "written by himself." His fugitive status is a proud declaration of his successful escape from slavery, even as his actual name is an admission of the far-reaching tentacles of slavery; he is a "Thompson" because he and his family are born the property of a white slaveholding family with the surname "Thompson." As John Thompson's name, and thus his identity, is intertwined with his status as property, the declaration that his narrative is "written by himself" allows Thompson ownership of something that does rightfully belong to him: the story of his life. Of the hundreds of slave narratives written and published in the antebellum period, the term "written by himself" is a distinguishing feature of those stories in which the writer claims authority over both the means and the rights to tell the story of his own life. The term "written by himself" is about textual authority, meant to assure the reader that the subsequent narrative was not "ghostwritten" by white hands, and is indeed the product of someone who has lived the harsh reality of a life in slavery.
So much of the information disseminated about slavery in the nineteenth century reflected the proslavery agenda of white historians, journalists, and chroniclers. Both northern and southern white writers published accounts that depicted slaves as content, well-kept, and happy with their roles as lifelong servants to white families. John Thompson cites the Reverend Nehemiah Adams's famous 1854 A South-Side View of Slavery as a typical example of an attempt by a white writer to paint "slavery in such glowingly beautiful colors" (Thompson, p. 441). One of the most significant contributions of the slave narrative genre is that it gives the victimized and oppressed a space to tell their own stories and to forcefully contradict prevailing myths that African Americans were satisfied with their status as perpetual servants.
The issue of who has the means and opportunity to "set the record straight" concerning slavery is a complex one, as there are many examples of texts that are not authentic first-person autobiographies produced by the hand of a slave narrator but are still considered "slave narratives." In both the antebellum and postbellum periods, white writers produced written accounts of orally dictated life stories of slaves with varying degrees of accuracy. Some of these writers and "editors" crafted a complete retelling of a slave's particular life story. Particularly in the earlier antebellum slave narratives, an amanuensis would take great liberties and literary license in his or her depictions of a slave's life, even while making the claim that the resulting narrative was a faithful depiction of the slave narrator's story. Yet because the subjects of these narratives either could not speak or were not allowed to speak for themselves, the reader should rightfully question both the validity of the story being told and the motivations of the amanuensis.
In Nat Turner's 1831 Confessions, the extraordinary events of an armed slave insurrection, as well as the biographical material of Turner's life, are not penned by Turner (1800–1831), but by Thomas Ruffin Gray. Gray was a local white attorney who helped to prosecute Turner for his role in this rebellion and who also financially profited from the publication and sale of this sensational story. In this "slave narrative," Gray attempts to allay fears of local whites by downplaying the scope of the planned rebellion even as he demonizes Nat Turner for daring to take up arms against his oppressors. The narrative of the most significant slave insurrection in American history might have read very differently if Nat Turner's narrative had been "written by himself."
Prevailing nineteenth-century cultural sentiment argued that the enslaved person did not have the higher reasoning and intellectual skills capable of producing a sustained piece of literature. Thus, the existence of a multitude of authentic first-person slave narratives helped to shatter racist cultural and pseudo-scientific conventions. To have the mental facilities to write one's own autobiography elevated the slave narrator from the status of "chattel" to the status of "human being;" the creation of literary texts challenged the traditional place African Americans occupied on the "Great Chain of Being." Because of widespread disbelief that those deemed mentally inferior could in fact produce detailed analyses of their lives, many slave narratives contain documents, prefaces, supporting letters, or introductions written by prominent white citizens. These sources were intended to authenticate the extraordinary fact that not only were some slaves and former slaves literate but also the horrific stories they revealed about slavery in their narratives were true.
The existence of these "authentication documents" gives the slave narrative real textual authority for its nineteenth-century white readership; the slave narrator is certified as a "truth teller" when there is corroborating evidence presented by a white source. This "objective" outside voice was required to lend credence to what many white Americans considered to be extraordinary and unbelievable stories about the brutality of slavery. For a nation that believed slavery was a benign institution, slave narrators' tales of rape, murder, and brutality were almost impossible to believe unless a "trustworthy" authority could vouch for the writer's veracity. In addition to verifying a particular person's life story, these supporting documents by prominent whites were instrumental in increasing the marketability and sale of these slave narratives, as is the case in Frederick Douglass's (1818–1895) 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Both William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), two of the most famous abolitionists, provide their stamp of approval for Douglass's best-selling narrative. Douglass's fame as a writer and an orator is directly related to his (sometimes troubled) relationship with these two men.
John Thompson's 1856 narrative does not contain any outside documents. As was the case for many slave narrators who self-published, Thompson wrote his own preface and addressed it to the reader. This preface provides some clues as to why enslaved and formerly enslaved men and women would want to write their stories, despite the great personal risks of doing so. Many slave authors wrote their autobiographical accounts while they were still fugitives, risking discovery that they could be captured and remanded back to slavery. Thompson indicates that he writes because "it may be permitted to one who has worn the galling yoke of bondage, to say something of its pains, and something of . . . freedom" (p. 416). He also writes that he "found many of my brethren from other and remote states, had written on the subject," but decides to pen his story in order to relate his own unique experiences (p. 416). There is an awareness for Thompson, even in 1856, that in writing and publishing his narrative, he is participating in an established African American literary and intellectual tradition and that he is filling in the gaps of ignorance concerning slave life.
Slave narrators crafted their stories for public consumption for a wide variety of reasons. Solomon Bayley's 1825 work, A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents, in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave, is a remarkable preservation of his family history as well as a glimpse into the domestic lives of enslaved families. In his narrative Bayley preserves the details of the lives of his African-born grandmother; his first generation American-born mother; his own children; and the entire family's participation in the colonization and settlement of Liberia. Slave narratives were often the only documents that spoke about a person's or a family's entire existence; Thompson indicates that he and his family are recorded in a farming ledger along with the livestock. The written word provides a legacy of the hardships and endurance of enslaved people who were denied other legacies, including the right to own property or to parent their own children.
In her 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) indicates that she pens her narrative to provide a financial legacy, as well as a written family history, for her children. With so few economic opportunities available to former slaves, particularly slave women, it is Jacobs's hope that her story has an economic value. The motivations for writing slave narratives may have differed significantly according to gender. As Frances Smith Foster indicates in her work Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives, less than 12 percent of extant slave narratives are written by women, and few of these are produced within the antebellum era. Few slave women had the means or opportunity to become literate and thus produce narratives. Slave or formerly enslaved women who were literate and wanted to write may have been silenced by male authority (both black and white). Slave women performed manual labor in the fields, in addition to their domestic duties, making leisure time in which to write a virtual impossibility. The perceived value of black women was in their capacity to breed, to literally reproduce chattel slavery from their wombs, either voluntarily or involuntarily. And yet writers like Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907), and Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915) give birth to written texts of their own accord, taking on the role of "writer," and thereby participating in a male-dominated space and marketplace. All three of these women explicitly express their hope that their writing would have social, as well as economic, value.
It is uncertain whether any slave narrators significantly profited from their autobiographical works, but it is clear that slave narratives were wildly popular with their predominately white reading audience. In his introduction to I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Yuval Taylor reports that Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, sold twenty-seven thousand copies; Douglass's 1845 text, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, went through seven American and nine British printings in five years, with over thirty thousand copies sold; and William Wells Brown's (c. 1814–1884) 1847 narrative, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, sold ten thousand copies in the United States and sold an additional eleven thousand copies in England (Taylor, p. xx). These numbers, which far exceed the sales of books by white American writers publishing about the same time, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, demonstrate that there was an almost insatiable desire for these first-person accounts of slavery.
These sales numbers, which may in fact be low estimates, raise the question as to why slave narratives were such popular reading material. Who read these narratives and why? For the predominately white read-ership, these stories could be titillating and sensation-alistic; slave narratives provide a voyeuristic view into a world of slavery that is depraved and yet also highly exotic. Thinly veiled acts of miscegenation and heroic escapes from sadistic overseers appear in most slave narratives, along with the primary antislavery message. Even as these works fit into the rubric of abolitionist propaganda, the material is still sensational. Perhaps no narrative illustrates this more than the 1860 William and Ellen Craft narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. The married couple makes their ingenious escape from slavery with Ellen Craft posing as a wealthy, white male slaveholder, attended to by her faithful male slave, who in reality is her husband, William Craft. The publication of this narrative is accompanied by a portrait of Ellen Craft, fully outfitted in her male, slaveholding garb. This bold transgression of supposedly fixed racial, gender, and class categories is shocking to its audience.
While prurient details generate an initial interest in a particular slave narrative, the reader must confront the decisive antislavery message at the heart of all of these texts. There is little doubt that the majority of these nineteenth-century readers—white, northern, professing Christians—were already sympathetic or inclined toward the abolitionist cause prior to reading slave narratives. And yet, most slave narratives adapt sentimental literary forms in order to directly appeal to the hearts and consciences of even these already sympathetic readers. By presenting the brutal realities of slavery forcefully enough, slave narratives could not only incite emotions but also stir their readers into action for the antislavery cause. As a tool of antislavery propaganda, the slave narrative's form is remarkably effective, as is evidenced by one of the most widely read and influential works of American literature, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. This novel is partially the product of Stowe's reading and "borrowing" of details from the life story of former slave Josiah Henson (1789–1883), who initially published his own slave narrative in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. If Stowe is the "little woman" who started a "big war" (as Lincoln said when they first met), then the slave narrative must be recognized as the kindling that sustained the antislavery fire. Because it offers direct appeals to the moral values of its readership, the slave narrative genre is embraced enthusiastically by a religious audience that reads these documents as testimonies of Christian faith and models of spiritual salvation. Many slave narratives are explicitly crafted as proselytizing tools, which is logical given that most slave narratives are published under the auspices of churches or religious organizations, particularly the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
While the typical reader profile is that of a white, Christian northerner, a fair number of African Americans, enslaved and free, also read slave narratives, as John Thompson indicates that he had done. Throughout his account, he specifically addresses his brothers and sisters in bondage, articulating the fact that only these men and women truly understand his plight. And while the black literate population in the antebellum era was small, published slave narratives become invaluable for these readers. Slave narratives were blueprints to freedom for the black reader as they offered proof that a successful flight from slavery was possible, confirmed the existence of the Underground Railroad and other escape routes, provided strategies for achieving literacy, and urged men and women in chains to seek both their spiritual and personal freedom.
Slave narratives ranged from two- or three-page documents published by local churches to several-hundred-page autobiographical tomes produced in installment. Some writers of slave narratives achieved fame and notoriety within their lifetimes, like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley, author of the 1868 narrative Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Most slave narrators published their stories and then faded into historical obscurity. Some managed to escape or were emancipated from slavery while in the prime of their lives; others felt the yoke of bondage well into their old age. Despite the vastly different stylistic forms of these narratives, as well as the wide variety of circumstances under which these writers labored, slave narratives have a fairly formulaic structure: a linear and chronological account of the subject's life, with emphasis on articulating family history, "coming to religion," attaining literacy, and gaining freedom—all actions that refute typical proslavery rhetoric.
"I was born" is the phrase that Thompson uses to begin his narrative, and that is often the introductory phrase for slave writers. Like Thompson's naming of himself in his title, "I was born" becomes a declarative act of writing himself into existence. If self-awareness is one condition that separates humans from animals, the reader can no longer believe Thompson is an animal if he is able to confirm his own existence. Likewise, Thompson gives voice to his family members by naming them, recalling specific information about them, and making it clear to his audience that genuine ties of love and affection bond him with his family, countering the commonly accepted belief that African Americans were incapable of sustained familial relationships. Henry Bibb's (1815–1854) 1849 narrative, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself, is the tale of a man so passionately committed to his family that despite successfully escaping slavery more than six times, he keeps returning to the South to try to rescue his wife and child. Without such autobiographical information gleaned from slave narratives, there would be no accurate historical documentation of slave family life, plantation traditions, or evidence of the survival of African rituals and customs. This autobiographical information emphasizes commonalities between the reader and the writer, as the reader most likely has family members from whom he or she could not bear to be parted. Is not then the slave a "man and a brother?"
This notion of "brotherhood," particularly the question of who has access to "Christian brotherhood" is an issue examined by black writers in almost every written document about slavery. Some nineteenth-century white Christians fought against slaves having access to religious teaching, fearing the consequences of exposure to "radical" messages about freedom and salvation. Others believed that religion would help slaves to be more content in their biblically ordained status as descendants of Ham, and thus perpetual servants. Some proslavery advocates simply argued that as beasts of burden, slaves had no souls that could be saved. Given these sentiments, it is no surprise that "coming to religion" is a prominent feature of slave narratives, a process whereby the narrator is made aware of his innately sinful nature; he endures various trials as his godly spirit battles his sinful flesh; and he emerges cleansed of his sin as a full-fledged member of the Christian community. In reality, slaves were denied membership or full participation in most churches; this provided the impetus for the founding, and later the institutionalization, of all-black denominations. Slave narratives detail whippings by "Christian" overseers that are accompanied by recitations of scripture. The biblical justification of slavery becomes the single most important rhetorical argument upholding the bondage of an entire race. Despite this, almost every single slave narrative affirms embracing a devout Christian faith as necessary for African Americans, enslaved and free. Why?
Certainly slave narrators are aware that their acceptance as human beings rests on proof that unlike animals, they have souls that can receive salvation. These conversion accounts force the question as to whether it is morally justifiable to enslave a fellow Christian brother or sister. The authors of slave narratives understand their audience: religion represents social, political, and economic currency. Religion renders the more unsavory details of slavery more palatable to the white Christian reader; it again establishes bonds of common experiences, linking the reader and the writer; and it provides a common language and reference point for black and white alike. Slave narratives couch revolutionary sentiments and subversive acts in Christian code, as religion is almost the only acceptable political construct available to slaves.
Most important, accounts of "coming to religion" mark the slave narratives as carefully crafted literary works in which the writers are keenly aware of how to use the language and rhetoric of Christian scripture to create a new racial paradigm in which African Americans are no longer the most wretched of the earth but are instead identified with God's chosen people. Slave narratives often specifically reference Old Testament prophets and parables, as they parallel the experience of blacks in bondage with the history of the Israelites' enslavement and subsequent exodus. By retelling and reworking these biblical stories, slave narratives create a distinctly African American literary form, rooted and grounded in Christian tradition but specific to the cultural experiences of a people whose heritage is intertwined with slavery. The last chapter of John Thompson's narrative is an elegantly crafted sermon in which he parallels his sailing knowledge with his religious life. He deliberately draws comparisons between the story of his life and that of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah. While Jonah is best known for the three days he languished in the belly of the whale, Thompson chooses to emphasize the extraordinary deliverance experience in Jonah's story. He leaves the reader to conclude that if Jonah can be rescued from his impossible situation, deliverance of African Americans from bondage is not only possible, but imminent.
Thompson's personal deliverance from slavery is intimately connected to his literacy. Similar to the account Douglass relates in his narrative, Thompson is taught to read as a child by a sympathetic white boyhood friend. Most slave narratives give some brief account as to how its authors attained literacy, as this was a significant feat for African Americans in the nineteenth-century. Some "stole learning," by using a variety of tricks to get others to teach them to read. Others, like Harriet Jacobs, were fortunate enough to be taught alongside the children of the slaveholders. Others write that they experience "miraculous" and "instantaneous" literacy. Severe penalties existed for those slaves and freed blacks who dared to learn how to read, as well as for those bold enough to teach them. Many slave narrators depict their achievements of literacy as their moment of true freedom, even if they are still legally slaves when they become literate. Freedom and literacy are inextricably linked in the slave narrative tradition as the shackles of ignorance are no less binding than the yoke of slavery.
The quest for freedom takes many forms in the slave narrative tradition. Henry Box Brown's 1849 text, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, depicts a man so desirous of freedom that he encloses himself in a three-foot-long and two-foot-wide box and mails himself out of slavery. Freedom is literacy for some; for others, freedom is Christian salvation. Freedom is making sure your children do not have to endure chattel bondage. Freedom is walking away from slavery at any cost, even if it means leaving behind parents or children. The slave narrative is a documentary history showing that African Americans never wavered in their collective and individual quests for freedom. Thompson concludes his narrative with the thought: "for freedom, like eternal life, is precious, and a true man will risk every power of body or mind to escape the snares" (p. 479).
LITERARY IMPACT AND LEGACY
Slave narratives were influenced by but also significantly affected many other literary forms, including the confessional narrative, the autobiography, the sentimental novel, the spiritual narrative, the picaresque novel, the travel narrative, and the sermon and jeremiad traditions. Writers of slave narratives were also readers influenced by particular key texts—including Pilgrim's Progress, The Columbian Orator, the King James Bible, and John Wesley's hymns—on the style and content of slave narratives. In addition to the impact of these Western literary forms, there is an undeniable African literary and cultural impact on the slave narratives as well. Jacob Green's 1864 book, Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave, from Kentucky, Containing an Account of His Three Escapes, employs the extended use of the trickster-hero motif. In William Grimes's 1825 text, Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Written by Himself, traditional folk beliefs, otherwise labeled as "witchcraft," are explicitly discussed. Grimes's narrative is open-ended and circular; there is no explicit antislavery resolution such as that found in almost all other slave narratives. In addition, the earliest of the antebellum slave narratives offer mythic imagery, musical references, ritual religious practices, and allusions to secret societies that can be traced to specific African sources. In a thorough examination of slave narrative tradition, the "African" elements in this progenitor of African American literature cannot be neglected. Whether employing the neo–slave narrative form, or addressing thematic issues of freedom, agency, and identity, all subsequent black literature owes its debt to the slave narrative genre, the first sustained written documents created by first- and second-generation Americans of African descent.
In addition to being literary texts, slave narratives are also historical monuments; without this material, some of the most painful moments in American history would be forever lost. There would be no documentary evidence proving that slaves resisted their condition of bondage. Without this material, there would be no written legacy of a people's survival. It is not known when John Thompson died; as is the case for so many other "minor" writers of slave narratives, no information about his life after the publication of his narrative exists. Like most slave narratives, his story is not particularly extraordinary. What is remarkable is that this "ordinary" story itself has survived, leaving a historical and literary legacy of a singular individual and the community from which he emerged.
See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Autobiography; The Bible; Blacks; Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law; The Confessions of Nat Turner;Female Authorship; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Slavery; Uncle Tom's Cabin;Underground Railroad
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