American Slave Narrative: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 What Is a Slave Narrative?
  • 0:39 Characteristics of…
  • 1:21 African Slave Narratives
  • 3:43 Other Slave Narratives
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Greaver

Jim has a master's degree in secondary Education and has taught English from middle school level to college.

In this lesson we will look at the 'Slave Narrative.' We will discuss the definition and learn more about the genre as a whole. You will then be asked to take a short quiz to assess your comprehension of the lesson.

What Is a Slave Narrative?

The slave narrative is a genre of literature that was written mostly between the mid 1700s and the late 1800s by African slaves in America. The narratives were either written by the slaves themselves, or dictated by them to someone else who wrote their accounts. Some were even passed orally. These narratives were the accounts of the horrors of capture, sale, and mistreatment as a slave. There is evidence that some of the accounts may have been exaggerated in an effort to aid the abolitionists' movement. However, even if this is true, they still shed light on a dreadful time in American history.

Characteristics of Slave Narratives

From around 1760 to the latter half of the 1800s, after the Civil War's end, about 100 slave narratives were written. These include some of the most well-known narratives, such as those of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, just to name a few. The narrative included many aspects of the slave's painful life journey. They often spoke of the way they were captured in their homeland, Africa, the despicable conditions of the trade ships that transported them like cattle to the Americas, their sale into slavery, their often atrocious treatment at the hands of their slave masters, and, finally, their escape from the evils of slavery, whether legally or illegally, as runaways.

African Slave Narratives

The first slave narrative was written by Olaudah Equiano in 1789, titled 'Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. In this narrative, Equiano relays his tortured plight from being captured in Africa, to his freedom and success in Europe. He includes details of traveling in disgusting, inhuman conditions across the Middle Passage, the name of the slave route across the Atlantic Ocean. He also tells of his treatment at the hands of various slave masters and how he eventually gained his freedom, traveled to England, and achieved notoriety there.

There are some sources that have come to light that suggest Equiano was actually born in North America, which calls into question the veracity of his story. However, there are many other stories that are not questioned and have remained in the spotlight to this day. One such narrative is that of Frederick Douglass.

'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, written in 1845, is Douglass' telling in his own words of what happened to him as a slave. His story has become the archetype of the genre. There are many other narratives by authors such as William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, Sojourner Truth, Soloman Northup (of the movie 12 Years a Slave made in 2013), William and Ellen Craft, and more.

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