The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Slave narratives

BEFORE

1789 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is published in England; it is narrated by an enslaved boy from Benin (now Nigeria).

AFTER

1853 Solomon Northup’s autobiographical Twelve Years a Slave contrasts the lives of free blacks in the North and enslaved blacks in the South of the USA.

1861 In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ex-slave Harriet Jacobs focuses on the experiences of slave women.

1979 In Octavia E Butler’s novel Kindred, a neo-slave narrative, the main character time-travels between present-day California and pre-Civil War Maryland, USA.

In the decades leading up to the US Civil War (1861–65), around four million slaves were held in the Southern states of the USA, while abolitionists in the North campaigned to bring an end to the inhuman practice of slavery. In 1841 Frederick Douglass – a mixed-race slave who had escaped north – was invited to address an Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Massachusetts, and was found to be a powerful orator for the cause. He went on to chronicle his life in a book that sold 5,000 copies within four months of its publication in 1845 and created the template for the slave narrative genre in American literature.

Douglass asked in the book, “How is a man made a slave?”. He told how he was removed from his slave mother within a year of his birth. Always hungry and cold, he saw overseers whipping male workers for the smallest excuse. He witnessed slaves murdered for disobedience; the young Frederick became aware that “killing a slave or a colored person … is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community”.

"It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master."


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Literature as liberation

Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, and prefaced by two leading abolitionists, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was crafted in part to suit the needs of the abolitionist cause. In eloquent, compelling text laced with biblical imagery, the fugitive slave debunked myths peddled by the South, such as the ineducable character of blacks and the benign nature of slave-holding. Christianity in the South, he concluded, was “a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, a justifier of the most appalling barbarity…”.

As his story gradually unfolds, Douglass asks “How is a slave made into a man?”. He answers this question by writing himself into existence in a picaresque coming-of-age tale. As a boy, Frederick was taught to read and write by a mistress and quickly grasped the power of literacy to both expose injustice and unlock a future self. Although he was denied further teaching, he enlisted poor white boys and fellow workers as teachers. A turning-point came when, aged 16, he won a fight with a brutal overseer: there is a strong sense of self-discovery in the rest of the story of his growing into a man.

Lasting influence

After the US Civil War, interest in slave narratives declined. However, the language and sentiment of the writing resurfaced in the rhetoric of activists such as Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights campaigns of the mid-20th century. Stories told by slaves then became central to black studies, and to the canon of American literature.

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The writing of narratives by slaves had a dual effect: as well as furthering the cause of the abolitionists, the texts marked the beginning of a uniquely African-American literature.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

The son of Harriet Bailey and an unnamed white man, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818. At the age of 20 he escaped to New York and married Anna Murray, a free black woman. They had five children.

Moving to Massachusetts, Frederick adopted the name Douglass to avoid capture, and spoke regularly at abolitionist meetings. He lectured in Great Britain, where friends raised funds for his release from slavery in Baltimore in 1846. Douglass settled in New York, where he published newspapers, assisted fugitive slaves, and recruited black troops for the Union cause. After the death of his wife, he married Helen Pitts, a white editor and feminist. Douglass became US Marshall for the District of Columbia and Consul General for Haiti. He died in Washington, DC, in 1895.

Other key works

1855 My Bondage and My Freedom

1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (revised 1892)

See also: Uncle Tom’s Cabin • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn • Invisible Man • Beloved