Writing has always been an influential factor in social and political change. As time drew on, it wasn’t just treatises and wordy legalese jargon that got the job done. Though there was still an abundance of non-fiction narratives, novels, and speeches that helped lead to reform and change, the fiction novel’s impact was felt in abolition. In the 18th and 19th Century United States, fiction played a remarkable role in pushing the abolitionist agenda into reality. Emancipation became a reality celebrated by freed Black slaves due to many of the anti-slavery texts we’ve listed below.
These texts are set in realities that slaves lived daily, showing the truth and depravity of their living conditions and inhumane treatment. It is with raw unflinching truth that change can occur. Most important among these texts is the emotional depth that sets them apart, for it is the tying of the readers’ emotions that affects their actions outside of the reading.
Let’s dive into some of American history’s most powerful political texts and novels.
Penned by Englishwoman—the first woman to make her living writing—Aphra Behn, this fictional tale depicts the fall of an African Prince and his lover, who are captured by English slave traders, separated, and sold into slavery in Suriname. They are reunited and create a family, only to find a tragic end despite their royal titles and the acknowledgment by the slavers that they should have freedom.
Not only is this novel revolutionary in its progressive nature, but Behn repeatedly imparts the hypocrisy of English Christian society in attempting to civilize the uncivilized through barbarous acts against humanity. This novel is a work of fiction, and a tragedy to the likes of Shakespeare, that expresses the horrors of the slave trade, the ignorance of English nobility, and the hopelessness of those ensnared within. While this novel is absolutely anti-slavery, I would not consider it anti-racist or anti-prejudiced. There are distinct sections that highlight the radiance, nobility, and beauty of Oroonoko; however, those are marred by sentiments of racism.
But Caesar told him there was no faith in the white men, or the gods they adored; who instructed them in principles so false that honest men could not live amongst them; though no people professed so much, none performed so little.—Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave
Infamous abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass’ tale is one of the most influential pieces of literary texts to have been written. He goes into intrinsic details of his life as a slave, and his growth and determination to see slavery abolished and civil rights established. This narrative explains Douglass’s life, observations, and opinions and has become the primary document by which we study slavery.
Douglass was a self-educated who escaped enslavement. Rather than hide, he took up passionate writing and speeches to help those who were still enslaved in the U.S. His inspirational journey took him from an enslaved individual to presidential advisor and staunch activist.
In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.—Frederick Douglass
This bestselling memoir by William Wells Brown is an infamous slave narrative depicting Brown’s birth into slavery through his escape at 19 and the anti-abolitionist life he led as a free man. Brown dedicated his life to helping those still under the thumb of enslavers and those who still did not have the basic rights afforded white men. A prolific writer, Brown fought for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and much more through newspaper articles, fiction novels, and, most importantly, his memoir.
In this novel, Brown brings to light the obstacles that mixed-race individuals like himself faced. He emotionally depicts the debased decisions enslaved people had to make to survive their situation. Further, his memoir fought back against his old enslavers and those who participated in slavery by decrying their hypocrisy in calling themselves Christians.
All I demand for the black man is, that the white people shall take their heels off his neck, and let him have a chance to rise by his own efforts.—William Wells Brown
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1851-1852)
A novel originally published as a serial between 1851 and 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has become the leading fictional tale of anti-slavery. The book profoundly affected Northern readers, pre-Civil War, as it sold nearly 300,000 copies in its first year. Stowe told a story profoundly anti-slavery, hitting on the unchristian nature that is the institution. Unfortunately, she perpetuated racist behavior and stereotypes, which endure to this day. Admittedly, one of the most influential texts that led to the emancipation of American enslaved people, it, unfortunately, does little to uplift the opinions of white people regarding their black peers. “Uncle Tom” has, since the novel’s publication, become a derogatory term used to describe a Black person who willingly is subservient to white persons.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows the journey of an enslaved man, Tom, as he is sold repeatedly by his enslavers. It highlights the despicable acts of breaking up enslaved families to be sold to different plantations, the struggle to survive cruel enslavers, and the dangers facing escaped runaway slaves. After saving a little girl, Tom is sold to her father and, for two years, is treated with more decency and becomes a devout Christian.
Upon the death of the little girl and her father, he is sold once again to a cruel enslaver hellbent on breaking Tom of his newfound beliefs. The ending is a tragic demise for Tom, steadfast in his Christianity, which inspires an enslaver to free his slaves and live as devoutly as the murdered Tom.
Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
12 Years a Slave (1853)
This memoir was dictated by Solomon Northup to be transcribed by David Wilson. It tells the tale of a free Black New Yorker who was tricked into visiting Washington, D.C., where he was subsequently kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon was held captive on a Louisiana cotton plantation for twelve years before he was able to secretly contact his family, who were able to remove him from his enslavers with help from the government.
Not only does this novel depict the means by which enslavers would go to capture Black men and women, but it further solidifies the despicable treatment of human beings in the name of racial superiority. This story is an eye-opening, first-hand account of slavery, the deep south, and the tenuous freedom Black people held in the U.S. in the 19th century.
So we passed, hand-cuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington—through the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we are told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!—Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave
Literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, are the backbone of sparking revolution and change. For action to be taken, there must first be active dissent among the masses. The easiest way to fan the flames of change is the disbursement of passionate and emotional text.
To read more on the consequences of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, click here.