Trigger Warning: The mention of slavery, abuse, and sexual harassment in this article may be triggering to some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.
This past semester, I had the opportunity to take a 19th century American literature course at my university. I expected to read the conventional Transcendentalist works of Emerson and Thoreau and the Dark Romantics of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, but I was pleased to learn that our reading list also featured female writers and writers of color. We read and discussed stories by Sedgwick and Child, treatises by Boudinot and Apess, and narratives of enslavement by Douglass and Jacobs.
The Enslaved Narrative
These memoirs by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were arguably some of the most engaging pieces I read in that course, which serves as a testament to these books as some of the most famous of their genre: the slave narrative.
A slave narrative is defined by William L. Andrews on Britannica as, “an account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave personally.” In other words, a person who was once enslaved shares the details of their own life in their own words. Between the years of 1760 and 1860, about 65-70 narratives of this nature were published in the United States and England. Some popular narratives in this genre were written by Olaudah Equiano, Solomon Northup, and William Wells Brown.
Enslaved narratives are vital works of literature to historians and readers alike because they are primary sources attesting to what life was like for an enslaved person. While many free writers in the era of slavery attempted to write fictional stories involving enslaved persons, despite being informed by slave narratives, these accounts almost always ended up perpetuating negative stereotypes about enslaved people.
Arguably the most famous and widely read narrative is abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which was published in 1845. The book focuses on Douglass’ early life, from being born into slavery to being separated from his family, from teaching himself to read to enduring abuse from slaveholders, to eventually escaping slavery at the age of twenty. The first of several memoirs from one of the most well-known American abolitionists, Narrative is full of emotional vulnerability and insightful psychological analysis of enslaved individuals and slaveholders alike. You can determine spirit throughout the prose. Douglass uses his incredible intelligence and skills to build a free life for himself.
While Douglass wrote his life story to fuel the fire of abolition, the book was published while he was legally a fugitive due to his status as a runaway slave. He risked his own safety and the safety of those who helped him escape by publishing. To his credit, Douglass refused to name anyone who directly helped him escape for their well-fare. He also used the funds accrued from his book tours overseas to fund his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, so sharing his testimony was a risk that paid off tenfold in the end.
Another lesser-known yet still impactful enslaved narrative is that of Harriet Jacobs in her 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs’ story is just as insightful and heartrending as she details not only the emotional and physical abuse, but also the sexual harassment and assault enslaved women faced, often at the hand of their slaveholders.
Jacobs is a young teenager when the father of the family she serves, who is at least twice her age, won’t allow her to marry him. Desperate to escape the unwanted advances from the slaveholder, she agrees to an affair with a wealthy white man and has two children by him. She is shamed by her community even though she had no other choice to survive and spends the rest of the narrative living in fear of enslavement and being separated from her children, even after she escapes to the North.
Jacobs’ narrative is brutally honest with the horrors enslaved women faced on a daily basis, and expresses that all she ever wanted was to love and be loved in return.
On Names and Autonomy
Another important aspect of these works is the attention given to names. Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but chose the name Frederick Douglass when he escaped slavery, thus creating a free identity and life for himself. Harriet Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent when telling her story because she writes that her journey is painful to remember, but she wants to share it in hopes of helping the abolition movement. Furthermore, both authors name their various slaveholders as a means of holding them accountable for their behavior.
By choosing to risk their own safety and mental wellness to share their traumatic stories with the world, Douglass, Jacobs, and dozens of other former enslaved people were able to take control of their narratives and write about the nature of slavery in their own words. After years of being treated as subhuman, these wonderful writers and activists were able to enact positive change through their words, thus asserting themselves as free, complex individuals who answer to no one but themselves.
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FEATURED IMAGE VIA METACRITIC/FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.