“There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever.” (Northup, 2014:115).
With the conception of the slave narrative genre in the 18th century, some escaped African-American slaves found a way to expose the cruelty of their mistreatment to the world through descriptive auto- biographies. I will, in this essay define and analyse a series of the genre’s major characteristics through a close study of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (2014), James Olney’s chapter “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature in Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates’ The Slave’s Narrative (1985) and Audrey Fish’s The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative (2007).
One of the most important and recognisable literary tools of the genre is the author’s constant aim to convince the reader that the story is true and not a fictional piece of abolitionist literature. This was done in many different ways, but often included an introduction of where the author came from, where he was born and his reasons for releasing an auto-biography of his enslavement to the public (Olney, 1985:152-154). Northup does this by starting his narrative with: “Having been born a Freeman, […]” (Northup, 2014:5) and then continuing by accounting for his ancestors, who they were, where they lived and what status they held. This serves as a great example of how the slaves were actively aware of their need to convince readers of their origins and thereby the authenticity of their auto-biography. As James Olney states, slave narratives often start with a similar sentence because the genre held some sort of strict set of conventions (Olney, 1985:152). Northup also claims that he might not be able to give a just account of slavery and that he can speak only of what he has witnessed himself. “I can speak of slavery only so far it came under my own observation” (Northup, 2014:5). This serves as proof that Northup was the one who wrote the narrative and that the opinions and observations within are his own. Arguments like these confirm that the narrative was not merely a piece of propaganda thus gaining the reader’s trust when reading the story.
Another common tool used in both true slave narratives and fictional ones in order to prove its authenticity is the extensive use of a preface. The preface served as an emblem to authenticity where white editors could validate the origins of the story and explain the narrative’s position in the political context (Fish, 2007:22). The following phrase appears in the preface of Twelve Years a Slave: “Many of the statements contained in the following pages are corroborated by abundant evidence – other rest entirely upon Solomon’s assertion” (David Wilson in Northup, 2014:4). The author David Wilson goes along way to validate the origins and authenticity of the story by stating that this was indeed written by Northup and only contained what he deemed necessary where his opinions were not being suppressed throughout the narrative.
Even though the escape motive serve as a structuring device throughout slave narratives, the important thing is not how, but why the author had to escape the oppression he was suffering from (Fish, 2007:71). This is why Northup’s story is filled with emotions in order to make the reader feel how crucial and necessary it was that he escaped his captivity and how every other slave might be suffering from the same inhuman treatment.
These different literary tools are greatly used by authors of slave narratives and through the different examples mentioned above it stands to reason that the genre was something completely new. From the start, the authors were aware that they used unique literary tools to write their stories. These different literary tools appeared in most slave narratives and served to define the slave narratives as a genre (Olney, 1985:148).
The second characteristic I will explain is how slave narratives served as a testament to the humanity of the African-American race (Fish, 2007:68). The general belief among the Americans was that white people were more intellectual and better than coloured people in every way possible. Generally, Black people were viewed as beasts and animals who needed white rulers (Slavery and the Making of America, 2005). This is why the slave narratives were so fundamentally valuable as they functioned as a piece of literature, wherein the African-Americans could prove themselves capable of producing great literary work equalling that of white writers. This is a reappearing feature in Northup’s narrative where his excellent use of the English language and different references to specific features from the English world allowed him to produce an impressing and incredibly descriptive auto-biography. This is evidenced in his portray of Edwin Epps:
“Edwin Epps, of whom much will be said during the remainder of this history, is a large, portly, heavily bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions. He has blue eyes, a fair complexion, and is, as I should say, full six feet high. He has the sharp, inquisitive expression of a jockey. His manners are repulsive and coarse, and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education.” (Northup, 2014:69).
In this description, Northup uses his knowledge of different recognisable figures, such as a Jockey, and the distinguishable Roman nose in order to describe Edwin Epps. Northup claimed to be able to define Edwin Epps as a man without an education, because of the way he speaks. This description served as a testament to Northup’s cleverness and to the fact that not only white people were capable of judging and categorising people.
Another way slave narratives served as a way of humanising African-Americans, within an oppressing society, was by showing how the author consisted of all the same emotions, dreams, and doubts as any other human beings. A specific way for the authors to make an impact on the political landscape through the genre was to implement philosophies of John Locke and to adopt the ideas of the founding fathers:
“Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts— thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.” (Northup, 2014:87).
Northup compares the desire for freedom which the Americans fought for during the revolutionary war to that of the slaves. This was a reoccurring feature in slave narratives and drastically put focus onto the African-Americans’ natural rights for freedom (Fish, 2007:17).
The third and final major characteristic I will explain is closely connected to the belief in natural rights. It was how the authors used biblical references and religious beliefs to expose the cruelty of slavery through Christian belief and expose the white slave owners as Christian hypocrites (Fish, 2007:18). In Twelve Years a Slave, we witness how Christianity is featured in three different but very important ways. We encounter two different Christian slave owners: first, we meet the good and noble William Ford who, because of his Christian faith, treats his subjects with respect and dignity (as far as dignity could be extended to slaves). He is in the belief, that all humans and Christians must be treated kindly. Opposite to Ford, we meet the evil hearted Edwin Epps who twist the Word of God. He does this in a way, which allows him to whip his slaves and claim that he has a right to do so because, according to him, it says so in the bible:
“And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. “ (Northup, 2014:54).
These two oppositions show how Christianity could be used to further the anti-slavery cause by calling out to slave owners who must have misinterpreted the Bible and are using it to mistreat their subjects. In a society where the Word of God played a vital role in the everyday life, the authors exposed white slave owners as Christian hypocrites. The third way Christianity is featured in Twelve Years a Slave and many other slave narratives was how slaves found salvation and solitude in their faith. They suffered from terrible circumstances, but through the Word of God, they found a way to band together, which helped them mentally survive slavery (Ibid.).
To conclude, the slave narrative genre arose as a fundamental way for slaves to write themselves into being in an oppressing and cruel, European-dominated society. Even though every single slave narrative might seem unique at first glance, they all share common features which make up the genre itself. A series of literary tools were used, amongst which included an extensive use of a preface wherein a white editor or authenticating agency could vouch for the authenticity of the narrative. Furthermore, the author himself went to great length to expose the truthfulness of the narrative by explaining the circumstances of his status, heritage and where he was born. The genre’s frame was usually composed in a way to explain the spiritual journey of the author. This was commonly done by explaining how he was either kidnapped and then became free or lived a life as a slave but then arose from slavery and became an independent being. The escape motive also served a vital role in the genre, as it explains why it was so important for slaves to gain their freedom. Furthermore, slave narratives enabled African-Americans to prove their humanity by demonstrating their abilities to reason and experience emotions like every other human being. Finally, the genre served to expose how Christian slave owners twisted and turned the Word of God for their benefit in order to justify their actions. These different characteristics together made up for what became known as the slave narrative genre. Even though not all of them might have been featured in every single narrative, they still functioned to set the frame for the narratives.
Written by Frederik Roland Andersen, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, 2016.
- – Fish, Audrey: The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. 1. Edi. Cambridge University Press, 2007. (Book).
- – Northup, Solomon: Twelve Years a Slave. 1. Edi. Vancouver: Sapling Books, 2014. (Book).
- – Olney, James: “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature. Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates: I: The Slave’s Narrative. 1. Edi. Oxford University Press, 1985. Page 146-175. (Book).
- – Slavery and the Making of America Part 2. Dir. Chana Gazit. Perf. Morgan Freeman. Slavery and the Making of America Part 2. Public Broadcasting Series, 2005. Web. (19 Oct. 2016).