Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and the Slave Narrative
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass • First published in 1845; again in 1847 • Then again, under different title in 1855 • Reprinted in 1881 and 1892 • Our text based upon 1847 edition • Fits into the genre of the slave narrative
Slave Narratives • From 1760 -1947, more than 200 book-length slave narratives published in U. S. and England • More than 6, 000 in all (some as short as a single page) • Earliest genre in which large numbers of black Americans wrote
Writing and Humanity • After Rene Descartes (1596 -1650), reason valorized above all other human characteristics • Europeans believed writing was a visible sign of ability to reason • Believed blacks didn’t write, therefore couldn’t reason
David Hume From 1748 Essay, “Of National Characters” “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all of the other species of men (for there are 4 or 5 different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. . . Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. ”
Anti-Literacy Laws • Yet, blacks often forbidden legally to learn to read and write. • 1740 South Carolina Statute: And whereas the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attending with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach, or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write; every such person or persons shall, for every offense, forfeith the sum of one hundred pounds current money.
• So, slave narratives often a literal attempt by slaves to write themselves out of slavery • Intent not just to persuade by horror of tales • Very act of writing itself an attempt to convince others of their humanity
Characteristics of Slave Narratives • Usually highly formulaic accounts of the journey from slavery to freedom • Framed by prefaces, testimonials, and postscripts written by white abolitionists and editors
Garrison and Phillips William Lloyd Garrison, Founder of the Liberator Wendell Phillips Well-known Boston abolitionist
Characteristics of Slave Narratives, cont. • Most contain detailed descriptions of whippings, slave auctions, and other instances of slaveholders’ cruelty
Characteristics of Slave Narratives, cont. • Path to freedom marked by acquisition of literacy
Characteristics of Slave Narratives, cont. • Most include a scene depicting physical mastery over the slaveholder or overseer
Characteristics of Slave Narratives, cont. • They depict the solitary journey North of the escaped slave
Characteristics of Slave Narratives, cont. • Most pre-Civil War slave narratives emphasized traditional Christian religious ideas
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl • First African American woman known to have authored a slave narrative in the U. S. • Had two children by unmarried white lawyer Samuel Tredwell Sawyer • In 1835, went into hiding in attic in Edenton, NC, her hometown • Finally escaped North in 1842
Incidents, cont. • Published in 1861 under the name Linda Brent • Preface and reorganizing done by Lydia Maria Child, well-known writer and abolitionist
Incidents, cont. • Presents the plight of black slave women faced with the challenge of representing themselves and defending their femininity in the face of the dominant culture’s views of true womanhood. • What critics have called the “cult of domesticity” came to the forefront of American consciousness with the rise of the white middle class and the separation of the public (masculine) and private (feminine) spheres. • Valued: – – Piety Purity Submissiveness Domesticity
Audience • Emphasizes cross-racial ties between women, appealing to a sense of sisterhood and commonality of experience. • But also focuses on special problems of slave women – p. 827: “But, O ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood…” – p. 828: “O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave…”
Sentimental Conventions • Jacob employs the conventions of the sentimental novel as a mechanism to evoke pathos and empathy in her readers
• According to critic Nina Baym, the basic plot of woman's fiction involves "the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world. . At the outset she takes herself very lightly--has no ego, or a damaged one, and looks to the world to coddle and protect her. . To some extent her expectations are reasonable--she thinks that her guardians will nurture her. . . But the failure of the world to satisfy either reasonable or unreasonable expectations awakens the heroine to inner possibilities. By the novel's end she has developed a strong conviction of her own worth as a result of which she does ask much of herself. She can meet her own demands , and, inevitably, the change in herself has changed the world's attitude toward her, so much that was formerly denied her now comes unsought" (Baym 19). • . Baym suggests that the story "exists in two parallel versions. In one, the heroine begins as a poor and friendless child. Most frequently an orphan, she sometimes only thinks herself to be one, or has by necessity been separated from her parents for an indefinite time. In the second, the heroine is a pampered heiress who becomes poor and friendless in midadolescence, through the death or financial failure of her legal protectors" (35).
Incidents, cont. • Yet, Jacobs consciously ends her story differently – P. 825: “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage” (839).