Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Slave Narrative

(index to this website's slave narratives)

The slave narrative, an autobiographical story told by a slave, is one of perhaps two unique genres contributed by American literature to world literature, the other being the captivity narrative orstory of a white settler captured by Native Americans.

Hundreds if not thousands of slave narratives were written or recorded in the United States, beginning in the 1700s, maturing in the mid-1800s with the Abolition movement, and continuing even into the 20th century. Most were nonfiction, but eventually, as with the captivity narrative, fictional versions appeared. Many narratives are related in brief interviews or reports; a few hundred were stand-alone texts, many of them book-length; and some were summaries by social researchers.

Slave narratives might be written by the slave, offering a powerful testimony to the humanity of the slave while deploring the inhumanity of slavery. In numerous examples, though, the slave spoke his or her story aloud to a recording scribe or editor. During the New Deal of the 1930s the Federal Writers Project recording hundreds of narratives by still-living former slaves. 

Prominent American novels featuring elements from the slave narrative:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-2)

  • Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883)

  • Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987).

A slave narrative's sequence or structure typically involves two or three major phases, with any number of medial or transitional points.

  • Initial stage: Author's description of personal experiences and institution of slavery, including mental and spiritual awakening to horrors and injustice.

  • Transitional stages: Personal crisis faced by author; e.g. separation from family or loved ones or a challenge to a slave-owner's authority.

  • Climactic stage: resolution to escape, successful escape or manumission, and experiences in the North, often including commitment to Abolitionist activism.

In many regards, these generic features resemble those of the captivity narrative or the conversion narrative.

The narrative form of all these genres falls into the category of the romance narrative. For the slave narrative, the correspondences include

category of comparison / genre

romance narrative

slave narrative

narrative conflict separation from object of desire, capture / repression capture, inhibition, dehumanization
action tests, trials where hero proves worthiness, separated identities grown nearer attempts to escape, gaining of powers or resources, fights with masters
conclusion transcendence (happily ever after, ride off into sunset) freedom, equality, independent identity (often with qualifications or shortcomings)


What conceptual or disciplinary problems rise from describing slave narratives as romance narratives?


Notable Slave Narratives

1760 Briton Hammon, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1st known slave narrative)

1789 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (prototype of many later slave narratives, especially in combining of quest for freedom with development of literacy)

1845 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

1853 Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

1855 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

1861 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

1881 Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

1901 Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery

20th-Century African American fiction and nonfiction influenced by or analogous to the slave narrative:

Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945)

Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

Margaret Walker, Jubilee (1965)

Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)