What is a slave narrative?

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative, an autobiography (first-person narrative) by an enslaved black American woman who describes her experiences in slavery and her escape from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. Slave narratives first appeared in the United States around 1703, but most were published during the era of abolitionism, from 1831 to the end of the Civil War in 1865. One of the most prominent slave narratives published during this period was Frederick Douglass' Narrative (1845).

One of the defining characteristics of the slave narrative is the testimonial or letter of authenticity generally written by a white editor or abolitionist friend of the narrator. In order to be published, black authors had to be endorsed by whites who could testify to their credibility.

The body of the narrative generally includes vague references to the narrator's parents, descriptions of a cruel master or overseer, descriptions of violent abuse, and accounts of slaves being sold on the auction block.

Other distinguishing characteristics are a simple, straightforward style; vivid characters; and striking dramatic incidents. A primary goal of the slave narratives was to gain the sympathy of white readers and gain support for the abolitionist movement.

Like the Negro spirituals, slave narratives have had a profound impact on contemporary American literature. And like the spirituals -- which often contain secret codes decipherable only by enslaved blacks -- they were considered dangerous and subversive by slaveholders, who feared that they might incite slave revolts and riots.