Critical Essays Slave Narrative Conventions


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. The slave narrative is closely related to the memoir and the autobiography. (A memoir is generally defined as a form of autobiography that deals with the recollections of prominent people who have experienced or witnessed important events. Memoirs are usually concerned with the personalities and actions of others, but autobiography focuses on the writer's inner life.)

Because slave narratives document the horrors of slavery as experienced by ex-slaves, they serve as a powerful tool for exposing the brutalities of the chattel slave system, which defined people as "property." The narratives also served as a testament to the courage and dignity of black men and women who were perceived by their "masters" as subhuman creatures without souls.

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). Other narratives of this period include William Wells Brown's Narrative of William W. Brown, Written by Himself; The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vasa, the African; and The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave.

After 1865, over 60 book-length narratives were published, including Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, and James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Under the federal government's Work Projects Administration, the largest single group of slave narratives was collected. The collection — gathered in the South in the mid-1930s — includes 2,194 oral histories of elderly ex-slaves.

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 and the authenticity of their stories.

Another defining characteristic of the slave narrative is a phrase such as "Written by Herself" in the narrative's title, and an opening statement such as "I was born. . . ," followed by a place of birth, but no birth date.

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

Other distinguishing characteristics of the slave narrative are its simple, forthright style; vivid characters; and striking dramatic incidents, particularly graphic violence and daring escapes, such as that by Henry "Box" Brown, who packed himself into a small crate and was shipped north to waiting abolitionists.

Slave narratives are patterned after the biblical story of the Jewish people's escape from Israel and their subsequent journey to the Promised Land. Consequently, slave narratives often assume a religious framework and explore several common themes, such as the quest for freedom, the search for home, redemption and salvation, the search for deliverance from evil, and the crossing of boundaries. For example, the biblical stories focused on the Jews' escape from the tyrannical rule of Caesar, their journey to the Promised Land, and their perilous crossings of the River Jordan and the Red Sea, but slave narratives focus on black people's escape from their often cruel masters on southern plantations, their journeys north, and their perilous crossings of the Ohio River en route to the Free States, a water passage that mirrors the horrific Middle Passage of enslaved Africans from Africa to North America.

Because slaves were legally denied the right to read and write, often under penalty of disfigurement or death, American slave narratives also focus on the quest for literacy, which was often linked with the quest for freedom. (Slaves who could read and write were more likely to escape, because they could forge their own passes and read about the successful escapes of other slaves.)

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.

A primary goal of the slave narratives was to gain the sympathy of white readers and gain support for the abolitionist movement.