The Slave Narrative Tradition in African American Literature
The slave narrative is a form of autobiography with a unique structure and distinctive themes that traces the narrator's path from slavery to freedom. Although traditional slave narratives such as Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass' Narrative exemplify these works, numerous contemporary black authors have adapted the slave narrative format.
Contemporary slave narratives (also referred to as neo-slave narratives) include works such as Richard Wright's Black Boy and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Both works trace the narrator's journey from poverty and mental slavery or imprisonment to freedom achieved primarily through an awareness of new choices and options, a determination to overcome societal and self-imposed limitations, and a willingness to assume personal responsibility for transforming one's life. Wright's "black boy" — much like the authors of traditional narratives — discovers a sense of freedom by writing, while Malcolm X transcends his role as hustler, pimp, and prison inmate to become a renowned spokesperson, leader, and political activist.
Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman exemplify the fictional slave narrative, a form that originated with works such as William Wells Brown's Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter, A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), the first novel by a black American; Harriet Wilson's Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North, (1859), the first novel by a black woman in the United States; and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which used the fictional story of an elderly black man to focus attention on the horrors of slavery. Morrison's novel, Beloved, tells the story of Sethe, a woman who portrays a former slave who killed her daughter to save her from being returned to slavery. Gaines' work, written in the form of an interview with the fictional Miss Pittman, traces Miss Pittman's life from slavery to freedom as a Civil Rights activist.
Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying also incorporate elements of the slave narrative, but in these two works, both authors transform conventional elements to achieve new dimensions. For example, Macon "Milkman" Dead, the selfish, apathetic protagonist in Song of Solomon, achieves both mental and spiritual freedom only when he lets go of his materialistic lifestyle and returns to the South to reconnect with his cultural and historical roots. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson, a young man on Death Row for a murder he did not commit, is able to cast off his slave mentality and free his mind and soul only when he learns to transcend society's perceptions of him as less than a man and begins to reconnect with his community and see himself as a human being entitled to respect and dignity.
Many critics applaud contemporary slave narratives because they show individuals rising from the depths of despair to overcome seemingly impossible odds. However, some critics contend that the narratives perpetuate the myth that people can overcome society's racism by sheer willpower and determination. Many critics believe that the narratives are deceptive because they offer a false sense of hope to blacks, while encouraging whites to think that if some blacks can break down barriers and cross over racial boundaries to achieve success, those who do not have only themselves to blame.