The slave narrative is a literary form that grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets. In the 1930’s in the United States, during the Great Depression, more than 2300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.
Some of the earliest memoirs of captivity known in England and the British Isles were written by white Europeans and later Americans captured and sometimes enslaved inNorth Africa, usually by Barbary pirates. These were part of a broad category of “captivity narratives” by English-speaking Europeans. Beginning in the 18th century, these included accounts by colonists and American settlers in North America and the United States who were captured and held by Native Americans. Several well-known captivity narratives were published before the American Revolution, and they often followed forms established with the narratives of captivity in North Africa. Later North American accounts were by Americans captured by western tribes during 19th-century migrations.
For the Europeans and Americans, the division between captivity as slaves and as prisoners of war was not always clear. A broader name for the genre is “captivity literature”. Given the problem of international contemporary slavery in the 20th and 21st centuries, additional slave narratives are being written and published.
Tales of Progress
Following the defeat of the slave states of the Confederate South, the authors had less need to convey the evils of slavery. Some gave a sentimental account of plantation life and ended with the narrator adjusting to the new life of freedom. The emphasis of writers shifted conceptually toward a recounting of individual and racial progress rather than securing freedom. Frederick Douglass’s second biography is, for example, more sentimental about his early boyhood in slavery (which was generally a less oppressive time than the working years of a slave). Slaves interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression noted the relative advantages of slavery in terms of better medical care and food supplies, regular festivities, lack of financial concerns, a “double sense of belonging,” being taken care of, less gambling, drunkenness and violence, greater stability, care in their old age, and the advantages of rural life over the urban environment into which many ex-slaves moved. Economically, the slave economy with efficient division of labor was highly productive; its abolition, extensive property damage from the American Civil War, and over-reliance on agriculture contributed to economic weakness in the South for at least 20 years.
- The Life of James Mars, A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut, Hartford 1864
- From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom, by Lucy Delaney, 1892 – this is unique as the only first-person account of a successful freedom suit
- The Freedman’s Story by William Parker, published in The Atlantic Monthly, 1866
- Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom by Louis Hughes, Milwaukee, 1897
- Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, Garden City, New York, 1901.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal Works Projects Administration (WPA) employed writers and researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project to interview and document the stories of African Americans who were former slaves. Most had been children when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. Produced between 1936 and 1938, the narratives recount the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves. Some interviews were recorded; 23 of 26 known audio recordings are held by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The last interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949. He was a grandson of a slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.